Having risen from a self-described “homeless welfare mother” in New York’s Lower East Side, journalist, author and community organizer Soledad Santiago seems to embody the American, pull-your-own-bootstraps ideal. Yet her experiences taught her hardships are better overcome with the help of others. Santiago, 62, brings that outlook to her new job as on-site director of the Triangle District Resource Center (505-982-8822) on Hopewell Street, which has served the Hopewell-Mann housing project and the surrounding neighborhood since October.
SFR: What does the center do?
SS: We try to provide a toolbox—the things that the neighborhood people tell us they need. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re bringing in services that already exist. For example, neighborhood mothers came in before Valentine’s Day and said, ‘I want to do workshops; I’m making Mexican crafts.’ They made these spectacular roses. Now we have a group of women who are pregnant and want to do breathing exercises. They want to be able to give birth more consciously. We have a GED class. We have ESL classes in the evening. And then we have nutrition classes. This weekend, we’re having our first quinceañera for one of the best students in the neighborhood. Last weekend, we had something called the Hopewell Café, organized by eight students from [College of Santa Fe]. Most importantly, we have here what sociologists call a ‘third space.’ It’s a space where community members can meet and share their aspirations. It’s an ‘our’ kind of space.
Giving people what they say they need, instead of telling them what to do—that’s different than the typical social services model.
Yeah, and the term ‘social services’ is kind of anathema. It’s about bearing witness. We don’t use the word poverty in our culture anymore. Hopefully that will change with the new administration.
How did poverty get erased from the language?
We had Reagan and the idea that all you need to do is let wealth grow and it’ll trickle down, and anybody that doesn’t have their mouth open in the right place when the trickle is coming is lazy.
What I saw happening in the ’60s and ’70s, the next generation was indoctrinated into believing that it was never real, that all we were was druggies, and the real thing was the free market.
For the record, you’re not all druggies?
For the record. [Laughs.]
Does that ‘me first’ attitude explain why Santa Fe has a liberal rep but great disparities in wealth?
I think the progressive community in Santa Fe is really on the right wavelength. Of course you have another population, and I imagine many of them are here as a second home, and—how do I say this delicately?
Go ahead—you’ve already offended Reaganites.
Anything can isolate you. So where poverty and language issues can isolate you, I guess that wealth can isolate you. I’ve never been wealthy, so I can’t say for sure. I do know that at the height of my career in New York City, I didn’t have time for other people.
What else have you done here as an organizer?
One was…community theater. Theater combines everything that you need for community uplift. There’s an opportunity when you write together to turn into art some of the most painful things and thereby rise above. I’ve seen it happen.
You’ve seen it at Hopewell?
The fact that someone who doesn’t know English yet can say, ‘I want to teach this craft,’ or that a grandmother can say, ‘I don’t have enough space to do the quinceañera, but you do’—that’s already saying a lot. We’re going to have a permaculture garden here, and I think about 12 people showed up when the permaculture expert came to explain how we’re going to do it. It was a group of some English speakers, some non-English speakers, and the children were translating. That was a breakthrough moment.