Word about the tragedy spread the way it does in a small community. There’d been a car wreck. The kids were badly injured; 6-year-old Valentino Rivera’s neck was broken.

Months later, word trickled out that the youngest son of the former governor of Pojoaque Pueblo was on the rebound. Tino was recovering from almost complete paralysis and a brain injury. His mother Felicia only needed to keep a few fingers on his shirt as the boy pushed a walker across the family basketball court. The doctors at the specialty hospital in Baltimore were encouraged, though they knew more surgeries were on the way.

Valentino Rivera smiles on Father’s Day 2015 from his bed at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
Valentino Rivera smiles on Father’s Day 2015 from his bed at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. | George Rivera

But then, the fluid in his brain put too much pressure on his spine. He was shutting down. Tino asked his parents to bring him home to die. They did, and he did.

"The complication was just unfixable," his father says now. "And we had to let him go."

On Saturday at nightfall, a traditional Tewa ceremony marked the first year after Tino's death. A few days before, George and Felicia Rivera told SFR they wanted to talk about it: not just about how Tino lived and died, but the couple's dramatic departure from what had been a big part of their life's work in the administration of the Pueblo, and their search for a path forward while still honoring their child's memory.

Tino's life changed on March 21, 2015, when the car he was riding in got T-boned while sitting at a red light not far from the family's home. Airlifted to Albuquerque's Univeristy of New Mexico Hospital, he spent seven weeks there, then moved to Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute. His family followed, remaining on the East Coast for about five months before being able to return to Pojoaque off and on.

A condition called syringomyelia, however, led to the complications in his recovery. After numerous surgeries, the buildup of fluid in his spine sent him into organ failure. It was 14 months of constant care and painful ups and downs.

"We weren't just struggling with Tino, but we were struggling with all of the other changes in our life," says Felicia as the pair sits on their back porch overlooking the Pojoaque Valley, mountains in the distance. Just at the bottom of the hill sits the cluster of buildings where she worked for 13 years as the tribal director of its education program. She oversaw about $1.5 million in annual grants that sent Pojoaque students to schools and colleges.

After running through all her paid leave and taking additional time away for the year immediately following the accident, in July, just as she was meeting with officials about returning to work, Felicia learned her job "no longer exists."

Six months before that, officials in the new governor's administration told George that his employment at the Pueblo was over. George learned the ropes from his uncle, former Pueblo governor Jacob Viarrial, then spent 10 years as governor helping develop businesses and services for the small community, including the Poeh Cultural Center and Buffalo Thunder Hotel and Casino. In January 2015, Rivera supported the election of his lieutenant governor Joe Talachy to the governor job while he stayed on in a paid position. A year later he was applying for unemployment. For now, he's selling his paintings and sculptures.

Talachy tells SFR the Pueblo now employs about 1,000 workers—fewer people than at its peak. He declined to comment on the Riveras. In April 2015, amid allegations of political tension between him and George Rivera, Talachy was quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican saying, "George and I are still tight."

It's not clear when that changed.

Felicia says she's grateful to have been hired by the nearby Nambé Pueblo administration. A descendant of Hispanic and Italian families in Santa Fe, she loves putting on educational programs at the tribal facility for all the kids in the area.

Her favorite project is the one that's giving her hope.

George Rivera has nearly completed a sculpture of his son.
George Rivera has nearly completed a sculpture of his son. | Julie Ann Grimm

Tino had moves. Not just the springy energy that had him running all over the hills, but insatiable dancing. At age 4, he tried hoop dancing and got hooked. Soon, hip-hop dance classes were also inspiring his daily circles along the patio wall. His parents recall the boy jumping from flat rock to flat rock to balance and move and then go again.

He studied with champion dancers Steve and Nakotah LaRance when the father-son pair brought hoop dancing to the Pojoaque Wellness Center as part of a suicide-prevention effort. Tino went to the national hoop dance championships at the Heard Museum in Phoenix and performed at feast days and other local events. Even during the prolonged therapy in the hospitals, his mother says Tino was still trying to dance.

"When he knew he was going to pass, they have someone special go in there and ask the kids, 'How do you want to be remembered?' He wanted to be remembered the way he was before the accident, and dancing, and he wanted the kids to know that's what he did when he was well," she says.

So after the hospitals and the funeral directors were paid, the family started a nonprofit called Lightning Boy Foundation (his Tewa name, Tzigiwhaeno, means lightning), with about $15,000 left over in an account they'd set up with contributions during his illness. A few fundraisers later, they're using the money to pay drummers and dancers for weekly classes at Nambé Wellness Center. Their daughter Paloma, now 5, is among the students.

Felicia Rivera is directing a memorial foundation that helps pay for dance classes at her new job in Nambé Pueblo.
Felicia Rivera is directing a memorial foundation that helps pay for dance classes at her new job in Nambé Pueblo. | Julie Ann Grimm

"You lose your child so many times and in so many different ways," says Felicia. "It's like over and over again. It's hard to accept that you have to live without him in this world, but the only way to do that is by living for him."

She's even learning a little hoop dance.

Nakotah LaRance, who has also been dancing since age 4, says establishing the foundation in Tino's honor is a way to ensure that the hoop dance family endures. The traditional art form might feel like it's having a resurgence, he says, but it's always been there, practiced by just a handful of dancers.

"It really exploded for the community and the kids when we started teaching hoop dance in the community in Pojoaque and now Nambé, and probably next is my mother's Pueblo, Okhay Owingeh," he says.

Even at 27, he's feeling like it's time to plan for the future.

"It's what is supposed to be done to keep the culture alive and it's absolutely necessary," he says. "I just want everybody to teach. These knees are not going to last forever, so you have to pass it along to the next generation, look forward to all the creativity and the spirit. Youth is awesome."