The small kitchen of Sweet Santa Fe smells strongly of anise and cinnamon. Dried yellow roses hang from a tall metal rack in the corner, and music playing out by the register sneaks into the back.
It’s a quiet day inside the Fashion Outlets on the Southside of the city as Sarina Griegobends down to slide a full tray of delicate, star-shaped biscochito cookies into the oven, her black hair in two braids down the back of her head.
The 17-year-old who will be a senior at Monte del Sol Charter School this coming year has become the unofficial “queen” of mixing and baking Sweet’s biscochito cookie, its version of the official New Mexico state cookie. Griego has only been working there since May, but is now in charge of making the thousands of biscochitos to be sold at the Santa Fe Opera that opened several weeks ago.
Over the last several weeks, she has made approximately 1,100 cookies, and will have made roughly 3,000 by the end of the opera’s large wholesale order. She makes about 160 each shift.
Griego grew up on the Southside, on Los Milagros Road, with her large family. She tells SFR she planned to apply to work at Walmart at first, but she knew because of her anxiety that it "wouldn't work out." So instead, she applied at Sweet. Starting out, Griego worked the front cash register and dealt with customers.
But it quickly became obvious to owners Diana Kelley and Cindy Smiles that Griego had a talent for baking.
Kelley and Smiles would know. They were two of the top candy makers at the well-loved CG Higgins Confections before it closed down. They reopened it under a new name, Sweet Santa Fe, at the Fashion Outlets early in 2019.
“I always liked baking when I was younger. I wanted to own a bakery,” Griego says.
Her hobby began in earnest when she interned at B&B Bakery downtown through a school mentorship program and learned how to make macarons and chiffon cakes. Now, any Santa Fean or tourist who buys the biscochito cookies at the opera in town is eating cookies made by this Southside teen. They’re also now being distributed to Meow Wolf.
Griego is one of the fortunate New Mexican youths who has a job. In 2017, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions found that the largest labor force participation decrease from 2011 was among residents aged 16 to 19 years. From a 2011 rate of 41.6 percent, this group’s labor force participation fell to 37.0 percent in 2015, a decrease of 4.6 percentage points.
Only a handful of states have returned to pre-recession youth employment levels —and New Mexico is not one of them.
Research has found that states where young adults are least likely to be working tend to have low employment across all age groups as well. This is the case in New Mexico, as well as Mississippi and West Virginia.
Griego works part time and is currently figuring out a schedule for the coming school year with Sweet’s owners so she can continue to work, perhaps pulling early morning “baker’s hours.”
As Griego takes out a piping-hot tray of cookies from the oven, she explains that she is saving most of the money she makes to be able to go to college and wants to open a bank account soon.
“I’m probably going to go to college, probably just UNM. I’m going to see if I can get scholarships to anywhere. It’s more like a financial issue that I’m worried about. So we’re going to see. … I want to do architecture because I’m into drawing. That seems like a good job that I can do well. But probably UNM since it’s close, and if I get into any trouble financially or anything, my family is right here.”
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Katherine is a Florida native in Santa Fe to cover the texture and life of the city's Southside using writing, photography, videography and audio. She's a grant-funded fellow in the Report for America program and her work is underwritten by the Brindle and McCune foundations, Enterprise Bank and Hutton Broadcasting.