Hot steam rises gently from the Zia constructed of dough, carefully placed in the middle of the caramel apple and green chile pie. Miguel Carrillo, his hands in black mitts, places it on the marble countertop and pauses while it cools.

It’s a rainy Wednesday afternoon, and Carrillo is on the third of his typical seven-day work week at Sweet Santa Fe, a small cafe tucked into the outlet mall. He’s only 17, but he works about five hours each day, including the weekends, heading over to the store as soon as he’s done with school to bake pies and perform other chores in the kitchen.

Then he heads back home to the Paseo de Angel home, where he lives with his parents and two much younger siblings, to finish his homework.

Carrillo is the first in his family to complete high school. He’ll graduate from Capital with honors on May 27, his 18th birthday, before heading off to the University of New Mexico with a full ride scholarship to study dental hygiene.

He’s the first of a lot of things—also the first of his family to be born in the United States, and he’ll be the first to earn a college degree.

The Southside of Santa Fe is his home, where he has spent his entire life until now. Carrillo sees the area for all its complexities and contradictions—the place with the most young families and people of color and the most mobile home communities surrounding some of the city’s last dirt roads. (COVID-19 hit the 85707 ZIP code, full of essential workers, particularly hard.)

Despite the pandemic and the area’s economic disadvantages compared to other parts of the city, some businesses have thrived. While it has the fewest grocery stores, Latinx tiendas have carried on, supplying the area with much needed produce.

Gritty hope marks the Southside, and those SFR interviewed have pride in their place at the feet of the Sangres.

What follows is a State of the Union of the Southside, which has carried a largely unwarranted stigma in many city circles for decades, but is so much more than the lip service paid by the wealthy and political classes.

“We came from pretty humble beginnings, but I mean, I’m proud of it,” Carrillo says. “Why wouldn’t someone be proud of where they come from and where they started? I’m hoping that I can show people just ‘cause you grew up on the Southside doesn’t mean that you’re gonna be a gang member or be a failure or something. I’m going to college. I graduated high school. I have good grades. I have a job. I have friends. It’s just normal. We’ve got to live down here, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Miguel Carrillo, 17, makes a caramel apple pie and green chile pie at Sweet Santa Fe.
Miguel Carrillo, 17, makes a caramel apple pie and green chile pie at Sweet Santa Fe.

Economics on hold

Carrillo is careful about his life choices. He started the job at Sweet Santa Fe two years ago to avoid construction. He worked on job sites from age 12 until he found the position at the mall. For a couple of months at the beginning of the pandemic, he had to go back to working construction while the café was closed.

And Carrillo chose to study dental hygiene because his parents and grandparents weren’t able to afford quality dental care. They were too focused on survival after arriving in Santa Fe as teenagers and raising Carrillo in a mobile home community behind Ramirez Thomas Elementary School.

Carrillo’s family story echoes across the Southside—people immigrate to Santa Fe from Latin America and are able to find at least relatively affordable housing, mostly along the Airport Road corridor in the southwest portion of the city. (Defining the Southside’s borders can be debated, whether it’s only Council District 3 or also parts of District 4, but there is no question that Airport Road is squarely on the Southside.)

Airport’s 3-mile, four-lane artery slices between multiple trailer parks and apartment buildings, storage units, a mix of industrial businesses and a few scattered restaurants, as well as an outsized proportion of the city’s fast food joints and stretches of empty land.

At the end of 2019, the city’s Office of Economic Development was looking for “shovel-ready” projects to improve quality of life on the Southside, in particular in the Federal Opportunity Zone—a triangle-shaped space between Airport Road, Jaguar Drive and Cerrillos Road. The zones are identified by the feds as places in which private sector investors can park their money with certain incentives.

But that search has been stalled because of the pandemic, according to Rich Brown, economic development director.

“There is a private parcel at South Meadows and Airport (Opportunity Zone) that has Land Use Planning approval, but nothing has been started. This, I believe, is a result of COVID-related economic stress on bank capital and the commercial real estate market,” Brown writes via email.

Brown also noted that while residential housing construction is booming, none is in the Airport Road district. The city’s Office of Affordable Housing is assessing unused city land that could be designated for mixed and affordable housing projects.

“COVID has really slowed everything down considerably,” says Chris Rivera, District 3 city councilor. “The fire station on 599 and South Meadows, which would have served this part of town with essential emergency services, with fire and especially ambulance—the funding for that fire station had to be used to help us shore up the shortages that we had with COVID. So a lot of things were set back.”

Not all is slowed, however, as El Paisano Supermarkets, a family-owned Hispanic grocery store with two locations in Santa Fe and Española, built a third at 4405 Airport Road. General Manager Moises Tarango Jurado tells SFR the plan is to open the newest location in September or October 2021. The store has been in Santa Fe since the mid-1990s, serving up Mexican food and traditional cooking ingredients, as well as a meat market.

Student strong

Living in the side of town that has struggled to earn well-planned development that serves the needs of a multicultural community has not stopped many Southsiders from succeeding.

Case in point: the students. Whether graduating from Santa Fe or Capital High School or Santa Fe Prep, this year’s seniors attended almost an entire year of online schooling and finished their degrees and made plans for college despite a pandemic.

Santa Fe Public Schools’ graduation rate increased to 86.3% for the 2019-20 school year, up from 78.1% the year before, according to data provided by the New Mexico Public Education Department. Santa Fe High went from 76.7% to 87.5%. Capital High went from 78.1% to 82.7%; that’s the Southside school with historically lower graduation rates.

Older students may soon take advantage of the Plaza Comunitaria, established thanks to an agreement reached between the local nonprofit Earth Care and the Consulate of Mexico in Albuquerque, to help Spanish speakers with basic literacy and education, including computer skills. It also paused when the pandemic hit in March—but is now back and “way better,” according to Miguel Acosta, executive director of Earth Care.

“We’re hoping to kick off in the fall with basic education and literacy in Spanish, but also possibly some opportunities for more advanced students,” Acosta says. “As an extension of the Plaza Comunitaria, we can establish a relationship with one of several Mexican universities and [the students] could do master’s degrees for free in Spanish. And all of these studies, everything is through treaty and United Nations’ agreements and all that. All these degrees are valid here in the United States. So it’s going to be fun.”

Before the pandemic, life for Carrillo, for example, looked like work, school in-person and then a game of pickup soccer with friends. Online school kicked in, but not a great deal changed, he says.

“I always try to make my parents proud and my grandparents, because I know how hard they worked to get here and to give us all that we have,” Carrillo says. “Since I’m the oldest one, I guess I lived a little bit of both worlds, ‘cause we just got here and we didn’t have anything. We had a little home, not too good or anything, and I grew up seeing my parents work hard. My mom worked at Panda Express for 15 years from open to close. My dad’s worked construction his whole life, and I just wanted to show them that I appreciated their work and what they’ve done for me, and that it’s not just all for nothing.”

Carrillo has kept his life on the straight and narrow. Some of his friends, however, have not always been able to, including those in the Southside Goons, a group of young men who say they are a music group but who local law enforcement considers a gang.

There were three high-profile killings of adolescents by their peers in 2020: Aiko Perez was allegedly stabbed to death by his friend Matthias Hutt on June 5; Ivan Perez was allegedly shot in the chest on the Southside by 17-year-old Mario Guizar-Anchondo on July 15 (Ivan and Aiko are not related); and Estevan Montoya, 17, faces murder charges in the shooting death of J.B. White, a well-known local basketball player at Santa Fe High.

Carillo and Ivan Perez had known each other since they were in the sixth grade. Carrillo says he has stayed out of violence and gangs because of his desire to make his parents proud and get ahead in life. But he pushes back against any idea that the Southside is somehow a hotbed of teen violence.

“The Southside is just where I’m at. I never go past St. Michael’s or anything up there,” Carrillo says. “It’s home, really. All my friends, everything I know, is here....People that live up there tend to think they’re bougier. I mean, we work as hard as they are working and there’s good people everywhere; there’s bad people everywhere.”

Mary Louise Romero, the restorative justice coordinator for the Santa Fe Public Schools District, believes that a planned Southside teen center is an important start to healing and guiding the youth in Santa Fe from all parts of the city. The teen center has been a long time in the works—officials developed two early concepts for a teen center in Tierra Contenta: one in 2010 and another in 2016. But the city did not contract with an architect until 2019.

Groundbreaking is planned for the fall on the $6 million, 17,000-square-foot center that includes a gym, game room, arts and crafts space, and a dance and performance studio, as well as a soccer field. The center will also provide after-school and childcare programs.

“What’s more important than their behavior is what can they do to feel supported and to feel inclusive, to feel a part of. And really that’s what restorative justice is about, is including everybody and recognizing that they are all equal and that they matter the same,” Romero tells SFR. “And so you can have a building, but if you don’t have the people that are best fit to include all of the kids from the Southside of town, you know, then there’s a whole different dynamic happening.”

Jocelyn Hernandez Monsalvo, the student resource coordinator for the Santa Fe Community College, has worked extensively with homeless youth and has a master’s degree in social work. Monsalvo, 24, believes that the issue of teen violence in this area of Santa Fe comes from multiple places, and isn’t a blatant desire for chaos.

“Sometimes they don’t have that support and sometimes they’re trying to look for that support elsewhere without really knowing what they’re getting themselves into, like gangs and being violent,” Monsalvo says. “And also sometimes that leads to maybe homelessness, which leads to wanting to have a place to stay or a place to be. And sometimes that’s where that might kick in.”

For now, she is putting together a resource in English and Spanish for SFCC students to access a range of services, from childcare to help with finances to food access. For her, more access to resources means more safety in the community.

“I know there’s a lot of apartment complexes down there in the Southside; some of them are based on income and others are based on tax credit and then there are others that are a little more expensive, so I’m hoping to get a lot more resources on that and hopefully on child care,” Monsalvo says.

The Southside narrative

There’s a story that people from inside and outside of the Southside tell. First: It has the highest population of Latino and Hispanic people, which is true—the percentages of Hispanic/Latino residents are at least 50% and as high as 77%, with median household incomes between $30,000 and $54,000, making it the lower-income part of the city by far, in comparison to the uber-wealthy enclaves of the northeast side. According to the latest Census projections, around 40% of Hispanic and Latino people are living in poverty throughout Santa Fe.

Another part of the story: It’s a food swamp and food desert—the USDA found that fast food restaurants increased in Santa Fe County from 90 to 109 between 2009 and 2014. That’s a 21% increase, most of it on the Southside, where the city is developing the fastest.

And a previous analysis by SFR found 49 fast-food restaurants, three dollar stores and eight Allsup’s convenience stores south of St. Michael’s Drive, plus eight grocery stores. But only Walmart Supercenter, Target, Sprouts Market, Mini Super Delicias and Albertsons sit south of Zafarano Road.

The Southside also has a proliferation of predatory lenders: SFR analyzed the locations of the 16 lending storefronts in Santa Fe County. Just one is located near downtown, or the north side of the city, which also has the lowest percentage of Hispanic/Latino residents and significantly higher median incomes by Census tract. The other 15 stores are located on the Southside and middle sections of Santa Fe.

Residents complain of historical neglect and lack of investment by the City Council, including by its own District 3 councilors. Previous initiatives to create a healthier community have floundered.

BookKids is a nonprofit that brings new things to read as well as a meal across Santa Fe and in particular on the Southside.
BookKids is a nonprofit that brings new things to read as well as a meal across Santa Fe and in particular on the Southside.

Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, who is going into this third year as a District 3 councilor, tells SFR that COVID has highlighted the Southside’s needs: more amenities, more parks, more things for people to do and businesses to patronize, as well as a senior center built with federal and state funding, similar to the teen center. Abeyta says he hopes the senior center is built in Santa Fe within the next five years, preferably on the north side of Airport Road.

But the teen center has been Abeyta’s main focus.

“My plan has been getting the teen center up and running, back under construction,” Abeyta says.

Those who live on the Southside do not see their origins or current life in the area as something that holds them back, regardless of the dearth of amenities. It’s a point of pride to manage a good life despite the obstacles.

“If you talk to folks on the Southside, especially the displaced Chicanos that used to live on the west side or Canyon Road or whatever and are now on the Southside, they claim Southside as a real identity, as a real moniker,” says Acosta. “Self identification and identification of place are important for community development. We have to have a name. We can’t just be a place without a name and an identity.”

Acosta tells SFR that when he worked on a Healthy Communities initiative with former Councilor Carmichael Dominguez several years ago, they interviewed over 400 Southsiders. Most loved the area, despite listing several things they thought the city could improve. Because ultimately, Southsiders want to stay.

“When we asked the question, ‘What do you love about this community?’ They had positive things to say,” Acosta says. “When we asked the question, ‘What’s missing?’ They talked about services, they talked about entertainment, they talked about things that would be good to have. But they wanted to have them here. They didn’t want to have to go somewhere else.”

Humans of the Southside—What Does the Southside Mean to You?

Helen Chaves

Southside resident since the 1980s

“I don’t like nothing about Airport [Road]. Like I tell you, if I could start all over I would, but I can’t. And I think it’s dangerous. Like Geo Lane. They drag race there too….We have too many food trucks. I don’t like the way the outhouses look outside of them….The trash here on Geo [Lane], when I have enough energy I’ll go clean the field there. I know that all the fields here that are vacant are owned by people that live out of state, not in the city, out of state.”

Alba Blondis

Chairwoman of the Santa Fe Southwest Advocates

“Southside to me, it just means that’s just the section of the city you live in. I did not know at the time I purchased, I didn’t know that this was a more industrialized zone. I didn’t realize that folks in this area may have felt left out in the past. There are a lot of gringos who live in this neighborhood, retired lawyers, retired doctors, retired priest families, as well as the Hispanic families that have immigrated, as well as the Northern New Mexico families whose roots go back to the Spaniards. So it’s a really mixed community. I see Asian people. I see everybody here.”

Ian Widrick Martinez

Santa Fe Community College Student Government Association President

“[The Southside] definitely doesn’t mean anything negative....I do look at it as home. I think there could be improvements everywhere. But there hasn’t been anything specific that stands out to me at all….I live right across from my elementary school. I lived right next to my high school, and I lived a mile away from my middle school. So everything was very close. We don’t really have to travel far to go to the store, go places. It seems everything is pretty central to where we live. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. And there’s several parks, so I think it’s a really nice area.”

Peggy Wilson

BookKids volunteer and retiree

“Back in the early ’90s, whenever they were considering building Tierra Contenta here, it was a good place to help people find affordable housing. The thing I liked about it was at the time when they were talking about this area, they were talking about it and it was planned to be a mixed residential area where housing was affordable for low income people, but they would also intersperse with more high-end places to try and create a more diverse community and I think in a lot of ways it succeeded at that...And I like the diversity of people from all over the world that [Tierra Contenta] has attracted to the Southside. What I think we need still here is I think we need some grocery stores.”

Rob Morlino

Marketing director for Homewise

“The term ‘Southside’ is not inherently problematic.…I think we tend to overdetermine and objectify certain neighborhoods and certain ethnic enclaves, and they tend to typify the prejudice and bias that we have in our society. Southside, or what a lot of people refer to as the central south side of the Airport Road, what I think is really interesting is some people perceive Airport Road as being a dangerous actual road, transportation-wise, or a dangerous area. I never got that feeling from it….And so I think we tend to objectify an area, calling it the Southside or whatever. It can kind of be damaging because it perpetuates maybe an us-versus-them dynamic...but I would say that I had heard people talking about the Southside and whatever sort of stereotypes they had about it; it was pretty easy for me to disregard after living in cities like Chicago and Johannesburg and living in Central America to say that when people talk about neighborhoods being a certain way, it’s usually a perception more than it is reality.”