In a studio that shares a building with a tire shop off Airport Road, Isabel Zambrano leads a combination Zumba and CrossFit class. The music blares on a recent weeknight, nearly shaking the studio. Sweat drips off the faces of several participants as they dance and kick. Then the music momentarily ceases.
“¡Ay!” the blonde-haired coach lets out in a yell.
Before long, the music starts up again, and the group moves in synchrony.
Zambrano, a Mexico native who has lived in Santa Fe for nearly 30 years, started teaching Zumba classes five years ago. She first took classes on her own when her doctor ordered her to exercise, she says. After she lost a substantial amount of weight, she leaped into the teaching world.
“I decided I wanted to open my own business because I had already worked for someone else and been in different positions, and I wanted to help others,” she tells SFR.
When she’s not teaching classes, Zambrano rents out the studio for events and also runs a clothing shop next door. Her growth as a business owner, however, came with no public assistance. During the pandemic, she applied for grants and loans, but was turned away.
“I’ve raised this business from the ground up alone, and it’s been difficult with no resources,” she says. “I’ve gone to apply and they’ve told me I don’t qualify before…I wish they would open more doors for people without a Social Security Number and help us financially because it’s very expensive to start a business and many times people end up with nothing.”
Since then, she’s acquired an SSN, which helps her extend opportunities to others who are in the situation she once was. She hired her first employee, an immigrant from Peru, to help with the store just under a year ago.
“The important thing is that we’re progressing,” Zambrano says.
Despite many outsized contributions to the local and state economy, immigrants can’t access many public programs that target small business and the workforce.
In Santa Fe’s case, a study released late last year entitled “New Americans in Santa Fe County” provides a comprehensive analysis of how the local immigrant population, including workers who lack documentation, impacts the economy:
The American Immigration Council found that immigrants make up 11.1% of the county’s total population—roughly 16,000 people—yet represented 15.2% of its working age population and 15% of the employed labor force for 2019. On the entrepreneurial side, 1,800 immigrants generated $35.6 million in business income, representing 15.2% of the county’s business owners.
Plus, immigrants paid more than $122 million in taxes in 2019 and contributed 12.9%, or $1.1 billion, to the county’s gross domestic product, and they played a critical role in a handful of industries: representing 28.6% of construction workers; 27.1% of hospitality workers; and 13.7% of education workers.
Many workers fall into several of those categories. Chihuahua, Mexico, native Claudia Avila, for example, “spent her life in cleaning,” she says. She has 27 years of experience under her belt and now also owns a cleaning company. When the pandemic hit, she and other members of her family lost their sources of income.
“The week after everything closed, I said, ‘What am I going to do? What are we all going to do?’” Avila tells SFR. “Since I knew how to sew since I was 12 years old because my two grandmothers were seamstresses, I said, ‘We’re going to make masks.’”
The masks started out simply, she says, but slowly the family began to customize them with individualized names and more businesses became interested. They made thousands.
Now, in a dining room turned miniature workshop in a neighborhood off Rufina Street, Avila stays up until 1 am at times to keep up with work, she says. On this Sunday afternoon, she sits at the table with a lighter, gently tickling the logo on a shirt with the edge of the flame.
She and her children run an embroidery business that has expanded to offer more services including custom designs; alterations; vinyl work; engravings; tumblers and more. Avila says there are times the family “can barely breathe” because it has so many orders.
“Sometimes the orders can build up to 15 orders on the list, and I always tell people, ‘Be patient with us; give us around a month,’” she says.
Avila says she did not seek city or state help out of fear they would ask her for an SSN, noting she purchased the first of two embroidery machines, which cost $20,000, by applying for a credit card instead. She moved to the United States almost 28 years ago, and just over a year ago she became a citizen.
By taking English classes at Sweeney Elementary and adopting a “never give up” attitude, she adds, she was able to grow her cleaning business and communicate with homeowners.
“I’ve always told my family, something good has to come out of here, and we are going to continue moving forward,” Avila says. “And we’re doing it all together.”
While the City of Santa Fe has established policies that bar discrimination on the basis of status for access to city-funded programs, many internships, apprenticeships and workforce development programs are funded by federal grants that filter through regional agencies or the state Department of Workforce Solutions, and those are often off-limits to undocumented immigrants.
That’s partly why the City of Santa Fe teamed up alongside Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a statewide community-based and immigrant-led organization that promotes worker and racial justice, to create a strategic plan that will provide immigrant workers with more economic and workforce development opportunities using the findings of the American Immigration Council study.
Though slated for a February release, the strategy isn’t ready yet. Economic Development and Communications Administrator Liz Camacho tells SFR in an email the city plans to reconvene with elected leaders and key stakeholders to refine the plan and make it “not just actionable but also tailored to gain swift approval and facilitate smooth implementation…We are committed to ensuring this plan is a driving force for positive change, and we value the patience and input of our community as we work towards this shared goal.”
But Somos’ work doesn’t stop in Santa Fe, as immigrant workers’ experiences vary across the state but still share commonalities.
On Jan. 22, the organization helped organize an event called “Workers Day of Action,” during which a group of roughly 300 people marched from the Santa Fe Farmers Market to the Roundhouse following a breakfast and training session on lobbying. Chants of “Sí, se puede” and “Ese dinero no es del gobierno, es de nosotros” (“Yes, we can,” and “that money is not the government’s, it’s ours”) echoed from the lips of the crowd carrying signs.
State lawmakers will make a spending plan in the coming weeks to divy up what’s expected to be another record-setting year of revenue for Fiscal Year 2025. And the crowd demonstrated because they want more benefits from the money they bring into the state coffers.
Somos Executive Director Marcela Diaz tells SFR the organization’s lobbying this year at the Legislature concentrates on ensuring the appropriate amount of state cash makes it into the budget so that federal restrictions on Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act dollars, which fund the majority of New Mexico’s workforce development system, don’t prevent immigrants’ ability to access it.
She says advocates want to see “innovative programs, and expansion of eligibility for people not traditionally eligible for workforce development and expanded support services.”
The Department of Workforce Solutions, she says, is in some way “doing a tremendous job in inviting workers and impacted workers to be at the table” Diaz says. Somos members, however, say “unemployed, underemployed and sometimes overemployed low wage workers, not just immigrants,” but other BIPOC, LGBTQ and rural workers are all having a hard time accessing programs.
“That is not fair for these workers, and so we’re highlighting those barriers and those needs because we want access to quality jobs and skills building and pathways to advancement and economic mobility just like everyone else,” she says.
By noon, the demonstration had landed in front of DWS Secretary Sarita Nair. Workers from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Artesia, Hobbs and elsewhere argued their economic impact through labor and taxes justified more funding for assistance. Maria Cristina Fuentes, originally from Guatemala but now living in Santa Fe, tells SFR she expects the state to do more.
“We are honestly here out of necessity because we need support from our legislators so that we are included in the money that we all as immigrants contribute to through taxes,” says Fuentes, who was among those who met with Nair. “So we also want a little bit of that money, and we deserve it, too.”
Nair told the group that many ideas the activists asked for were already “baked into the state plan” and training “at a time that accommodates work and in a language that is accessible,” serves as a top priority. Since federal regulations prevent support for undocumented workers in many cases, she said, “the work to advocate for state money to come in and supplement is so important.”
She added that her department is talking with apprenticeship program coordinators to see how some barriers may be removed. Nair’s team will also work on a study to figure out “if there’s a way to create some unemployment benefits for workers who are currently excluded.” One method could be through a guaranteed income program.
In December, a handful of activist groups, including Somos, presented findings at the Roundhouse on a collaboration with Oakland-based nonprofit organization UpTogether for a pilot program that selected 330 mixed-immigration status households to receive unconditional direct cash transfers of $500 for 12 months.
Diaz argues the positive outcomes of the pilot justify the need for a comparable program at the state level. Participants saw an increase in employment and more financial stability to seek jobs better suited to their skill sets and their family needs.
“Understanding that helps us really think about—and knowing that living stipends and cash assistance isn’t totally unprecedented within the Workforce Development System—what would it look like if we actually had some recurring cash assistance payments or supplemental income for folks who are very challenged, and who are needing that kind of support for childcare and also to not have to work two jobs to make ends meet,” she says. “Particularly with high housing costs in places like Santa Fe, those are the folks that we call the overemployed folks who are not able to engage in these really important workforce development programs.”
Longtime community organizer and Earth Care Co-Director Miguel Acosta tells SFR he trusts the leadership at Somos and at the City’s Office of Economic Development in their ongoing work for a strategic plan and statewide advocacy. However, he hopes the investment will go to organizations that “actually do direct economic development work capacity building,” and that immigrants won’t be left out.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that they will actually fund enough and correctly, appropriately—not just how much money but they’re investing in that enough to really make a difference,” Acosta says.
In his more than 10 years of experience doing support work for businesses on the Southside, finding and fostering support for immigrant workers and entrepreneurs has always been a challenge, he says.
“We’ve heard merchants talking over the years about the fact that the only time they ever saw anybody from the city was to give them a citation for something that they had done incorrectly,” Acosta says. “So there has been a communications and relational barrier between the city and small businesses off Airport Road, and, at a couple of points, actually some hostility.”
At one point, he recalls, some Tierra Contenta residents recommended the city outlaw food trucks.
“They were upset that they had to drive down Airport Road and see these monstrosities and these food trucks …with a bunch of undesirables hanging out in front of them. They basically didn’t want to see Mexicans. That was their issue,” Acosta says. “But then white people discovered food trucks, and it became a thing. So now there isn’t that same kind of animosity towards food trucks, but there hasn’t been any kind of formal support either.”
Acosta says he’s working on a project alongside the city slated to launch this spring that will help owners of the tracts where the trucks sit develop “little civic closets” that are more easily identifiable in-person and on services like Google Maps. He’s also seen first-hand how work-status-based restrictions make intended support programs inaccessible to some. He cites, for example, how the state has funded internships for high school students for three years, but those without Social Security Numbers can’t participate, leading to them “being left out of these opportunities for work-based learning and jobs.”
That’s also the reason Lorraine Urquidi, a Sunland Park resident, traveled roughly five hours to Santa Fe for the demonstration—largely to petition the state for more education funding. She works as an artist with DescolonizArte, a program that provides youth art classes and conversations about social justice.
She tells SFR outreach wields the most results. DescolonizArte, for example, aims to reach the poorest communities, posting flyers outside of grocery stores and bakeries that notify the community about offered services such as after-school classes with snacks provided and document translation services. These dollars, she adds, could help support and raise more awareness about available programs for youth—something she wishes she had growing up.
“Within all of these programs, and all these meetings, we end up meeting so many people, and a lot of these people, they go through the same things we go through, so we totally understand their struggle,” Urquidi says. “These programs weren’t available before. That or maybe people weren’t aware and were never helped just from not having awareness.”
Urquidi says she’s optimistic the lobbying work will prove successful, but regardless, her love of art and her love of community will keep her going—as it keeps others motivated, too.
“We’re making a difference, and I want to say that it does make a difference,” she says. “I do feel that us showing up [to the Roundhouse] that day, I feel like we made an impact, and I’m very proud of all these organizations and what they’re doing.”
OIL, GAS AND IMMIGRANTS
Workers report poor conditions, lack of training and safety oversight
New Mexico will likely plan to spend over $10 billion in its new Fiscal Year 2025 budget—much of it derived from oil and gas extraction royalties that have continued to rise in recent years. This year, for example, that cash makes up close to 40% of the general fund budget.
Immigrant workers who help bring in that revenue say it’s another reason they deserve more assistance.
According to a 2020 study by the American Immigration Council, immigrants account for 17% of all workers in the state’s “mining, quarrying and oil & gas extraction” industry. That same year, a profile of oil and natural gas workers in New Mexico from the Department of Workforce Solutions reported there were slightly more than 26,000 workers in mining in the first quarter of 2020. That could put the number of immigrants on the jobs at roughly 4,420.
Francisco Martínez, a Hobbs resident, was once among them. But he left the industry after he cut the index finger and thumb on his right hand during an accident on the job and his employer didn’t help him, he tells SFR, noting the company also didn’t offer health insurance. Plus, he says, the agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration never appeared.
“Because many of us are undocumented, they don’t bother to care about us…They abuse and take advantage of us, and we’re the ones who move everything forward in terms of gas workers,” Martínez says.
He adds he would like to see more safety training and benefits for workers, among other things. However, Martínez says more than anything, he wants Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators to not live in the present and “look towards the future.”
“We need to realize we can’t always be living off oil and gas, and they need to invest in new companies, manufacturing of furniture and clothes, new forms of income,” he says. “So that when the day comes that we no longer depend on it, we won’t be lacking so many jobs.”
Though its sample size is small, in a recent study commissioned by Somos Un Pueblo Unido on the oil and gas workforce in the southeastern part of the state, the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy found that the average workday was nearly 12 hours, and eight in 10 workers reported knowing someone who had an accident on the job and/or died as a result; 46.4% of participants had an accident of their own, and 84.6% of those said they believed the accident was preventable. Many of the workers also mentioned they lack access to health insurance, unemployment insurance, and other benefits.
Of 126 participants across Lea, Chaves and Eddy counties in the Permian Basin, 99% were Hispanic and 72% were foreign born.
“In my five years of living in Hobbs, we’ve always depended on oil and gas,” Martínez says. “When we no longer can, then what will we do?”