By KAY MATTHEWS
Butchie Denver, longtime Tasoeña activist, artist, and La Lama resident died on June 25 not long after being diagnosed with cancer. It came as a shock to all of us who worked with her on any number of issues: Democratic party politics, government accountability, county land use planning, water and acequia issues, anything and everything that matters to the citizens of Taos County. Butchie was always there, at all those interminable county commission meetings, all those county planning meetings where volunteer citizens struggled to help the staff come up with a viable land use plan or subdivision regulations, and all the meetings of the Taos County Advisory Board on Public Welfare, scrutinizing all proposed transfers of water within or from the county. She had my back, like she had the back of so many others, and I’m not sure how to proceed without her. I know that at 74, having experienced the many disappointments that any activist acutely feels, she was tired. May she rest in peace.
God knows, Butchie never gave anybody else any peace. She’d show up in their office—county commissioner, planner, attorney, town mayor—track them down at home, or confront them in public to express her displeasure when they failed to contribute to the common good. Seeing her in action was like watching a bulldozer in the guise of a southern California surfer girl with her blue eyes, shoulder length blonde hair, and mostly sandaled or bare feet. Which is where she came from, actually: Los Angeles. How she ended up in New Mexico is a long and complicated story, but she made it here about 40 years ago and things haven’t been the same since.
Tony Trujillo, Butchie’s partner of 38 years, was the one who characterized Butchie and two of her comadres, Trudy Valerio Healy and Fabi Romero, as Las Brujas. It was Bill Whaley, longtime editor of Horse Fly, the alternative Taos newspaper that addressed all things political, who ran with it over the years as he reported on their doings. Las Brujas first worked their magic on the Democratic party machine back in the 1990s when the usual suspects ran everything—including the politics in the southern part of the county where I live—under a patronage system reminiscent of the baddest patrón of them all, Emilio Naranjo. Las Brujas, along with other progressives in the party, managed to kick them out and install a new chair. They then went after an inept county commission, county manager, and other assorted misfits and actually helped elect a commission that actually did do something for the common good.
Butchie went on to devote much of her energy to Taos County planning and worked tirelessly on committees to help develop a comprehensive land use plan and updated subdivision regulations. She and I came together on the steering committee to promulgate the Taos Regional Water Plan and help define what constitutes the “public welfare” when water rights are transferred. Remember, the criteria the Office of the State Engineer uses to approve or disapprove proposed water rights transfers are: 1) whether the transfer will impair other water rights; 2) whether the transfer is contrary to the conservation of water; and 3) whether the transfer is consistent with the public welfare. This last criterion has never been defined; that’s what Butchie and I and several others on the steering committee were trying to do. I documented that saga in past issues of La Jicarita News (November 2006; March 2008). Suffice it to say, the special interests that want to move water rights around with impunity came together to sabotage our efforts. But Butchie and our cohort persevered, and in 2010 Taos County passed its own ordinance setting up a Public Welfare Advisory Board to review all proposed water transfers within or from Taos County to assess their consistency with the public welfare.
Butchie would periodically get disgusted and say she was going to quit getting involved in Taos politics. She’d stay home for a while, in her La Lama home filled with her beautiful retablos, tin work, and rehabilitated tresteros. She’d spend time with Tony and her beloved cat until something would really piss her off again and she’d storm back down the mountain to confront whoever needed to be taken to task. One day my son heard a message from Butchie on my answering machine, telling me I had to go to a meeting because she couldn’t, and he said to me, “Boy, she really sounds like she’s mad at you.” She wasn’t, but if she had been it would have been a compliment. As Trudy Healy told the Taos News, if you got Butchie’s attention that meant “you were worthy of her scorn. If she thought you were just an idiot, she would ignore you, and that was probably worse.”
There will be a memorial service for Butchie on July 8, starting at 4 pm, in the conference room at the Sagebrush Inn.