By KAY MATTHEWS
Many La Jicarita readers are familiar with the sordid history of Rio Arriba County’s longtime patrón, Emilio Naranjo. Imagine their disgust when the county commission unanimously voted to rename the Rio Arriba County Annex Building in Española the Emilio Naranjo Building.
Naranjo’s nephew, former Rio Arriba County Commissioner Alex Naranjo, introduced the resolution calling for the name change in December, shortly before he left office, stating in The New Mexican, “He was a public servant for 50 years. My uncle was a legend in Northern New Mexico. I’m very proud of him.”
Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, longtime norteño activist and founder of the Rio Arriba County chapter of La Raza Unida, is particularly disgusted. DeVargas and other La Raza members Moises Morales, Pedro Archuleta, and Andres Valdez took on Naranjo back in the 1970s when he served as county sheriff, wielding unlimited power and abuse with his corrupt patronage (he also served, over the course of 40 years, as state senator, U.S. Marshall, and chairman of the Democratic Party). As UNM Professor David Correia says in his book Property of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico, “When patronage failed to produce political results, Naranjo deployed an army of sheriff’s deputies as enforcers.” He quotes DeVargas: “When I got back from the military and I could see his machine and his thugs and all that stuff, I thought to myself, well, shit, they ship me off ten thousand miles away to fight the dictators [he served in Vietnam] and I come home and we have a freaking dictator right here.”
Naranjo particularly targeted members of La Raza Unida. According to Correia, “Between April 1974 and May 1976 eighteen reported beatings or shootings by sheriff’s deputies produced official complaints in the county. Dozens more, according to RUP [La Raza Unida] went unreported.” The Rio Grande Sun editorialized that the “unprovoked beatings, illegal property seizures, improper searches of private homes and downright terrorism are too numerous and well-documented to be ignored any longer.” (March 11, 1976.)
I spoke with DeVargas about Emilio Naranjo, Alex Naranjo, and a family’s legacy that impacts the people of Rio Arriba County far beyond a building at the county complex. Alex and his brother, Nick Naranjo, have been engaged in power plays for years in their various county government positions.
“I grew up with Emilio’s kids, especially in our first four years of school. I know them well. I love some of them—David, Joseph, Teresa, awesome people. My beef with Emilio at first wasn’t personal, it was political. But then he went after La Raza Unida, Moises Morales, and La Clinica in Tierra Amarilla, which he had his deputies raid, claiming the basement was full of weapons.” Coming up with nothing they raided the law clinic next door, La Oficina de Ley and ransacked legal files.
“It got completely personal when he framed me. He put out a contract on my life. When I was recruiting people for a La Raza rally an off-duty sheriff’s deputy challenged me to a fight. I was able to take his gun away from him and pistol-whipped him. I went to prison at the state pen to avoid getting killed at the local jail. They set a huge bond that my parents had to raise and it took a while to get me out, and they almost killed me there as well. I never ended up in court; they dropped the charges. The cop who I beat up later apologized, and told me the whole story about how he was supposed to kill me.”
I ask DeVargas why he thinks this side of the family, Alex and Nick’s side, have been the ones to perpetuate the patron system. “Emilio was omnipotent for so long, they probably think they’re entitled, they’re royalty. All this stuff is old history with Emilio, but wounds, even though they’re old, they’re still there. And they’re reopened when these guys continue to be unaccountable.”
Nick Naranjo’s position, as chairman of the board of the Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op, has been on the front page for months now as co-op members challenge the utility’s contract with Tri-State and his authoritarian rule over a severely divided board. Naranjo and his cohort have consistently rejected members’ appeals to cancel its contract with Tri-State, which provides primarily fossil fuel energy, and contract with a source that supplies more renewable energy. After this year’s June elections Naranjo led a movement to remove opposition board member Bruce Duran (claiming he lived out of his district, a false claim), forcing Duran and Patrick Herrera, who ran for a different position on the board on a reform slate, and three other member-owners of the co-op, to file suit. (Herrera is also contesting his lost race, claiming board member Lucas Cordova is the one who doesn’t live in his district.) Another group, JMEC Trustees 4 Change, has a petition to “Take Back Our Co-op” and is raising money for Duran’s legal defense.
There’s more. Longtime Dixon resident Stan Crawford, who won a seat on the board for District 5 in June as part of the reform slate, submitted a letter to the board last week claiming that only the membership of the co-op can remove a board member and that the board elected officers and appointments at its July 21st meeting without a quorum.
DeVargas is currently involved in a new battle with the county that he says is another testament to the lingering rot of governments and officials who aren’t held accountable. Years ago the county picked up people’s trash for free. This was allegedly in violation of the state’s anti-donation clause, so the county started charging for the pickup and eventually, under an ordinance, established the North Central Solid Waste Authority. DeVargas has submitted a petition with over 500 names to a Santa Fe judge asking that he impanel a grant jury once the names are verified to determine if the ordinance is legal and to examine what DeVargas claims are the authority’s illegal activities: billing but not picking up trash; putting liens on people’s property when their bills are past due; billing for property that doesn’t have a residential dwelling; and corrupt accounting.
DeVargas said, “I told Tomás Compos, the county manager, that the federal government stole our land, the state stole our land, now you guys are trying to steal our land.” Compos is also being accused by JMEC Trustees 4 Change of siding with the Naranjo side of the board, which they claim violates his office.
People are not going to take the renaming of the county building lying down. Ojo Sarco resident and activist Carol Miller won a case against Emilio Naranjo years ago and actually ran against him in 1996 in a three-way Democratic primary for the New Mexico Senate along with Art Rodarte. She gathered enough votes away from Naranjo strongholds to elect Rodarte. Naranjo never ran for office again.
I asked Miller about her previous run in with Naranjo:
“Emilio’s long time attorney Walter Kegel let down his guard with me in 1982 or 1983, soon after I followed in Ike’s footsteps as the Executive Director of La Clinica. Kegel told me that of course the county wasn’t going to fund the ambulance at La Clinica from the mil levy because Ike would have used it for La Raza Unida t-shirts. This conversation ended up being exactly how La Clinica finally won against Emilio. We now had proof that community health services were being denied in order to harm/prevent La Raza Unida members in leadership at La Clinica from being successful in their/our community organizing.
“We prevailed through a Motion to Dismiss and were in discovery/interrogatories. Next were the depositions. Bob Rothstein was my attorney at the deposition and I guess I did a convincing job on the damning conversation with Kegel. Soon after the deposition, the county made a settlement agreement with a large (for the time) one-time cash payment and more importantly, a share of the mil level for healthcare became guaranteed to La Clinica for services in northern Rio Arriba. This suit helped and still helps with tax support for La Clinica.”
Miller also told me that a short time later her husband Larry began as a volunteer EMT with Española ambulance service operated by Rio Arriba County. He was then hired, but when the county’s EMS director found out he was Carol’s husband he fired him. In Larry’s First Amendment case, attorney Richard Rosenstock (longtime civil rights attorney who represented La Raza members many times) sent a notice of intent to sue to Rio Arriba County on Larry’s behalf. The county settled for one year’s salary.
Miller plans to ask the county commission to reconsider its decision to name the county building for Naranjo at the August meeting in Tierra Amarilla. DeVargas and other activists plan to go with her.
“We’d go to the county commission meetings with Emilio, he wouldn’t put us on the agenda but would call the cops and kick us out,” DeVargas says. “We can resort to La Raza tactics if we need to. These battles won’t end until we die. We need our kids to stand up.”