Humans of NM project builds a more inclusive story of life in the state

Local poet Hakim Bellamy speaks during a panel discussion for the Human of New Mexico exhibit in Zimmerman Library. Bellamy is one of the featured profiles. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Farmers, a poet, a custodian, musicians, a refugee, a rugby player and Taiwanese immigrants might seem like a motley crew but they all have one thing in common.

Each has made an appearance on the internet page of a new project aiming to highlight the culture and history of New Mexico through individual stories and experiences. The project, called Humans of New Mexico, debuted online in March 2016 and has made its way to the University of New Mexico’s four main libraries as an exhibit.

The project’s founder is Rafael Martinez, a Ph.D. student at UNM with a focus on immigrant rights and social movements. Martinez said the project is not related to his academic work but something he personally thought was important. Martinez’s family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was 4 years old. He came to New Mexico five years ago to attend UNM as a graduate student and fell in love with the state.

“I wanted to showcase or present a different side of New Mexico,” Martinez said. “You hardly hear from the people directly.”

Instead, Martinez said, the historical or cultural narrative of a place is from people in the spotlight, such as politicians and leaders of institutions. He wanted to give the everyday person a chance to tell his or her story, therefore creating a more rounded narrative of life in New Mexico. Martinez was inspired by the Humans of New York project, which was started by photographer Brandon Stanton on the streets of New York City. Stanton began interviewing the people he was photographing and posting their responses, along with their portraits, to Facebook.

Diego Miller, 14, center, speaks during the opening of the Humans of New Mexico exhibit at Zimmerman Library. The project documents everyday life by featuring profiles of New Mexicans. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Martinez said New Mexico does not necessarily lend itself to the man-on-the-street type of interview so he started interviewing people he knew that he thought were interesting and began posting their stories.

“It was just a small Facebook page the first few interviews,” he said. “Then I saw the potential and knew it had to be something bigger.”

The project blossomed and Martinez made it more formal by creating a project website, humansofnewmexico.com. The website contains all the interviews — more than 60 at this point — accompanied by a portrait of the interviewee. He also now collaborates with others to conduct the interviews, take the portraits and choose people to highlight. UNM graduate students Moises Santos, Froilan Orozco and Christine Shell help him oversee the project in collaboration with El Centro de la Raza, American Indian Student Services and African American Student Services.

Martinez said the group publishes one new story a week and posts quotes from that interview daily on Facebook.

Some of the featured profiles include Eileen Espinoza, a Chimayó native who has cleaned the Roundhouse in Santa Fe for almost 28 years; Ramazani Mwanza, a refugee from the Republic of Congo who has lived in New Mexico for two years; Hui-Ming Lee-Yu and her husband Chung-Yun Yu, immigrants from Taiwan who now own a restaurant near Angel Fire; Nazca Warren and Phil Rothwell, who each grew up in urban environments but decided to buy land and plant roots in a rural setting; and Demetrio Cardiel, a former rugby player and now rugby coach in Los Alamos.

The project has also evolved to include letting the public suggest people to profile. People can now nominate someone through the website that they think should be interviewed. This was as a direct result of feedback on the Humans of New Mexico Facebook page. Martinez said people would frequently leave comments suggesting people the group should profile.

A photo of 15-year-old Zavier Thompson, a project participant hangs on the east wing on the first floor at Zimmerman Library. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Martinez said he decided from the start to feature people from around the state and not just Albuquerque. He said he wanted a snapshot of the entire state, including people from rural communities. Martinez said while other ways of preserving history are useful, he wanted to honor New Mexico’s tradition of oral history. He said that he hopes to establish the project enough that it continues, even if he or any of the current participants are no longer involved.

“We want to know how people are experiencing New Mexico in their own words,” Martinez said. “We do not change or alter the interviews. It all adds to the narrative of New Mexico.”

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