ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I don’t remember exactly when I first saw her in that spot above the traffic that plunges east from Interstate 40 onto the Tramway exit.
It seemed like she was just there, her framed, painted portrait wired to a wrought-iron railing, just below the freeway overpass, just above a bricked berm rising from the sidewalk.
She is the Mona Lisa of the Tramway exit, her oblong eyes following me as I drive past, the slight curve of her lips like that of a woman who knows secrets but isn’t telling.
Bouquets of faded flowers and dried chiles are entwined in the iron bars. A bottle of water sits in front of this highway shrine.
From her vantage point, she sees everything coming and going on the edge of Albuquerque before city melts into canyon and mountain and endless points east – the bunched-up cars, the panhandlers, the cyclists, the tourists and townies, the homeless and the addicts who frequent the small park behind the wrought-iron railing.
There must be a reason her painting is here, I think.
Who is she?
Who was she?
I stop to get a closer look so I can read what is scratched on the painting. I learn she was Anita Crespin, who died Aug. 5. She was 35. And she was, as the painting says, “Loved by many.”
A friend of mine is one of those many.
“Oh, everybody up here loved her,” Phyllis Hernandez says. “She was beautiful and kind, always smiling. I would say she was a good, good girl.”
“Up here” is San Antonito, a small East Mountains community inhabited mostly by land-grant heirs.
It’s a place where everybody knows everybody and those who don’t want to know anybody.
It is where Anita grew up and where Hernandez moved after she married.
They are cousins, though Hernandez says their communication in the past four years has been mostly through Facebook.
Anita’s Facebook page is filled with optimistic memes on overcoming drugs and depression and the importance of kindness amid the cruelty of this world.
Her motto was “Always be yourself.”
Laurah, the second of Anita’s eight children, called her beautiful, kind and smart, but a “tough nut.”
Two months ago, Anita’s eldest child, Dominic, learned he was going to be a father. Before he could tell her she was going to be a grandmother, she was dead.
Hernandez says she doesn’t know how Anita died. She’s never asked.
Since February, death has taken 11 family members and friends, two just this month. It is too painful to ask questions, too painful to know the truth.
But Orlando Crespin knows.
He is Anita’s elder brother, and he knows the life she led, because he led that life, too, before he was court-ordered into substance abuse treatment in 2013.
He chose Delancey Street, a residential treatment and training center whose New Mexico location is on a 17-acre ranch north of Ohkay Owingeh. He credits the center with saving his life and helping him create a new and better one far away from the East Mountains.
“Growing up, we were raised around drugs there,” says Crespin, 38. “They are so pervasive in that part of the community. It was hard not to fall into them.”
Orlando Crespin’s drug of choice was methamphetamine, and for 22 years he was an addict with no intention of quitting.
“I’ll be honest. I used meth because I liked it,” he says. “I wanted to get high. It was my way to escape reality, to not have to feel anything.”
He lost everything because of drugs – his wife, his child, many friends.
And now, Anita.
“She was found dead near where that painting is,” he says. “We haven’t looked at the autopsy report, but we believe it was fentanyl.”
His sister had struggled with drugs for much of her life, he says. She was his biggest supporter during his recovery. But she would not let him return the favor.
After he became clean and sober, he says, he did his best to persuade Anita to become clean and sober, too.
“She always thought about everybody else, but not herself,” he says. “But months before she died, things were out of control for her. She told me she wanted to detox, to get clean. But her friends made fun of her, criticized her. It discouraged her.”
She had not been in trouble with the law as he had, so there was no court to order her into treatment. And there were few places to get treatment on her own.
Even in her addiction, he says, Anita was big-hearted and loving, known for handing out bottles of water to the homeless and the addicts she hung out with near Tramway and the I-40 exit.
“She didn’t judge people or look down on them,” he says. “She always had a smile on her face. She could be going through hell, but she would not let that show.”
Anita’s portrait, painted by her friend Nicole Marchand, was set up at the site on Tramway a week after she died, Crespin says.
He believes what the painting reports is true – she was loved by many.
Maybe, when you see her, you will think about the secret she holds – that every addict is a human being with a story and a family and a heart. That every addict deserves help. That every addict is loved.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.