Northern New Mexico has found a voice to articulate four centuries of pain and pride in the form of a 26-year-old poet named Olivia Romo.
By day, Romo is a constituent liaison for Santa Fe County Commissioner Ed Moreno in District 5. Nights and weekends, you might find her reciting one of her epic poems at the annual Congreso de las Acequias in Taos, a watch party for a local hero’s national TV appearance at Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino or even the National Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada.
Romo is well acquainted with the folkways and byways of the Land of Enchantment. In her previous job doing outreach for the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), she traveled the state advising acequia leaders on water rights and transfers, updating bylaws and other matters.
The protests of Gabriel Estada of the Rio Gallinas-Roundhouse Ditch scrawled on a piece of notebook paper inspired Romo to write a poem called “Fighting the Tragedy of the Commons” and create a mixed media art piece that was part of an exhibition called “Without Borders” last year at the Pueblo History Museum in Pueblo, Colorado.
Romo’s poem “Roadrunner: The Chosen Prophet” tells the story of blue-eyed invaders, Natives suffering from smallpox and, ultimately, reconciliation, as seen through the eyes of the state bird whose existence long predates statehood.
Romo performed “Roadrunner” at the 35th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering last year and most recently at the Dec. 10 watch party for CNN Hero of 2019 finalist Roger Montoya of Española, where she riveted the crowd of more than 1,000 with her electrifying performance.
Oddly enough, on the telephone and during meetings, Romo has a quiet voice and a calm, unassuming presence.
“I feel like I can fly when I’m on stage,” Romo said. “But I’ve only gotten to that place after years of performing and with the love and support of my community.”
A Taoseño, Romo today makes her home in Pojoaque, where she commutes to her job in Santa Fe. But Romo’s roots lie firmly in Taos, where she is an active participant in Los Hermana/os Comanchitos in Ranchos de Taos. The group just celebrated their feast day on Jan. 1, dancing from the Santuario de San Francisco de Assisi to neighboring homes and valleys celebrating their mestizo heritage.
Taoseños may remember Romo as the New Mexico State Slam Poetry Champion in 2011. She credits her mother with buying her empty books to fill with drawings and poetry when she was a child. But it wasn’t until she was a student of Taos High School teacher Anne MacNaughton that she began to identify as a poet.
Romo, who is of mixed Native and Hispanic heritage, grew up speaking the northern New Mexico “Manito” dialect of Spanish at home with her parents, a schoolteacher and a former rancher. An only child, Romo jokes that she is her father’s “son that he never had,” and indeed she exudes both fierceness and femininity.
Like New Mexico itself, Romo is officially bilingual. Even when speaking English, she sprinkles her speech with Spanish expressions and said that when she writes poetry, she thinks in Spanish.
“Sometimes, Spanish speakers from outside of New Mexico laugh at my dialect, but they always understand what I’m saying,” she said.
Not many poets can say their work got them their first day job, but that’s what happened to Romo. After graduating with a dual bachelor’s degree in communications and Chicano/a Studies from University of New Mexico, Romo recited a poem called “Bendición del agua” (Blessing of the water) at the annual Congreso de las Acequias in Taos in 2015. That performance ultimately led to her position with NMAA.
Romo plans to continue telling the tales of Northern New Mexico’s unique culture through her poems, but she also wants to go to law school. That would give her the credentials to help litigate on behalf of the mayordomos and parciantes who maintain the ditches that bring melting snow down from the mountains to irrigate the fields each spring.
But Romo said her long-term goal is to get back to her gente (people) in Taos, her quarencia, an abstract Spanish word that means the place where one draws strength and feels at home.