Arnold Vigil fondly remembers the time when Santa Feans didn’t distance themselves from one another.
Vigil’s not talking about earlier in the month, before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham put emergency measures in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
No, the longtime columnist for Journal North is nostalgic for the days when all public school students in the city attended Mid High, a school for ninth-graders that once occupied City Hall.
Vigil passed through the halls of Mid High as a student in the 1970s. The experience gave him the opportunity to meet ninth-graders from all over the city, including those whose ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds were different from his.
With the exception of students who attended Santa Fe Prep and St. Michael’s, “everybody went to Mid High. We had like 700 or 800 kids. Everybody got to know each other. You don’t get that today,” because of the rise of home schooling and the advent of charter schools, Vigil lamented.
Many Santa Feans will remember Vigil’s humorous, irreverent column ¡Órale! Santa Fe,” which ran in Journal North from 2004-08. Those columns have been polished and packaged in a new book published by the Museum of New Mexico Press called “Santa Fe Different: 22 Years and All I Got Was a Cheeseburger.” The book includes a foreword by Max Evans, the New Mexico writer best known for “Rounders” and “The Hi-Lo Country,” which were both made into films.
As the name of his book implies, Vigil is well-versed in all things City Different. But his definition of the term isn’t the compassionate, cosmopolitan colonial capital that sits at 7,000 feet. Vigil’s City Different is one that has changed markedly from the town he grew up in and continues to evolve, not always for the better.
Although nostalgia permeates every page of Vigil’s book, the master of wordplay isn’t a sad sack by any means. The loquacious author never met a pun he didn’t like. Some of his rollicking columns are so circuitous that they are reminiscent of the old Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?”
For instance, Vigil tells the story of how he and fellow staffers at New Mexico magazine received a memo reminding them not to use the term “tri-cultural,” once championed in these parts because it was thought to embrace the state’s Native, Hispanic and Anglo residents.
Vigil’s interpretation of the memo? “The pre-fix ‘tri’ shall be considered a four-letter word in New Mexico promotion and anyone caught paying tribute to it in any trifling fashion will face the trimember tribunal for trial and tribulation to face a trifecta of punishment,” he wrote.
Seemingly trivial debates – red chile, green or Christmas (both) and the long-running Santa Fe/Albuquerque tug-of-war over whether holiday candles in sand-filled paper bags are called farolitos or luminarias – lead to rip-roaring riffs in the hands of Vigil.
One theme running through his wide-ranging columns is identity and when, if ever, a carpetbagger can become a local. In his opinion, it’s when someone starts to ask, “Who left the gate open?”
Vigil’s observations about the waves of arrivals in Santa Fe are encapsulated in a column called “To Be Local, You Must First Get Off,” a side-splitting meditation on the means of transportation that brought outsiders to Santa Fe.
In a column, he notes that although former Santa Fe Mayor Debbie Jaramillo used to refer to the city’s newcomers as “just off the bus,” Vigil believes many just “emerged from the Mercedes” or “popped out of the Lear.”
Surprisingly, someone who knows his way around words didn’t initially aspire to be a writer.
When Vigil arrived at New Mexico Highlands University, his goal was to be a forest firefighter. He enrolled in dendrology (study of trees), chemistry and algebra. But Vigil “hit the wall” in algebra.
When a curious reporter asked whether it was the quadratic equation that stopped him in his tracks and opines that it was a shame that math teachers didn’t explain how the vexing formula can be used to build bridges, he quipped, “It was the quadratic equation. I didn’t hit the wall; I hit the bridge.”
While he was in college, Vigil took the exam to be a firefighter for the city of Santa Fe. In his words, he “aced” both the written and physical tests. Vigil was naturally disappointed when he wasn’t hired. “Somebody’s cousin got the job instead of me,” he said.
Fate had other things in store for Vigil. His English professor, Richard Panofsky, encouraged him to pursue writing. Suddenly, doors opened. Vigil was named editor of the Highlands student newspaper and landed paid internships at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s in-house newsletter.
Still, like many a newly minted college graduate, Vigil couldn’t find a job in his chosen profession. To make ends meet, he worked construction. According to the author, his “smart-aleck” ways often provoked aggression during his youth, and the construction job was no different.
After taking a verbal beating from the boss, Vigil impulsively knocked on the door of Albuquerque Journal’s Santa Fe bureau and offered his journalism services to then Journal North editor Larry Calloway.
Following a few freelance assignments, Calloway hired Vigil as a police reporter, a job he had for five years before moving to New Mexico magazine for 22 years. Vigil said he loved his job at the state-run magazine and believed for years that he was insulated from politics.
That notion went out the window in September 2011 on what Vigil calls Black Tuesday. That day, a “Susanami” arrived “without warning in the form of a smiley-faced, golden-haired whippersnapper from the Pepsico corporate world of Chicago who was closely connected with some of the founding fathers of the Taos Ski Valley,” he wrote.
According to Vigil, he was told to clean out his desk and the detritus he had accumulated over 22 years by the end of the day. After he was thanked for his service, the newly unemployed scribe asked if he could get a Taos Valley Ski pass as a parting gift.
The answer was no, but his executioner told him she could get him a cheeseburger for his last meal. Despite the title of his book, his burger never arrived, but “peetza” put the kibosh on the national political aspirations of the Susanami’s namesake, Vigil noted.
Vigil doesn’t name names, but even relative newcomers to Santa Fe will recognize the not-so-veiled references to former Gov. Susana Martinez, whose reputation never recovered from an ill-fated pizza party at the Eldorado Hotel, and Monique Jacobson, her former Cabinet Secretary for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Prior to leading CYFD, Jacobson ran the state’s tourism department, which oversees New Mexico magazine. Jacobson is credited with creating the wildly successful #NewMexicoTrue campaign that calls attention to the authenticity of experiences and products found only in the Land of Enchantment.
Despite taking it on the chin during the Martinez administration, Vigil is philosophical. A recent sunny afternoon found him clearing out the acequia on a farm in Nambé in anticipation of the snowmelt that will soon fill the ditch with water.
The symbol of the acequia movement is the pala or shovel, but Vigil prefers a chainsaw, which also comes in handy clearing the century-old cottonwoods that are falling down on his 1½-acre spread.
The self-described “city slicker” who wrote about fending off tough kids who were bused into Santa Fe from Pecos and other rural areas during his elementary school days has happily become a country bumpkin himself.