Correction: An earlier version of this column should have listed Protect NM as one of the groups that helped supply the pueblo with masks and sanitation supplies.
The email described her as a “shy student,” but she’s not sure that’s altogether right.
“In school, I’m always asking questions, always talking,” Emelia Pino, 17, says. “That’s not being shy.”
She’s shy outside of school, perhaps, but she’s not shy about talking to me. She’s more soft-spoken, subtle, this young woman who chats with me from the home she shares with her parents and younger brother in Zia Pueblo.
She has some important things to talk about, and that leads us to the other words the email uses to describe her:
I’m not sure that’s altogether right, either. With the work she has done and is doing – and plans to do – for her community, she’s surely a leader already.
The email is from the Healers of Tomorrow, an eight-month program through the Native Health Initiative for indigenous high school students interested in health care careers.
Pino’s program ended in May, and at the last session she wasn’t shy about telling the group how COVID-19 was afflicting Zia Pueblo.
As we talk, the emotion of that experience returns in her voice and her tears. Zia is a far-away, close-knit community hidden by high mesas and sage-dappled plains some 17 miles northwest of Bernalillo. It counts less than 1,000 inhabitants, all of whom seem related, if only distantly or by fate.
It is Pino’s home and it is her heart.
“I love it here,” she says.
But in early April, COVID-19 hit the pueblo hard, taking away her elders, her grandmas and grandpas.
“It was hurting,” she says. “We had deaths one day after another.”
To combat the virus, Zia closed the pueblo to visitors, restricting who could leave the pueblo – youths under age 18 like Pino are not allowed to leave at all – enacted curfews from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and prohibited all family gatherings and visits.
That included gatherings to mourn the deaths of loved ones. And that, she says, hurt the most.
“Here, when someone dies we gather together for two to four days, cooking, feeding, being together, a lot of people, as we send that person on their way,” she says. “It’s sending them home.”
Without the traditional gathering, it felt like her loved ones were not being allowed to go home.
She told that story in tears. But when they dried, she knew what she had to do.
“I don’t see youth taking a lead in my community,” she says. “But I felt it was time to stand up and make a difference.”
So she did.
Collaborating with Zia Pueblo leaders, the Native Health Initiative and Protect NM, she helped oversee the acquisition and distribution May 23 of more than 1,400 masks and a truckload of sanitation supplies for her community.
Pino then thought of another way to help her community, specifically the 212 children who live there.
“Many of the children don’t have many things to do, especially now in the summer and now during the pandemic,” she said. “I want to give them something to do and I want it to be something that helps them learn.”
She came up with the idea of creating care packages for each child that includes books, puzzles, crafts supplies and perhaps a toy or two. At $30 per child, she estimates she needs $6,390 to complete her project.
She applied for a grant through the Native Health Initiative’s Youth Leading the Way project. She got the grant – but only $300.
Still, she is not deterred.
“I’ve always made do before, and I will again,” she said. “If nothing else, I still plan to give out books.”
Books and education have always been important to her. Unlike some of the youths at the pueblo who are bused to Jemez Valley schools, Pino’s parents drive her to school at Bernalillo High, where next year she will be a senior. Neither of her parents went to college, but they both support Pino in her goal to go to the University of New Mexico just like her two older sisters, both who now work in the medical field.
“They believe college is really important,” she says. “Though I don’t think they always understand what I am up to.”
Pino says she hopes to attend medical school, possibly to become a pediatrician, but she says she’s leaving her medical field options open.
In the meantime, Pino says she plans to serve as a coordinator for Healers of Tomorrow for the next school year and hopes to inspire more Zia youths to consider medical careers, college and community service.
“I want to help the kids coming up,” she says. “I want to help them use their brains. I want them to have opportunities.”
The care packages, she thinks, will help. So she is looking for help to make those happen.
But there’s still the matter of the COVID-19 restrictions, which remain in place at Zia.
“I can’t go anywhere right now,” she says. “But I will.”
Of that, there is no doubt.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.