ESPANOLA – For Javier Sanchez, it felt like a punch to the gut.
He was watching Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s virtual news conference on Thursday when she was voicing concerns about New Mexicans not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing.
She named Española as an example, which she drove through en route to El Rito to make a speech for the Democratic National Convention from a solar array site.
“In traveling to northern New Mexico, I went through Española,” Lujan Grisham said. “I didn’t see a single mask, not one.”
She went on to say no one wore a mask outside grocery stores, gas stations, parking lots or even hanging from the rearview mirrors of cars.
“The only masks I saw were in the car I was in,” she said.
Sanchez, Española’s Republican mayor, was soon flooded with calls and texts from residents angry about the Democratic governor’s comments.
The mayor issued a highly-critical statement Friday condemning the governor for her comments, which he said exacerbated stereotypes of a city with a troubled reputation, prompting an apology from the governor.
“Like so many others, the Governor has chosen to stroll by Española and make blanket assumptions about our people,” Sanchez wrote. “Cherry picking anecdotal evidence to draw generalized conclusions makes a mockery of our beautiful city.”
Sanchez told the Journal the governor’s comments upset a community already facing many struggles, before and during the pandemic.
Over the years, Española has earned a reputation in New Mexico as a city with high rates of drug use, poverty and crime. Sanchez said those are real issues, but that Lujan Grisham’s comments aren’t helpful.
“This is an exact example of how stereotypes are drawn,” he said.
Chris Norris, an Española resident for 22 years, said he felt hurt by the governor’s comments. Speaking in the Walmart parking lot, he said businesses in the area are strictly enforcing masks on all residents.
“I don’t see one person without (a mask),” he said looking around. “She either wasn’t looking or she must have had a blindfold on.”
Norris said Española is often singled out for its faults, but that he doesn’t know why Lujan Grisham decided to comment on his city specifically.
“I wish I knew why. I guess it’s just an easy town to pick on,” he said.
Vangie Chavez, another Española resident, said people do wear masks, but she agrees with the governor that not enough people in the city are complying.
Sanchez doesn’t disagree.
“We’re no better or no worse than any other community,” he said.
In a written statement Friday afternoon, Lujan Grisham maintained she saw no masks, but apologized for singling out the city and its people.
“I saw what I saw, but what I saw was only a snapshot in time,” her statement read. “I regret that my words left the impression they did.”
Walking through his popular restaurant La Cocina on Friday, many locals thanked Sanchez for standing up for the city.
Among them was former Department of Health secretary Alex Valdez, who said those in the Española Valley do well at wearing masks, especially in public places like Walmart.
“I did not see one person not wearing a mask,” he said.