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Turning N.M.’s weakness into strength

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sophocles, Euripides and Homer understood this well: That which makes one strong makes one weak. The corollary is also true: One’s weaknesses can be strengths.

So it is with New Mexico. We as a community understand we are impoverished, water-constrained, small, provincial and isolated, and we despair when those realities manifest themselves in poor school test scores, teen pregnancy, economic stagnation and violence. They also manifest themselves in some very positive ways.

Maybe a decade ago I was talking with a health care business consultant about his clients, which included most of New Mexico’s major health systems plus big and respected systems such as Cleveland Clinic, Lahey and Mayo. He said that some of the most impressive clients he had were in New Mexico.

You’re a poor state, he said. You have enormous distances. Your very diverse population, in terms of culture, ethnicity and economic status, is hard to treat in a way that results in consistent outcomes. At the same time, you have to compete for the same scarce pool of health care providers, you have to deliver the same national standards of care, you have to buy the same drugs and equipment from the same providers, and you have to raise the same capital as the Cleveland, Lahey and Mayo systems. And you do it.


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Scarcity makes your health care leaders and practitioners stronger, more flexible, more imaginative, more scrappy, he said.

Our weakness is our strength.

A state senator once told me that some senators would not support perfectly good legislation if certain other senators did because years earlier their families had some sort of a falling-out over heaven knows what – a schoolyard fight, an insult, a failed business deal. In such a small state, with such a strong sense of clan, tradition and history, those kinds of personal dynamics can keep good things from happening.

But consider how New Mexico handles crises. Some years ago, the state lost its medical malpractice and workers’ compensation underwriters. Without that insurance, doctors can’t practice and employers can’t hire. In short order, the handful of people who could solve the problem were assembled and found innovative solutions that relied on the cooperation of the public and private sectors, and of labor and management.

Small towns around our state overcome their poverty, isolation, provincialism and scarcity to keep their schools open, their community wells pumping, the electric cooperatives functioning, their acequias flowing and their volunteer fire departments staffed. In New Mexico, we step up.

If our weaknesses can be our strengths, then these things must be true about New Mexico: We are tough. We are resilient. We are innovative. We are imaginative. We care about one another and about our state. We can do so much with so little that we may one day be able to do anything with nothing. We find ways to come together to solve problems.

That we are letting the problems get the better of us lately appears to be because we’ve turned a strength – diversity – into a weakness.

New Mexicans have always prided ourselves on our diversity, by which we usually mean we live in a congenial stew of cultures. We enjoy enchiladas, Indian breads, collard greens, chicken-fried steak, pastrami sandwiches and pho. We love the marigold parade in the South Valley, Lunar New Year, the rodeo, summer nights on Civic Plaza, pueblo feast days and the New Mexico Philharmonic. We congratulate ourselves that at the fiesta you can’t tell the millionaire from the laborer.


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When it comes to diversity of opinion, value systems and outlook, we seem to have become somewhat less congenial. When New Mexico Voices for Children released the Annie E. Casey Foundation finding that New Mexico is the worst place in the country to be a child, there was no offer by our business community to join Voices in an effort to find solutions.

When we talk about taxes, one interest group or another explains why our economic lives depend on tax breaks while different interest groups fight to protect the revenue they or their constituencies have come to rely upon. A tax code that might work for all of us is not on the table.

Discussions about using our scarce resources, whether water or oil, often devolve into interest groups fighting for their agendas.

There are good ideas circulating in New Mexico. Many of those ideas never get beyond small circles of people who share interests, biases and suspicion of anyone who isn’t in the circle.

We need a venue where people we would never know or listen to can invade our own circle and shake us up, make us think, open our eyes to different realities. We need a place where the diversity we say we treasure can be put to work to improve our state.

We have plenty of leaders who define their jobs as defending circles of like-minded people and demonizing other circles. We need leaders who respect New Mexico enough to harness the diversity of our tough, resilient, innovative and imaginative people.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.