UNM doctor, writer dives into Rio Arriba for online literary journal

Dr. Ben Daitz

SANTA FE, N.M. — Dr. Ben Daitz, a professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, has written a beautiful and sad love letter to Rio Arriba County and the weekly newspaper that chronicles its history for Eclectica, one of the longest-running online magazines.

In the latest edition of the quarterly literary publication, Daitz describes first coming to Rio Arriba to help out at a Tierra Amarilla clinic when he was a young med school faculty member at UNM. The piece by Daitz, also a novelist, documentary filmmaker and contributor to the New York Times, is called “Rio Arriba Journal: A County, its Health, and its Newspaper.”

Daitz tells about a middle-of-the-night encounter with no less than Emilio Naranjo – the legendary Rio Arriba patrón whose various roles in the political life of the county included state senator, Democratic Party chairman, county manager and, when Daitz first met him, county sheriff.

Naranjo knocks on Daitz’s door about 1 a.m. and asks, “Did they tell you you’re also the medical examiner for the county?”, then proceeds to take Daitz on a two-hour ride descending through canyons to find a frozen-stiff, snow-covered man’s body “with a bullet hole right in the middle of his forehead.” Naranjo, with a chuckle, asks Daitz if the man is dead.

“I remember thinking I’d never seen anybody more dead – but I figured Sheriff Emilio Naranjo probably had,” Daitz writes. The next night, Naranjo hauled Daitz to the scene of a midnight bar shooting.

That’s the starting point for an essay on a huge county with “hard-working farmers, ranchers and tradespeople,” vintage low-riders and a host of problems that amount to “an infectious disease” for many patients “worn down by poverty, racism, depression and violence.”

“Northern New Mexico has remained a frontier – an isolated, beautiful, but hard land that seems visually and palpably unique. Historically, people who live on frontiers often endure poverty and stress; there tends to be more alcohol and drug use … and violence,” Daitz writes. He recalls treating a heroin abscess “square in the belly of a tattooed Virgin of Guadalupe on a patient’s forearm.”

It was by reading the award-winning, muckracking Rio Grande Sun that he came to know that incidents like those he encountered during his first two nights with Naranjo were routine and that, “for a rural community that I both loved and lived in, the Sun’s police blotter was a weekly study in social dysfunction.”

“I soon realized that I was reading about a pattern – the signs and symptoms of an endemic health problem, reported not by the medical community, nor the county and state governments, but by a community newspaper.”

Daitz praises the Sun for staying on the case, annually summarizing overdose deaths in detail and reporting on the mismanagement of rehab programs and “the lack of community leadership, vision and jobs, and the paucity of social support systems.”

Daitz believes “good community journalism provides an important cultural context, a social history of place and people, a backstory that can help in assessing a community’s health.”

And he notes that Rio Arriba is located next to the state’s most affluent county, Los Alamos, adding: “The fact that neighboring counties can have such great health disparities is further proof of the differences that race, income, education, and geography make – that your zip code may be as important as your genetic code.”

Check out the full article at eclectica.org.

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