The century-old National Parks Service has enlisted some strong young arms to continue the fight to preserve New Mexico’s historic legacy from the ravages of time.
Thanks to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HOPE Crew program, a team of high school and college students has spent the summer learning new skills to help stabilize the stone walls of the San Gregorio Mission at Abó.
San Gregorio is one of three sites in the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The missions were built by the Spanish in the 1620s near the present-day town of Mountainair but drought, disease and Apache raids led to their abandonment by the mid-1670s. Although the structures are ruined, the walls that still stand attract many visitors each year.
Several members of the team are students at Mountainair High School, many of whom have cultural ties to the sites they are preserving.
Crew member Daniel Sisneros is a descendant of the family that built some of the residential structures and his grandparents still occupy a home on Monument land near the church.
The work is hard, and you can’t be afraid to get dirty. The stucco and soil mortar for the church walls has to be mixed by hand, bucket by bucket to avoid drying too quickly.
Mudding involves slinging handfuls of squishy red mud on the walls and repeatedly smearing it in by hand. Crew members’ T-shirts, jeans and boots are caked with dirt.
To keep the walls from deteriorating, the mortar between the stones must be renewed, or repointed, every five to seven years. The work is time-consuming and requires skill.
Since early June, the HOPE Crew of 15 young men has repointed the walls of the mission church at Abó and by early August they were re-mudding walls of a former residential structure at the site. This year’s crew is all young men but the program is open to women.
Crew members report for work each day at the Salinas Monument headquarters in Mountainair and a Park Service van takes them to the site.
Hard work pays off
The hard slog has the potential for a big payoff. HOPE stands for “hands-on preservation experience,” a national program that connects young people seeking jobs with National Trust projects where they can learn preservation skills from experienced craftspeople and gain the opportunity to follow a career path.
“Many people are retiring and leaving the workforce, taking with them the skills they’ve developed over years,” said Monica Rhodes, associate director for the HOPE Crew program. “We created this program to help bridge that gap between those who have the skills and are leaving the workforce and those who are looking for an opportunity to get into a field.”
Since its inception in early 2014, the HOPE Crew program has trained 350 young people and completed 73 historic preservation programs nationwide.
The National Park Service hired local youth to work at the Salinas Monument each summer since about 2005 through federal programs that have been replaced, said Marc LeFrancois, Salinas Monument’s acting superintendent.
HOPE Crew members at Salinas are now hired through the federal Pathways program, started in 2010, which offers paid internships for students to work in federal agencies.
The application process to be accepted into the Pathways program is more competitive than the previous programs, LeFrancois said, but it gives young people 16 years and older an opportunity for a federal career. As long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA and stay in school, they remain Pathways employees and they can return to project work each year until they graduate from college.
“The whole idea of the program is to generate a workforce from the youth that can become the next leaders in the Park Service,” said LeFrancois.
That’s especially important for young people from small towns in remote rural areas.
“This project is not just about preserving ruins,” LeFrancois said. “It’s about preserving the community.”
Patrick Romero from Mountainair, who is supervising the crew, started as a summer employee and was hired as a permanent National Park Service employee.
Crew member Garrett Green, a student at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, found out about the Salinas project on the Pathways website, usajobs.gov/StudentsAndGrads. He hopes to get a job in the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service.