Santo Domingo Pueblo powers through crisis by turning to its people

·14 min read

May 23—SANTO DOMINGO PUEBLO — When Avram Pacheco went from house to house wearing a face covering and even at times a full-body protective suit during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, small children would recognize him through the disguise and sometimes hug his legs.

"Bus driver! Why aren't you at the Head Start?" he recalled them asking.

"I'm trying to get you guys connected so you can do your homework," he'd reply as he installed Wi-Fi in their homes.

A few months earlier, Pacheco had been driving kids to school and teaching them to tie their shoes.

When the pandemic hit and triggered the Santo Domingo Pueblo Tribal Council to enact a mandatory lockdown, Pacheco pivoted to volunteering with a food distribution effort and soon joined the information technology team that installed free Wi-Fi in nearly all of the 680 households in the pueblo.

It turns out the 25-year-old bus driver and father was also pursuing a master's in business administration with a concentration in management information systems. His knowledge allowed him to assist IT Director Frank White in establishing the pueblo's own internet service provider, procuring equipment, activating a new 150-foot Wi-Fi tower above the pueblo and installing antennas and routers in every home to connect kids with their online classrooms.

"He's our resident Batman," said Mario Garcia, director of the pueblo's Emergency Response Department. "He was hiding at the Head Start, and we didn't know he knew the things he knew."

Many people like Pacheco stepped up in the face of the pandemic, diving into unfamiliar roles to provide essential services for their people.

About 80 percent of adults in the pueblo are self-employed as jewelers, farmers, ranchers or bakers. Unable to leave their homes to sell their goods, they lost their means of income.

In the first weeks of the lockdown, tribal members young and old volunteered to help their community. When $14.7 million in federal CARES Act relief came to Santo Domingo in late April 2020, the pueblo was able to pay them for their labor and turn them onto much-needed infrastructure projects that had long lacked funding.

"I told everyone early on, 'If someone wants to work, hire them,' " Tribal Programs Administrator Herman Sanchez said. "There's so much work to be done, and we can utilize them. And we repurposed many, many people."

Those looking to help filled out IRS W-9 forms, allowing them to work as contractors, and were hired by the Emergency Response Department to tackle herculean tasks across the pueblo.

The workers delivered food and cleaning supplies to every home in the pueblo for 11 months.

They served as guards at checkpoints to provide 24/7 monitoring in an effort to keep the virus they'd seen ravage the Navajo Nation out of their village.

And when the internet was needed for telehealth for seniors and virtual learning for the 830 K-12 students in Santo Domingo, they installed Wi-Fi throughout the pueblo in just four months.

There was no script to follow during the effort. People learned on the fly, did what needed to be done and leaned on their culture of community to provide vital lifelines that kept the pueblo afloat.

"We had the perfect team at the right time," said Pacheco, now an IT support analyst for the pueblo. "Culturally, we all knew what was important. We all knew what was at stake — our kids, our livelihoods, everything."

Feeding a village

It seems everyone in Santo Domingo Pueblo has Mario Garcia's phone number.

When you prove yourself to be someone who delivers, you tend to get a lot of calls.

The former Marine was chosen to lead the pueblo's newly formed Emergency Response Department in April 2020 to handle what became an ever-growing list of tasks.

It's a high-stress job that requires performing a balancing act of moving parts, with the well-being of the community at stake. A misstep could result in people going hungry or a widespread outbreak of a deadly virus.

But Garcia's background prepared him to face the fire.

"Coming from the Marine Corps, I perform well in chaos," said Garcia, who's also been manager of the pueblo's emergency youth shelter, a farmer, a mechanic and a tribal official. "Those huge tasks, when people say there's something you'll never be able to do, those are the kinds of tasks I want. I perform best when my back's against the wall."

Garcia hand-picked a team of three people he trusted to join him in the department, and they led a small army of about 250 contract workers who did the heavy lifting.

On food distribution days, the workers would arrive at 5 a.m. at the repurposed Head Start building to unload five semitrailers of food; separate everything into boxes; load the boxes onto flatbed trucks; and fan out in five teams across the pueblo to leave the boxes on the doorsteps of multigenerational homes, where it's common to find eight to 10 people living under one roof.

Sanchez said the pueblo was spending around $150,000 for food every two weeks to feed the 5,000-plus tribal members, about 1,500 of whom live outside the pueblo.

The strict lockdown meant only absolute essential workers were allowed to leave their homes. While they were making their rounds walking the dirt roads, the food distribution workers would also perform wellness checks and report any concerns, keeping a particularly close eye on the elders who lived alone.

The workers were the only people some residents would see on a regular basis. A simple "Hello" and "How are you?" made a big difference to those who were isolated.

"It got to the point where it wasn't so much about the food; it was just the interaction. They were wanting that," Garcia said.

Rachel Samuel, an administrative supervisor on Garcia's team, helped coordinate the distributions. She said the residents expressed their gratitude through gifts like soda and popsicles in the summer, or by holding up "Thank you" signs as the workers passed by.

The offerings of food and beverages had to stop when cases began to climb.

Sanchez said the tribe had gone weeks without a single case. Then in late September, it was blindsided by 30 cases within one or two days.

November, December and January were the most terrifying months of the pandemic. "That's when everything caught up to us," Sanchez said.

The tribe bought 14 mobile homes to use as isolation units for people who tested positive. Those filled up quickly during the spike, so tribal members were sent to quarantine at Pojoaque Pueblo's Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder hotel and to facilities in Bernalillo and Albuquerque.

All 23 community members the pueblo has lost to COVID-19 died in that three-month span, when fear of infection was rising among those who were keeping essential services running.

"We were starting to break down emotionally," said Samuel, who has juggled raising four kids while working long hours with emergency response. "We all had our hard days, but we got right back up and did what we had to do."

The pueblo regained control of the virus's spread in February and has rarely had more than one or two active cases at a time over the past few months. Throughout the pandemic, there have been just over 400 cases there.

With 81 percent of eligible tribal members vaccinated, they hope to be clear of another outbreak. The lockdown has been gradually easing, and now residents are able to leave the pueblo on weekdays to do essential shopping because money for the villagewide food distribution ran out in March.

When tribal leaders see how COVID-19 has ravaged other pueblos and Native American nations, they feel justified in their decision to enact the strict lockdown that has kept the virus at bay through the majority of the pandemic.

"I do believe that what we did saved lives, many lives," Sanchez said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't save 23 lives, but I truly believe that number could have been in the triple digits had we not done what we did."

Connecting the community

The strict lockdown would have been more difficult had it not been for an extraordinary feat by the pueblo's makeshift IT department.

The village has long been a black hole for the internet, with $150 to $300-plus plans from satellite internet providers out of reach for the large majority of residents, most of whom live at or below the poverty line.

Tribal officials estimate that prior to the pandemic, less than 10 percent of households had access to the web.

Cell service is also notoriously spotty.

Sanchez said students would commonly drive or get a ride up a hill east of the main village to pick up a signal so they could do their homework.

Enter Frank White, a resourceful tech wizard from Zuni Pueblo who came on as Santo Domingo's IT director in August 2019.

At that time, his responsibilities mostly dealt with the tribe's administrative offices. When the pandemic hit, he was asked by tribal leaders to figure out a way to provide Wi-Fi to the entire pueblo.

It was a massive undertaking, but he believed he could do it.

"I did tell them it was going to take about two or three years just to get everybody connected, and they said, 'OK, well, you have four months,' " White said with a laugh.

And so began a mad rush to get all the households with children connected to the internet by Aug. 10, 2020, the beginning of the first week of online classes for the school year.

Pacheco joined White's IT crew, which began working to acquire antennas and routers to install in every household. They soon found the stands required to mount the antennas atop homes were more money than they were willing to pay, so White decided they would make their own.

White built a prototype and purchased enough metal from Albuquerque to replicate it hundreds of times over. He then brought in six of the pueblo contract workers and showed them how he wanted them to cut, weld and bolt the stands.

The assembly line churned out 800 stands at a cost of about $40 apiece. Stands on Amazon were selling for around $100.

At the same time, a group of 20 young people, ages 17 to 26, got a crash course from White, learning to program and install the antennas and routers in the households. They averaged about 20 to 30 installations per day.

The teams missed their Aug. 10 deadline by just eight days.

For all but one week of the school year, most Santo Domingo children have had the opportunity to connect to their online classes either through Chromebooks the pueblo bought for every household or on school-issued laptops.

Adrian Calabaza, 28, was one of the six workers on the antenna stand fabrication crew. He's taken a liking to metalwork and thinks he'll continue to pursue it in the future.

In the meantime, when he drives through town and sees stands he helped build on every roof, he feels a sense of pride in the role he played for his people.

"It actually is pretty crazy to know that you gave all of this to everybody," Calabaza said. "I don't know how I would describe that feeling other than 'amazing,' but that doesn't do it justice.

"To get to see everybody have internet, to get it to the whole entire pueblo, I never would have thought I would be here working on this," he added.

The IT team also worked on the installation of a new 150-foot Wi-Fi tower on the hill above the main village to help increase the network speed. The free internet delivered to the households runs about 6 megabits per second — fast enough for basic web use and videoconferencing services like Zoom.

White said the pueblo hopes to eventually offer paid plans at higher speeds through its own ISP to generate a source of revenue and provide more affordable internet for the community.

A brighter future

Despite its horrors, the pandemic has created opportunities and circumstances that have turned around the life of Joe Aguilar.

Aguilar, 31, was out of work and struggling with drug addiction before he contracted the coronavirus in the summer. After a brief hospital stay due to low oxygen levels, the gregarious character nicknamed "Pickles" had the chance to contemplate the course of his future when he was in isolation and recovering from the disease.

"Quarantine helped me to rethink myself," Aguilar said. "That's not the way I should be living. That's not what people want from me.

"I feel sorry, I apologize for all that," he said. "I made my mistakes, but I'm reconnecting myself to living the right way."

Aguilar has found purpose and routine by providing aid to his people.

After he left quarantine, he joined the food distribution effort upon the recommendation of his cousin, Jerric Aguilar, 19, a Santa Fe Indian School graduate. The pair later were among a handful of contract workers selected to join a construction crew that was starting on a new initiative to rebuild 160 traditional adobe homes in the pueblo's historic village.

The homes, some centuries old, have been in desperate need of repair since being badly damaged by a severe hailstorm in 2010 and a 2013 flood. Federal CARES Act money and state funding allowed the pueblo to begin the project in the winter.

The cousins are working with Arrowhead Construction, a firm that uses traditional techniques to rebuild adobe homes. Now on their third rebuild, they've learned to do everything from forming and laying the adobe bricks to completing the framing, setting the vigas and making the traditional dirt floors.

Joe Aguilar said he appreciates having a stable job, but the value of the work goes beyond making money. He feels a connection with his ancestors when his hands are covered in mud and he's building homes as they did, he said. And he's humbled to contribute to his community, which he felt he had let down in the past.

"It's a blessing," he said. "I'm proud to be from this pueblo and to help my people.

"And it helps me with a lot of the stuff that goes through my mind to where I'm not going back to the bad and just looking at the good," he added.

The tribe, too, has done all it can to make the best of a bad situation under a Tribal Council that showed flexibility and took advantage of opportunities to address long- and short-term needs.

Lt. Gov. Herman Tenorio said the pueblo spent every penny of the $14.7 million in CARES Act funding it received last year, with some of the last dollars going to pay for feed for ranchers' livestock and cords of firewood to heat homes in the winter.

Of course, it was the W-9 contract workers who distributed both.

Lasting projects, like Wi-Fi coverage for the entire pueblo, likely would have never happened so fast under any other circumstances.

There's pride among the Pueblo people in what they have been able to achieve during the challenging times. But it's coupled with a frustration in the fact that it's taken so long to receive this level of support.

"It's sad we had to have a pandemic to get federal funding monies to these tribes across the nation when the federal government agreed a long time ago with our forefathers that they'll take care of the Native Americans," Tenorio said. "It had to take a pandemic for them to realize that the need is still out there.

"I'm happy everybody got help across the nation," he said. "I'd just like to see more of that from the federal level, to continue to look after Native American people."

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