Representative Candie Sweetser joined Kris Gomez of Western Sky Community Care on a tour of the renovated Columbus Health & Wellness Community Complex. Highlights included the new weight rooms, video conferencing rooms available for telegraphy appointments and the community garden.
Mayor Ezequiel Salas led the tour, outlining plans from phase 1, which included the completion of offices, classrooms and workout rooms, through to the phase 4 anticipated construction of a new commercial kitchen.
Representative Candie Sweetser gave a donation in support of the overall mission of the program. Western Sky donated $1500 of supplies to support the gym, game room and planned movie nights. Purchases included yoga mats, tables, weights and a popcorn machine.
The Health and Wellness Community Complex hosts many activities for the residents of Columbus. For a full class and activity schedule, please go to the HWCC at 100 E North Boundary (old elementary school)or contact Beatrice at (575)494-7056.
Columbus, NM – Yesterday, Rep. Candie Sweetser (D-Deming) and Western Sky Community Care visited the recently-opened Health and Wellness Community Complex in Columbus, to deliver generous donations that will help build out the services and activities offered to local residents at the new facility. Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas also joined for the celebratory event, where attendees and members of the media got an exclusive look at the new Complex.
Rep. Sweetser provided a $1,500 check to the Complex for use in development of an attached community garden, where local residents will be able farm organic produce for use in meal prep programs and potentially a future farmer’s market. Meanwhile, Western Sky furnished supplies for the facility’s game room and upcoming community movie night events.
The Complex, which opened with a soft launch last month, features cardio and weight lifting equipment, and fitness classes including yoga, tai-chi, and Zumba. It also offers a number of services tailored to its border town residents, including GED, ESL, and citizenship classes, as well as tutoring and monthly health programs such as diabetes treatment with meal prep and glucose screenings. More offerings will become available as the facility adds more equipment and resources.
“Nothing is more important to me than ensuring the health and wellbeing of my constituents, so I’m proud to support this wonderful new facility in Columbus,” said Rep. Sweetser. “The Health and Wellness Community Complex will be a gym, education and healthcare facility, social hub, and so much more all in one convenient location. I can’t wait to see it continue to develop and serve our rural community for years to come.”
“Western Sky Community Care believes in the mission of the Health and Wellness Community Complex in Columbus to offer education, entertainment, and a safe environment. We are pleased to support that endeavor by donating supplies and equipment for their game room and movie nights,” said Western Sky President and CEO Jean Wilms. “We enthusiastically partner with local organizations that provide secure havens for the youth in our communities,”
“Since 2018, the goal of this administration has been to bring a higher level of health and wellbeing to Columbus residents. We are accomplishing this with the Columbus Health and Wellness Community Complex, its community garden and surrounding trails, and big plans to also add an indoor aquatic center and affordable housing on-site,” said Mayor Salas. “We know this center will bring many life changing benefits to our community members of all ages.”
The Luna County Community and Economic Development office is launching an effort to get residents to officially take and record the speed of their internet service from home, school and work. Dubbed “Need for Speed” the program is meant to help bring grant funds to expand and improve Luna County internet service, enhance digital equity and inclusion, and support digital literacy for all residents.
Luna County hopes to receive grant funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which provided $65billion for broadband deployment and affordability. Additional funds from the State of New Mexico will be released for a pilot program that Luna County has targeted as the their 1st effort to kick-start an economic development goal of improving connectivity to even the hardest to connect residents in the county.
“This is an all hands on deck effort for Luna County” stated Chris Brice, County Manager. “It’s easy for everyone to pitch in and help us qualify for grant funds. People can take the test and a special map created by the state will record their speed. No personal information will be saved for any other purpose than mapping speeds in the county. Residents are encouraged to test at different times of the day because speeds usually vary based on home and business usage. “We need help to map out speed in every corner of the county,” concluded Brice.
The County held a listening session last May where over 50 residents came to share their stories about slow or no service. Another 20 people joined the listening session remote from the Columbus Library. County officials heard residents’ stories about trying to work from home, and students falling behind due to connectivity. Those personal stories will help Luna County garner financial support. Officials are seeking letters for grant applications, will be conducting surveys to quantify how many residents have no service and using information to qualify for funds.
The county wants to hear from people with no internet service as well. Residents are encouraged to call 575-567-3791 and leave a message stating they have no service available. County residents that lack service due to financial constraints may be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program and can speak to a real person by calling 877-384-2575.
Columbus, NM, shocked by COVID early on, adapts for new normal
Story and Photos by Reyes Mata III as part of the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.
Ninety-one miles of melted snow and runoff from mountain ranges of Northern New Mexico, the small river flows through the Southern New Mexican desert, going underground beneath Deming, then Columbus, and surfacing again in the sparkling lakes of Puerto Palomas de Villa, a small tourist town of about 4,600 just across the border.
That’s the story of Columbus and Palomas, too: generations of unfettered connectivity binding the two communities above the ground and the Mimbres binding them beneath it. Many in Columbus have family homes in Palomas, and most people in Columbus frequent the less expensive shops and services available in their town’s Mexican counterpart.
For generations, Mexican families in Palomas, mindful of future opportunities for their children, have come to Columbus to give birth, then return to Palomas with their American newborns to live a Mexican life. When these youngsters are ready for school, Columbus school buses retrieve them at the border, obliging their legal right for public education in this country.
“The border is an imaginary line in Columbus. It’s a gray area,” said Norma Gomez, a lifelong resident and an official for the local chamber of commerce.
When the news of the COVID-19 pandemic reached the village, it was viewed as a threat too distant to be alarming, and too abstract to distract residents from the welcomed stability of the small town. Some residents waved it off as a peculiar big-city affliction.
“People were saying it can’t happen here because we are just a small town. They were saying that it only happens in large communities,” said Ezequiel Salas, the current mayor of Columbus. “Then a few people died, and more people were getting sick, and a lot of people were getting seriously ill.” Salas himself caught COVID and battled 106-degree fevers.
Soon the reality of the strange new disease set in, consuming the small town.
“It was painful and horrible,” said Mario “Mars” Darby, as he rested against the handlebars of the mountain bike he had been riding down an unpaved Columbus road. “My girlfriend, her mom and damn near all of my friends got COVID. Everybody was talking at first about how nobody was getting COVID and everybody was okay, and how we were isolated. But then there were large outbreaks and then people started dying.”
But even as the changes sunk in, some things stayed the same, he said.
“People never stopped having large parties,” he said. “We’re social animals. What are we supposed to do? Self-quarantine is rough on humans.”
Like much of the country, Columbus had those who were hesitant to believe that COVID was real, and saw no need to get vaccinated. In Luna County, where Columbus sits, 88.5 percent of people are fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the 71 percent of New Mexicans throughout the state and considerably higher than the national average of 67 percent . According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the zip code including Columbus had a 9 percent “hesitance rate,” based on how many people stated they would not take a COVID vaccine.
Columbus resident Maria Rutiaga lost her mother, Olga Rutiaga, to COVID last November. “She had just turned 76,” Rutiaga remembered. “She did not have her shot. You know how old ladies are. She did not want to get her shot. She would say, ‘No, you don’t know what they’re going to inject you with.’”
Then her mother, who was generally healthy, began losing her appetite. The close-knit Rutiaga family was concerned, but the last thing on their minds was COVID. “She didn’t have any other symptoms. We thought she was having a stroke or something. She was not having problems breathing or anything,” said Rutiaga. They took her to El Paso, about two hours away, where she was diagnosed with COVID.
The family labored over what to do, and finally made the difficult decision to leave her in the hospital. For two weeks they waited for her to recover. But her medical problems compounded each day, and her oxygen level withered.
“After 13 days they told us they had to disconnect her,” said Rutiaga. “It was terrible.”
So far, 21.8 percent of Columbus residents – 409 out of 1,873 – have gotten COVID, according to the U.S. Census and New Mexico Department of Health numbers. That’s lower than the surrounding county, where 28 percent of residents have become infected, and the state, where 25 percent of people have.
Tracking COVID deaths in small communities like Columbus is more difficult. Those numbers are only available at the state and county level, New Mexico Department of Health Communications Manager Katy Diffendorfer stated in an email. Luna County has recorded 129 deaths as of May 9, and New Mexico has recorded 7,596 deaths as of May 12, according to a database maintained by the New York Times.
Columbus is a particularly hard place to track deaths, due to its close relationship with Palomas. “A lot of them we don’t know about,” Salas said. “They went to Palomas when they got sick,” and their deaths remain uncounted.
His best estimate is about eight deaths, but he warned that was just a guess.
Cesar Sanchez, an employee of the Columbus Public Works who oversees cemetery burials, agreed that COVID deaths are probably undercounted in the town.
“Most of the people that did die, they took them to Mexico,” he said. “I think only one or two people were buried here because of COVID. But the rest of the people went to Mexico.”
“This is one of those rare communities where our economy went up because of COVID,” said Gomez of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. “We had a lot of people on unemployment and people here don’t usually get but $100 or $150 dollars on unemployment a week. And with those extra $300, and then in the summertime when it was $600, people made more money this year than they have in other years when they were working. It’s crazy.”
An SNMJC analysis of New Mexico’s population shows that one in four New Mexicans live in small communities like Columbus, with less than 50,000 residents. The federal government recognizes 100 of these small communities in New Mexico, and they all shared $63 million in relief, according to an October 2021 report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee.
New Mexico has received about $22 billion in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, as well as New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee officials and documents.
Salas said the town tried to make the most of the federal assistance they received, tapping into grants and paid staff to create a culture of “outdoor activity” to help prevent the spread of COVID.
“We are building trails around town, and we’re trying to just get people outside,” he said. “We worked on our parks so people could go out to our parks. We have built a lot of sidewalks here in our little plaza, we’ve done a lot of landscaping.”
The town is also investing in broadband infrastructure to connect its residents with the internet, and provide them access to government meetings. But for some – the older residents and those unfamiliar with internet technology – Columbus is still a digital desert.
“Sure we have the internet. But we don’t know how to use it,” said Ruben Orozco with a hearty laugh. He sat on a park bench in the Columbus placita with his friends Gilberto Lujan and Juaquin Torres. All three men were older, “past their 60s,” and said they received most of their information from Spanish-language television news. Orozco, who said he caught COVID early in the pandemic, quarantined for 15 days and never developed serious symptoms. They visit Palomas frequently, and all said they were fully vaccinated. They also repeated a sentiment heard often in the small town: “There’s no way I’d go to the hospital if I was sick. That’s where they kill you,” said Torres. “Well, that’s how it is in Mexico and I would say that is how it is here.
Deming High School students, Jared Trevizo and Victoria Chacon, were invited to speak at a Broadband and Technology panel at the New Mexico Rural Summit in Santa Fe on Friday, May 13.
The students represented the future of film as Grand Prize, Judges Choice winners of the Film Prize Junior New Mexico competition. The students won for their documentary, Estela en el Mar, about students who cross from Palomas, Mexico to attend school in Deming each day.
The Film Prize Foundation partnered with The Stagecoach Foundation to launch the inaugural contest this year in support of the burgeoning New Mexico film industry. The program teaches narrative storytelling, technical skills, film production and entrepreneurship.
On Tuesday, May 17 at 5:30 pm, join the community meeting to make your voice heard on key issues surrounding connectivity (or lack thereof) in Columbus, Deming and the surrounding rural regions. The meeting is sponsored by the New Mexico Public Schools Facility Authority in support of broadband initiatives throughout the state.
The meeting will take place at the Learning Center at 2150 E. Pine in Deming with a simultaneous video feed available at the Columbus Village Library. Attendance is open to all community members.
$26 billion in federal aid stabilized NM economies. What now?
This story was reported by Reyes Mata III as part of the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.
It’s been more than two years since COVID-19 sent shock waves through New Mexico and the country, crippling the economy and sparking an unprecedented federal rescue.
“The pandemic brought a U.S. recession almost as deep as the Great Recession of the 1930s,” said David Abbey, director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, which advises the state Legislature on fiscal and public policy matters. “The view was that the states and businesses and individuals did not have the wherewithal to keep going.”
In Southern New Mexico, the pandemic threatened residents’ health, stole family and co-workers and destabilized and ended people’s employment. In interviews and listening sessions with the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of news organizations across the region, residents report continuing impacts, including long-term mental, financial and health issues.
Aided by an unexpected windfall from New Mexico’s surging oil market and an unspent $1.06 billion from its COVID recovery fund, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham approved a $1 billion annual budget expansion in March, including investments intended to stabilize the state’s economy in the event of future crises.
But in Southern New Mexico, questions remain about how much the region will ultimately get, and whether it will meet the needs the pandemic has left in its wake.
The Origins and Impacts of COVID Emergency Funding
It was March 15, 2020, when the United States began powering down. Governors declared a state of emergency, schools, bars and restaurants closed their doors and millions of people retreated into their homes.
March 2020: Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which totalled $2 billion in spending
March 2020: Families First Coronavirus Response Act, $331.3 million in spending
March 2020: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $14 billion in spending
April 2020: Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, $11.8 billion in spending
December 2020: Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, $42.5 billion in spending
March 2021: American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Act, $80.8 billion in spending
Nationally, $1.8 trillion went to individuals and $1.7 trillion to businesses, according to a March 11 New York Times analysis. The analysis also showed that $482 billion went to healthcare needs and $288 billion to other areas affected by the pandemic, like higher education and agriculture.
States and local municipalities received $745 billion in total. Between March 2020 and April 2022, New Mexico received $26.1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee.
“The whole concept of this pandemic relief was that the recession was so severe that the government, businesses and individual finances would collapse without this relief,” Abbey said.
When federal money began arriving in New Mexico, officials said three principles guided its distribution: replenishing state coffers to ensure essential government services continued, providing direct support to residents and investing in state infrastructure.
State records show that the top five allocations for New Mexico’s federal COVID relief funding were:
$5.5 billion for direct stimulus payments mailed to New Mexicans
$3.7 billion for support of New Mexico businesses
$3.5 billion for additional unemployment benefits
$3 billion for discretionary state spending
$1.6 billion for K-12 education needs
The state’s unemployment insurance fund got about $656 million, according to a New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee report, as did rental assistance, Paycheck Protection Program loans, Medicaid costs and FEMA support, among others.
“Federal funding has made dozens of critical investment in Southern New Mexico possible, including, for example, $50 million for a new hospital that is likely to go to Valencia County and nearly $3 million distributed to New Mexico chile growers and producers,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for the governor’s office, in an email. The governor’s office also pointed to the Law Enforcement Recruitment and Retention Program, the Homeless Housing Fund and the Recreational Facility Fund, all of which received funding and benefit Southern New Mexico.
Tribal nations in New Mexico received a total of $2.2 billion. Three tribes are located in Southern New Mexico: the Ft. Sill Apache Tribe in Luna County, which is not listed as having received COVID funds, the Mescalero Apache Tribe in Otero County, and the Navajo Nation in Socorro County.
Evolution of Funding
Initially, the federal money that came into New Mexico went toward “buying masks and paying for vaccines and very targeted healthcare relief,” Abbey said, and then toward shoring up state budgets.
According to state documents for the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the 33 county governments in New Mexico shared $407 million, and the five city governments with populations over 50,000 – Albuquerque, Farmington, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe – shared $177 million. Federal data indicates that the New Mexico state government received $1.7 billion.
Now the focus is on investments that will help in future crises. Throughout the past several legislative sessions, an extra $2 billion has been pieced together for the New Mexico treasury – a surplus generated from leftover ARPA funds and the windfall from the state’s strong oil and gas market.
“Rather than have that money sit in Santa Fe in the bank, the Legislature chose to allocate it out over the next couple of years for major kinds of investment projects,” said Charles Sallee, deputy director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, which oversees New Mexico’s budget development. “This is to strengthen our economy coming out of COVID,” he explained, including “big investments in transportation, big investments in a variety of economic development activities, and venture capital.”
$60 million for a New Mexico Department of Health Veterans’ Home in Truth or Consequences
$30.3 million for statewide drought mitigation projects
$25 million for investments in Interstate 10 and Interstate 40
$20 million for statewide rest areas
$20 million for the Santa Teresa Airport in Doña Ana County
$20 million for statewide broadband infrastructure and cyber security
$10 million for the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority in Roosevelt County
$9.5 million for the Columbus Port of Entry
$3.4 million for Gardner Dam in Doña Ana County
$5 million for the New Mexico State University department of public health
$5 million for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture
Underfunding in Southern NM?
The billions of COVID dollars pumping into the state revived the long-standing suspicion in Southern New Mexico that the more affluent northern part of the state benefited more.
“Historically, (funding) always rolls out to Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” said State Rep. Doreen Gallegos, a Democrat who represents about 30,000 residents of Doña Ana County. “When resources are doled out, it tends to go exactly that way.”
She said the old fiscal habits reappeared, and that Southern New Mexico was left with limited options for even basic pandemic response.
“It was hard to get resources down to Southern New Mexico,” she said. “As legislators, we really had to demand that we would get (COVID) tests down here, that we would get vaccines…We definitely raised hell.”
Abbey, the director of the Legislative Finance Committee, said in general, New Mexico got more money than it might have otherwise, because of “small state minimums” set by the federal government. Some federal funding pockets were specifically meant for communities like those in Southern New Mexico.
“Those targeted poverty, whether it’s food stamps or housing, and Southern New Mexico, having a relatively high population in poverty, received more federal aid than other states. So in general we did well,” he said.
More than half of New Mexicans – about 1.5 million – live in the northern half of the state, according to the latest census. The southernmost 13 counties of the state have a population of about 617,000 – about 41 percent of New Mexico’s population. The southern region is also poorer, less educated and with more Spanish-speakers than the north, according to census data.
Gerardo Suarez, a 62-year-old resident of Las Cruces, calls Southern New Mexico “a place in the same state but with a different reality.” It is often not the priority, he said.
“It is closer to the border so we see things differently. Our lives are not the same as people around the bigger places like Albuquerque,” said Suarez.
An analysis by the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative found that the southern 13 county governments received a total of $117.1 million in federal ARPA funds, while the more populous northern counties received $289.57 million.
Challenges for Immigrant Communities
Gabriel Holguin, a city representative for the Southern New Mexico community of Anthony, is skeptical that small communities in Southern New Mexico have what they need. That’s particularly true, he said, because of the high number of immigrants in communities like his in the southern part of the state.
“The state has focused on the population that can vote. And people running for office only focus on citizens so that they can get elected,” he said. “But when it comes to having a need, that is everybody.”
More than 85 percent of Anthony’s residents are Spanish speakers, and about 61 percent of its 8,600 residents are not U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Census.
A county-by-county analysis of census data by the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative shows that 12.7 percent of Southern New Mexico residents are immigrants, compared with 7.8 percent in Northern New Mexico.
A pool of $10 million dollars of state and federal COVID relief was originally slated to provide assistance to immigrants in New Mexico, among other things. The governor vetoed that provision, and instead the Legislature passed a bill in April that reserves $10 million to “provide assistance to low-income state residents,” according to officials from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee.
In a 2020 special session, the New Mexico legislature also set aside $5 million for “people not getting any other stimulus checks,” including immigrants.
When asked about the funding policies in place for fair allotment of funds, including for non-citizens, Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, stated that “federal pandemic-related relief funds were distributed to communities and families throughout New Mexico with a focus on delivering funds equitably and efficiently to every area of the state” and pointed to federal restrictions on how funds could be distributed.
Looking to the Future
As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes towards its third year, the federal government’s fiscal gears are cooling. The clamor of panic has subsided. Vaccines, natural immunity, and an economy breathing on its own once again have brought a new version of normalcy to American and New Mexican life.
With ambitious investments throughout the state in infrastructure, mental health, broadband and schools, and a new $8.72 billion dollar budget approved – the largest in the state’s history – the economic outlook appears to be improving, officials said.
But the trauma of the global pandemic endures. Nearly a million people have died of COVID in the United States, including more than 7,500 New Mexicans as of May 2.
A few weeks ago, Olivia Aguilar, a resident of Deming, stood out on the wooden front porch of her trailer home, behind a chain link fence, still observing six feet of social distance.
When asked how well the government had responded to the pandemic crisis, she thought for a long moment.
“We went through a lot with COVID,” she said. “I lost a lot of friends to COVID. I lost my nephew to COVID. A lot of people lost their jobs during the pandemic.The government helped with rent when people couldn’t work; they gave stimulus checks for food. And it helped people survive. I think that’s a good thing.”
Have something you want the Southern NM Journalism Collaborative to cover? Contact Reyes Mata III at .
Nominations are being accepted through May 27, 2022.
Nominations of up to three businesses per category are accepted at one submission per person.
The top businesses will then compete for the “Best of the Kingdom of the Sun” awards during the voting portion.
This campaign gives local businesses an opportunity to be recognized for their hard work in Luna County. Open voting will begin June 6th, and the final well-deserving winners will be announced at the DLC Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting on Friday, June 24, 2022, held at D.H. Lescombes Winery and Tasting Room Deming.
Follow the Chamber’s Facebook page for updates and cheer on your favorites! Any questions can be directed to the DLC Chamber of Commerce at 575-567-3928.
Did you taste that? Lemonade Day Luna partners D.H. Lescombes Winery and Tasting Room, Deming-Luna Economic Development and Copper Kettle Coffee recently arranged a colorful experimental mixing workshop for young participants of Lemonade Day brought to the area by the Deming-Luna County Chamber of Commerce.
Muddlers, juicers, blenders and enthusiasm were abound during the free workshop which provided youngsters with flavorful fruits, herbs, sugars and syrups. Some concoctions made the children pucker, while others were poured into a large gray tub for disposal and some were the perfect combination to enter the Lemonade Day Best Tasting Contest!
The tasting event will be held at Deming First, 601 S. Gold Avenue in Deming on May 11th at 6:30pm. Participants should email Debbie Troyer at for instructions, while others are welcome to come out and play a little basketball with friends, jump in the bounce house provided by D1 or visit with Lemmy Lemonade.
Judges will be searching for the Best Tasting, Most Creative and Best Overall Lemonade winners. Prizes will be awarded to the top winners!
Lemonade Day is a fun, experiential program that teaches youth how to start, own and operate their very own business – a lemonade stand. The money they make will be theirs to keep. They are encouraged to spend some, save some, and share some with a charity of their choice.
Each year, in participating cities, youth have the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship by setting up their business during their city’s community-wide Lemonade Day, which will be held Saturday, May 21, 2022 in Luna County.
On this day Troyer asks the community to go out and buy lemonade from these young business owners. “Drink up Deming, this experience will affect our children for a lifetime”, Troyer likes to say.
Lemmy and a Terraza’s limo full of partners and sponsors, will be cruising around on Lemonade Day tasting, and judging our young entrepreneur’s lemonade stands. Troyer wants you to know, that you too can follow the route by visiting the stand locations map at https://lemonadeday.org/deming-luna/stands-map . Keep in mind, some stands may not have been branded on the map, so keep your eyes wide and look for hidden lemonade stands just about anywhere!
Lemonade Day was started in Houston, Texas in 2007 as a 501(c)3 by entrepreneur and philanthropist, Michael Holthouse. Since then, it has expanded to more than 81 programs throughout North America, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. The average profit for participating children last year was $224, however many children in high customer traffic areas throughout their cities make much more – many even over $1,000 on that one day.
Deming and Albuquerque are the only two New Mexico Lemonade locations to date.
For more information on Lemonade Day, go to lemonadeday.org/deming-luna and follow them on Facebook at Lemonade Day Luna, or phone the Chamber at 575-567-3928.