To the casual observer, La Plazita café might look like your average Albuquerque coffee shop—serving fair trade coffee, free Internet and your choice of old-school tunes from the record collection. Well, look again. The kid who just walked in the door? He was tagging his gang’s “turf” last year—today he’ll be selling one of those paintings on the wall. The barista who just handed you your latte—she looks a little tired? She was up until 3 a.m. cooking for a group of Hopi runners traveling 1,500 miles from Arizona to Mexico City to raise awareness of water crisis in the region.
Welcome to the latest installation of La Plazita Institute: a grassroots organization that uses Native American ceremony, art, dance, rap, agriculture and cups of coffee to pull Albuquerque’s youth off the street and into community. Chicano/Native activist Albino Garcia founded the Institute four years ago in the Armijo Neighborhood of the South Valley to help young people mend the scars of broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a broken link to their spiritual and cultural roots.
Garcia is no stranger to the streets—or the healing power of connecting to one's heritage. Growing up in Chicago, Garcia still remembers being shamed by a teacher at age 6 for his Mexican accent and background. He attended 16 schools and was kicked out of 12. At age 17, he was locked up for drug possession, breaking and entering, and assault. Inside, he was approached by an army recruiter and ended up in front of a judge who gave him a choice between prison and the military. He chose the military. He says they took off the handcuffs and gave him an ID—inscribed with the words “property of the U.S. Government.”
In his late 20s, after completing his fifth drug rehab program, Garcia attended a Native American ceremony, which led him to another in South Dakota where he met Lakota Chief Leonard Crow Dog, who encouraged him to explore his Native roots and heal his addictions through ceremony. This encounter, along with important relationships he developed with spiritual elders from his own Aztec and Apache heritage, set him on the path toward recovery. Today, Garcia is a Sundance Chief with ceremonial responsibilities in Arizona, South Dakota, New Mexico and parts of Mexico.
Garcia first made a name for himself in California, where he counseled youth, then trained counselors, teachers, school administrators and parents in innovative, controversial strategies for working with gang members. He trained school administrators to identify and hire adults student gang members could relate with—frequently custodians or cafeteria worker—rather than hiring staff based on academic degrees. His work won him awards, including a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship.
“I have multiple degrees,” he likes to tell people. “I went to the University of Hard Knocks and graduated at the top of my class. I got a Masters in Streetology, and a Ph.D. in Barrio-ology.” He keeps a list of seminars and trainings he’s produced—numbering more than a hundred—yet he never graduated from high school. He refers to himself as a nontraditional leader, yet he is at the same time a cultural traditionalist.
Garcia moved to Albuquerque eight years ago to be closer to family and the tribes with whom he has ceremonial responsibilities. Soon after, he began to do gang intervention work in the South Valley, which inspired him to found La Plazita, including a broader aim of creating a “virtual plaza” in the Armijo Neighborhood—a thriving, connected system of supportive organizations, schools and institutions that serve youth and the community as a whole.
Garcia set up office in an old warehouse off Isleta, which still serves as La Plazita's primary headquarters. Every Wednesday afternoon, Garcia or one of his staff joins a group of young people who call themselves “T-MAC: Thugs Making a Change.” They come from all across Albuquerque, and most have been involved in gangs, sometimes rival gangs. They sit in a circle and pass a talking stick, sharing the low and high points of their week. It's called a “low/high” session, and many of these kids have stories they can’t tell anywhere else. They can share those tales here because Garcia’s staff, like himself, are “BTDTs—been there, done that.”
When asked what he admires most about the kids he works with, Garcia nods toward sacks of potatoes, beans and rice stacked on the floor of his small office, asking, “What do you see here? Yes, food.” He launches into a story about the last T-MAC meeting. Two longtime members of the group broke down, confessing they had both gone back on the street the week before—not for drugs, or due to peer pressure—but to get food for themselves, their grandparents and, for one of the members, his small niece and nephew.
Garcia says his first response was anger. “I just wanted to smack them, and ask them, Why didn’t you call me first? But then I went over to them, and I couldn’t help it. I broke down too. I know how it feels to go hungry. I know that feeling of desperation.”
Word has spread about Garcia’s success with at-risk youth, and last spring semester, he was asked by then Principal—now APS Superintendent—Linda Sink to open an office at Albuquerque High School. In addition to this office, the café and headquarters, La Plazita has a rather unlikely "campus" at Sanchez Farm in the Armijo neighborhood. There, T-MAC members weed the soil and plant corn, squash, beans, tomatoes and herbs. Overlooking the farm, like a group of leafy grandmothers, stands a grove of cottonwood trees, a big stone for a picnic table and a fire circle. The cottonwood grove is a gathering place for T-MAC youth and community members. Sometimes “curanderos,” traditional healers, visit from across the continent or Aztec dancers come to perform.
Near the farm is Garcia's house, behind which sits a sweat lodge he built with willows from the Rio Grande and covered with a heavy set of blankets. Some of the T-MAC members, as well as youth transitioning out of prison, come to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies where they can test their strength by enduring intense rounds of heat in this ancient ritual of purification.
The creative energy behind La Plazita has sparked community pride and solidarity in this small corner of the South Valley—and nowhere is this more evident than at the café, which opened last year. The most publicly visible part of La Plazita, it is based within the South Valley Economic Development Center—an incubator for small local businesses. The café’s purpose is to raise funds and community support for the institute, create a venue for community dialogue and meetings, and enable T-MAC youth and South Valley community members to showcase their eclectic talents—from graffiti art to serene charcoal portraits; flamenco performances to break-dance face-offs.
The South Valley, says Garcia, is the perfect place to do his work, because kids out on the street are still seen as regular kids—not thugs. “We have our local cholos and cholas that still live in the ’hood, and we still wave at them. Some of them walk, some of them ride bikes. They’re our people. They’re our relations, you know.” He laughs as he describes the character of his adopted community. “Here in the South Valley,” he says, “we’re right on the edge of assertive and aggressive—that little space in the middle, it’s called passion.”