Given his dark past, it’s a miracle by itself that Albino Garcia is alive. But it’s mind-boggling that because of his own experiences, he’s helping thousands of troubled youths and adults turn their own lives around.
Garcia, of Mexican and Apache descent, is executive director of La Plazita, a community-based organization based in Albuquerque’s Hispanic south side. Every day, he and his staff engage the community through a wide variety of outreach activities – from assisting people as they navigate local services, to teaching people how to farm, and even nurturing their spiritual development.
The holistic healing that’s happening as La Plazita reflects the healing that Garcia himself experienced; once upon a time he pulled himself out of the same deep hole that a lot of his clients battle now.
Albino Garcia, founder and executive director of La Plazita, pictured near a historic irrigation ditch at one of his organization’s community farms.
Garcia’s family was from northern New Mexico, but he grew up on the streets of Chicago. There, he descended into a life of alcohol abuse, drugs and gang violence. A couple of influences showed him that there could be another way. There was a stint with the Army in Korea, and he was young when he met Frances, the woman who became his wife. But the pull of the low life was so strong that he couldn’t clean up. Even as his kids were small, he was in and out of jails and drug rehab programs. Ultimately, the lifeline that delivered Garcia to a better way was not a job, his children or even true love. It was his long-forgotten identity as a Native American.
Garcia had just finished his fifth go-round in a drug rehabilitation program when he met a guy playing basketball who invited him to a sweat. Not admitting that he’d never done it before, Garcia accepted the invitation and went. He remembers feeling clueless, but following the others’ lead as he stripped down to his underwear and tried to play it cool in the searing heat. After the first round, he was convinced that the other participants were trying to mess with him, to test his toughness. He resolved to stick it out.
“After the next round, I was pretty pitiful,” Garcia said. “The sweat leader opened up the flap, and I was pissed. I thought, ‘I’m going to make it through this, but I’m going to kick somebody’s ass when we get out of here.’”
But something else was happening. The songs and the chants were ringing a deep, familiar bell for Garcia. And finally, the sweat leader addressed him, as the new guy, asking where he was from.
“Usually when hard guys ask you where you’re from, it means what gang are you from,” he says. “I looked around; I didn’t think these guys were talking like that. He said, ‘Who’s your people?’ I said, ‘my people?’”
Finally, realization dawned: “I always said Mexican or Chicano. That was the imposed identity that was given to me when I was growing up. But I said, ‘I think I’m Apache. That’s what my mom and aunties always say.’ In that sweat lodge, at that moment, in all that heat, I got goosebumps. That man introduced me to these other men as an Apache Indian. That began a new journey in my life.”
Soon afterwards, Garcia began working to help others combat drug and alcohol dependency and offering alternatives to people in gangs. Reconnection to culture and its attendant spirituality was one of his main tools. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship, and he traveled all over the world for three years, meeting people like the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter and ceremonial practitioners from the Amazon, Peru, Africa and other nations. Later, closer to home, he embarked on a spiritual journey that included the Sun Dance and the Eagle Dance. He’s a sun dancer even today.
At first, his healing included an attitude of penance, but that eventually fell away.
“I became one who doesn’t live with baggage on my back. I just became one who doesn’t make those same mistakes again. I just move on,” he said. “Today we use all those teachings and many more to work with our people.”
Garcia established La Plazita in 2004, and it has grown to include a humble but vibrant collection of buildings on a commercial lot in the predominantly Hispanic south Albuquerque. There is a sweat lodge, pottery studio, and a collection of staff offices as well as the residence of Garcia’s son, also named Albino, who is a spiritual healer. Working from that hub, Garcia and his small staff coordinate surprisingly expansive programs for the community, with the help of a long list of sponsors and partner agencies in and out of the city.
Commonly, juveniles who show up to weed the farms and greenhouses at La Plazita show up wearing ankle monitors required by the courts.
The centerpiece is a system of urban farms, where farm managers may be assisted on any day by inmates at an adult or juvenile detention facility, school kids on a field trip, volunteers, or interns from programs like FoodCorps or Americorps Vista. Any of these people benefit from learning about the farms or trying their hand at it, but Garcia especially loves the change it brings for the inmates.
“The last time I was incarcerated, I couldn’t give my babies even a little teeny present for the holidays, a jacket or a pair of shoes,” he remembers. “Today when I work with these men in the jail, I want to give them a little dignity. They can learn that a seed can grow into real tomatoes, a zucchini. We can then take that food to their families’ homes, even when they’re incarcerated. The respect and dignity they get, knowing that something they created, they nourished, can go into the mouths of their children. You know what kind of medicine that is for a man, whose shame is that he can’t provide for his family?”
Garcia has been in talks with the county to partner with the jails and get even more inmates out to the farms, on a regular basis. He’s ready:
“We have 17 pieces of property right now and hundreds of empty lots, just in my own neighborhood. Can you imagine an army of farmers with jumpsuits on, putting food in their own families’ mouths? I can.”
La Plazita also coordinates a Community Supported Agriculture program, so that community members can buy shares and receive weekly deliveries of produce from the farms. Partner organizations from around the community have helped subsidize some of the shares, so people who normally couldn’t afford fresh, organic produce get it for just a few dollars a week. The farms themselves have recently started generating enough extra income that La Plazita can pay the salaries of two full-time farm workers, and still help fund some of the organization’s other programs.
One office in the staff building at La Plazita houses Tomás Martinez and Alma Olivas, who work as navigators for people who need help securing things like housing, education, food stamps, medical or vocational assistance. Martinez says 95 percent of the people he helps are ex-convicts, and that’s partly because he can relate to their experiences.
“I grew up a mile from here,” he says. “This is where I did my drug use, my drug dealing, my gang banging, everything negative that put me here. Now I do my positive work here.”
Olivas pointed out that they aren’t particular about who they serve.
“Anybody who comes here and needs our help, we help,” she says. “We’re not here to turn anybody away.”
Garcia’s son and namesake, who they call Junior, is an anchor for the group’s spirituality. He’s a healer in the Lakota tradition, and like Olivas, he doesn’t limit himself to ex-convicts or recovering addicts. Naturally, many such people do find themselves in his sweat lodge when they get out of prison or treatment. But he also performs healing ceremonies to help people recover from a litany of physical conditions like heart trouble and even cancers. Often, he says, when these people return to their medical doctors, the healing proves baffling.
Healing is the current that flows through all of La Plazita’s ventures.
Even for juvenile detention inmates who are typically there as a consequence for poor behavior, “We do not make this a condemnation,” said farm manager Jeff Warren. “We try to ask for their help. I don’t tell them, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We work for an organization that isn’t set up to punish people. We work for an organization that’s set up to heal.”
La Plazita student worker Verland Coker, Muskogee Creek, and navigator/outreach coordinator Tomás Martinez apply glaze to pottery that students have otherwise completed, before putting it in the kiln for them.