Not long ago, Dion, my former neighbor in the northern New Mexico village of Velarde, died of a drug overdose. He was 2 years old. Traces of antihistamines, alcohol, cocaine and opiates were found in his small body. Early newspaper reports suggested that Dion had come down with the flu and that his parents may have "treated" him with the drugs they knew best. His death was officially labeled a homicide, and his parents were charged with first-degree felony child abuse.
People in town were outraged, saddened and ashamed. But no one was surprised. Everyone knew about the area's drug epidemic. The small, tight-knit communities of the Espanola Valley have long been celebrated for their beauty, their folk art and their traditional way of life. But in recent years, media attention has focused on the valley's other distinction: It has the highest per-capita rate of heroin-related deaths in the United States.
The weekly local newspaper, the Rio Grande Sun, regularly attests to the crisis. Every Thursday when the paper comes out, retired Latino men gather to read it at a coffee shop and discuss the news, which usually means talk of death, crime and other fallout from drug abuse.
Lately, the paper has again been filled with news of Dion's death. In May, his parents struck a plea bargain and received three years' probation. A lot of people in the valley felt the punishment was far too lenient. Editorials and letters to the editor of the Sun expressed frustration over the inability of local government to control the addiction problem, and anger at Dion's parents, particularly his mother, whose roots run deep in the Espanola Valley -- and in the region's drug problem. The two are related in this part of New Mexico, as many locals consider the region's struggles with addiction as stemming in part from its history of land loss, which reaches back to the colonial era and continues today.
I lived in the Espanola Valley as an anthropologist studying addiction. Although Dion's parents fit the profile of my research perfectly (young, marginally employed Latinos addicted to heroin for most of their lives), I never interviewed them or made them part of my research. They were neighbors. In the three years that we lived beside each other, we maintained a respectful distance. I didn't ask about the steady flow of people dropping by their house day and night, and they kept their visitors from bothering me.
Early on in my research, I considered talking to them about their addiction. Dion hadn't been born, but they had a 7-year-old son. When the fights between his parents reached an uncontrollable pitch, he would run out of their house and take refuge in a small shed bordering my property. As part of my research, I also worked at the region's only drug clinic, assisting patients at night as they went through heroin detox. I thought my neighbors might benefit from rehab.
Of course, they were already familiar with the clinic; everyone in town was. And I soon realized its services were deeply inadequate. Like so many recovery programs, particularly in poor, rural America, the clinic was underfunded, and its medical personnel did constant battle with the for-profit management company that ran the place. Turnover was high as staff members, many of whom were only recently out of rehab themselves, relapsed or were fired. The clinic was as unstable as the patients it served.
I left the valley when my research was completed in 2007, more than a year before Dion's death. I learned of the tragedy from the online edition of the Sun, which I still read each week from my home in Los Angeles.
On a return visit to my old village, a neighbor told me about the day Dion overdosed. She described the flurry of activity along our shared dirt road, the speeding cars and indecipherable cries. She had assumed it was just another drug deal gone bad and so had stayed inside her trailer with her young son, curtains drawn.
After the conversation, I drove to the village cemetery. The small mound of dirt marking Dion's grave was covered with small toys, handmade crosses and plastic figurines of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and superheroes. There were also handwritten notes from his mother, anchored on the grave with heavy stones. Among her promises to her son was this: "I will be joining you soon."
The notes seemed to me more than just a mother's remorse -- the writings of an addict with a foreboding of her own dark future. According to clinical studies, between 70% and 90% of addicts who try to quit relapse.
Standing beside Dion's grave, I questioned my respectful distance during those years that I was his family's neighbor. What if I, and the entire village, had not adhered to a code of live-and-let-live ethics? What if we had intervened? What form would such an intervention have taken?