Podcast Episode 3: Colonial dispossession and heroin use in northern New Mexico

In the 3rd episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Angela Garcia on the endless dispossession, inequality, and heroin use etched in the history and memory of northern New Mexico. Professor Garcia’s avant-garde scholarship combines apparently isolated moments of intimacy, addiction, care and abuse to shed light on the impacts of a colonial past that is eating up the landscape inside.


SP: Your research ethnography tells a very intimate story about love, care, bond and kinship among heroin addicts in northern new Mexico. There are several contradictory elements of life that you share in great depth: for example, I was struck by how drug addiction was an emotional obligation towards family; any release from it was only possible through it; and in another instance, hope for life was encountered in near death experiences. In the context of your fieldwork, at what point did it become important to interweave stories about care and love with addiction and abuse?

AG: Thank you for that question. It became apparent to me early on in my fieldwork that one of the key undercurrents to addiction was love. What I encountered in the field is that this is a region where family bonds are so central to everyday life—to both economic, and cultural and linguistic relationships. When heroin entered into the realm of the family it was absorbed into the sorts of intimate bonds that already existed within families. Rather than being something that tore families apart I saw heroin and addiction (the experience of addiction) as solidifying certain kinds of dependencies that were not just dependencies in terms of a physical dependency that addiction necessitates or incurs but actually the kind of emotional dependencies that existed between parents and their children, specifically between mothers and daughters. Rather than imagining those dependencies as inherently negative or something that should be unraveled as a typical discourse in addiction medicine, I saw them as something that implied and was built on a kind of a deeper sense of longing and connectedness that had long existed (in this region); well before drugs became endemic in the region. In a way what I was encountering was how drugs and addiction became conduits of deep relationality and deep sense of care and sense of responsibility that existed within families, particularly from an intergenerational perspective. So, caring for each other, caring for addicted kin, using drugs with each other became a gesture of love and care—a way of expressing a kind of ethical commitment to the other and I think that is a very different perspective from the standard idea that drugs ‘break’ these ethical bonds, and bonds between parents and children, But in fact they strengthened them. Now, whether they strengthened them in a way that was healthy is something that I would go on to query but I felt very strongly and had a very clear sense that the bonds that were enabled through addiction were bonds of emotional, physiological, historical and ethical connectedness. I sort to understand those more deeply for my fieldwork.

SP: Thank you for that, I think your work radically upturned my understanding of emotional wellbeing and drug use. So, in your research, institutions come to play a major role in creating a biomedical discourse about alcohol and drug addiction. Could you share a little about the clinical language of addiction? In the process, if you could also explain why was it preferred over seeing substance abuse as embedded in history of dispossession, inequality, and violence in the Espanola valley?

AG: Yes, thank you. Well, the clinical language that surrounds substance abuse or what is now referred to as a ‘substance abuse disorder’ back in the day one would just call it addiction, but the language is continually changing. The standard way in which it is imagine and described in the setting of medicine is that addiction is a ‘chronic relapsing brain disorder.’ The language of chronicity was something that I latched onto in the field because one of the tropes people used when talking about their experiences is of loss—of land loss; of loss of language; of loss of economic security; also most importantly, the loss of loved ones to addiction was the language of the chronic, this sort of endlessness of what was often described in Spanish as sin fin, without end. So, I began looking at the overlay in the intersection of language of biomedicine and the notion of addiction as being chronic and relapsing with the very deeply entrenched experience of long-term loss, and how those intersected in a way that exacerbated a lot of the experiences and perceptions of a kind of endless form of dispossession.

When I speak of dispossession here I am speaking about not only the dispossession of oneself through the experience of being high, and through experiences that addiction enables but also the dispossession of land and culture. There is a deep connection between those two experiences of dispossession that the long history or what one might call the chronic history of land and livelihood was deeply embedded in the drug narrative and when people would talk to me about their experiences of drug use and loss, losses incurred through drug use, they often talked about their family homes, the land that their family had lost over generations and those narratives were in many ways seamless, (without)discussing drug use more explicitly. So, there were two forms of dispossession—dispossession of oneself and what I describe as a desire of kind of escape from reality and memory which drugs enable with the deeply entrenched embodied memory of land loss. I was interested in how those two things were embedded and entwined in the lives of the people I worked with, my interlocutors but also in the way they talked about not only drugs but also their family life, their history, and communities. And there was no way for me to tease out the idea of a chronic ‘disorder’ of addiction from the chronic disorder of continual dispossession of land. To me they were deeply entwined. So, lot of the stories that are in my book really demonstrate I think the embeddedness of these two forms of loss, of the phenomenon of land loss and the phenomenon of losses that are incurred through the use of heroin.

SP: Thank you, this gives us a geographical context of the region you were focusing on. You mentioned chronicity and you have spoken about experiences of drug overdose and chronicity in you work, which also made me think about the methodology. You have shown how these lives were in an endless loop, which was much like the geographic and economic landscape that they were inhabiting. Field ethnography and bearing evidence too, in many ways, has a vocation for spilling over expectations or what the researcher initially set out to study. I really wanted to learn from you if this understanding of overdose or excess then shape your methodological approach in the field?

AG: That’s so well put. I went into the field thinking that I was going to study addiction and strictly speaking, I was going to study the experience of overdose. I should say that that was not initially my project in graduate school, I had intended to work on something very different. But when I was in graduate school, I would get phone calls from my family and friends back home in New Mexico because I am from that region on which I worked and I would hear stories about relatives and friends, people I went to school with who had overdosed. So, I am in graduate school preparing to do an entirely different project and yet I am called back continuously to New Mexico through these interruptions, which were these phone calls. I realized that I needed to change course, I needed to go home and understand what was happening. When I returned to New Mexico, which was a place I was very eager to leave when I was a child but when I returned as an adult, as a graduate student working on my PhD project, I initially went in simply trying to understand the phenomenon of heroin overdose in the region, which is one of the worst in the United States but it’s often overlooked in conversations about drug addiction in the US. I went to try to understand this and began working in a drug detox clinic. My vision was quite focused. But as I began to really listen to people and as I spent time back to what was really my own land I was overcome with this memory and knowledge of the histories of loss; the histories of colonialism; the histories of land dispossession that saturate the landscape. I realized that I really had to open my lens to incorporate the broader geopolitical landscape, to incorporate the very terrain upon which the heroin overdose crisis was taking place.

When I started to look at the land what I really saw is its scars. Both scars in the sense of recognition of certain sites of loss. Land grants had been taken away or some area in the landscapes were memorials to people who had died of overdose. I began to connect these sites, these signs, the broader terrain of heroin use and overdose itself. So, really what you have described as this excess—from the moment that I began receiving calls in graduate school to the moment I returned to New Mexico and began driving around and spending time with people and their memories, there was this overflow of affect in a way. I realized that in some way I needed to engage with that. The way I engaged with that was not only in the field with the kind of my method of fieldwork which remained very close to my interlocutors, to spend time with them, to participate in their care, to listen to their stories, to travel with them to the clinic where they received care and sometimes to the prison where they had family members were incarcerated. I was constantly driving people around, driving around the landscape of loss, I was listening to their stories. It was an overwhelming experience. It took me considerable amount of time to digest it in a way I digested it and then to understand it was through the process of writing about it. So, writing itself became instrumental in terms of the methodological tool for me.

My nights were spent working in a detox clinic; I worked the graveyard shift. My days were spent trying to make sense of what I had encountered in the night. So, my days in a sense had turned upside down: I worked at night, and I wrote during the day, and I slept very little. So, there was this sense of excess, this sense of overflow throughout my entire experience in the field and throughout my experience of writing the book. I basically decided early on that I am going to let this project in a way take over my life for a period of years and indeed it did. It became in a sense my life. It’s a little bit difficult to talk about because when now I reflect on it, I realise that it was before I returned to new Mexico to do the actual research. This was the place where I grew up and these narratives were not unfamiliar to me. I had a deep knowledge of addiction before I went home. But my anthropological lens, the tools that I brought back with me to the field or returned home with enabled me to see things in a way that I couldn’t see as a child or without the toolkit that I brought with me into the field and part of that tool kit was to simply sit with patience and hear stories that were overwhelming. To sit with them and spend time with them and to ruminate over them and to write them over and over and over again. There was an excess to that experience that I think can be sort of surmised or felt by the reader—some people have described to me a feeling of being overwhelmed when they have read my book. They have been overwhelmed by the sadness and despair that exists. I think that is a true reflection on not only how I was perceiving the experience but also the way in which the experience of land loss and loss related to overdose exists in this particular region, and I wanted very much my work to reflect that. And that required the willingness to be overcome myself.

It’s a remarkable experience to do research on home, and I think that kind of work is poorly understood. I am writing a new book now where I am much more explicit about what it is to work at home and with memory. I was a little bit more cautious at The Pastoral Clinic when engaging with some of these concerns in part because it was my first work, which was emerging out of my dissertation. I feel a sense of freedom right now to engage with some of these ideas fully and with more transparency. The pastoral clinic was my way of dipping my feet into this project with the willingness to be overcome by something which we both want to know and understand and yet accept that there will always be something in excess of our understanding in part for me because I was not using drugs. So, there was fundamentally some kind of experience that I could not enter into and yet I felt that the knowledge that there was something fundamentally that I could never understand was also sort of indicative of something about the human experience in relationality that I also wanted to work with. My hope is that the book gestures through all of these issues in a way that first and foremost puts the narratives of my interlocutors, brings them to the fore and makes them central to the project.

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