BY MIKE COOK
Las Cruces Bulletin
LAS CRUCES – Las Esperanzas, Inc. (LEI) is celebrating its 20th anniversary of helping to protect, preserve and revitalize the history and culture of Las Cruces’ Mesquite Historic District (MHD), which includes much of the city’s original townsite.
“It’s not just houses,” said LEI President Dolores Archuleta, a former Las Cruces city councilor and current chair of the City of Las Cruces’ Veterans Wall Committee. She also represents LEI on the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership and the city’s Historic Preservation Ad Hoc Committee.
Since its founding in 1999, LEI has not only worked to restore and preserve historic adobes in the district, it has also led the rebirth of Klein Park and construction of the Jardin de Mesquite and Entrada del Sol “gateways” into the historic district. Members have worked with the city to develop a neighborhood plan, created the LEI community garden and helped to make infrastructure improvements to the district, including street lights and historic signage. They have also organized neighborhood cleanups and community health fares, participated in local celebrations and even conducted surveys to determine residents’ needs and concerns.
“The 20th anniversary of LEI is a major milestone for us,” Archuleta said.
A lot of credit for starting LEI goes to Consuelo “Connie” Lerma (1917-2004), who founded the nonprofit and recruited LEI members at Klein Park, “where she sat in front of a card table and talked to anyone who would listen about the problems in MHD,” Archuleta said in a written history of LEI. Lerma, who was recognized as Las Cruces’ citizen of the year in 2004, continued picking up trash in the district into her 80s, Archuleta said.
To honor preservation efforts, LEI awards memorial plaques to the owners of homes and other buildings in the district. The plaques were designed by Olivia Lerma McDonald (Connie’s daughter), who continues as an active LEI member. The design was “Inspired by an adobe home built in the early part of the last century by her grandfather, Jesús Ríos, on Tornillo Street,” according to LEI’s website. McDonald calls it her “virtual adobe,” since the medallion was designed on her computer.
LEI’s first plaque was unveiled at Klein Park and have since been awarded to dozens of property owners in the district, including the Sunshine Grocery and the historic Phillips Chapel. LEI members have also been active in assisting St. Genevieve’s Church in preserving San José Cemetery, which contains some of the city’s oldest gravesites (the earliest, according to LEI, was the burial of a 12-year-old girl on July 4, 1859), including those of the Martin Amador and Nestor Armijo families.
Drugs and gangs were two big problems in the district when the nonprofit LEI was formed, Archuleta said. LEI was instrumental in bringing the Weed and Seed (W&S) initiative to MHD. W&S is a U.S. Department of Justice program “developed to demonstrate an innovative and comprehensive approach to law enforcement and community revitalization,” according to www.ojjdp.gov.
Along with La Nueva Casita Café, LEI continues to co-sponsor an annual enchilada fundraiser to support W&S, which is headquartered on 906 N. Tornillo St. in MHD. The event raised $5,500 last November, which helped pay for winter clothing for W&S participants, Archuleta said.
LEI “does a lot for the community,” said LEI member and past president Freda Firefly Flores, who works part-time for W&S. Flores, Archuleta and McDonald have more than 50 years combined LEI membership.
Founding member Elizabeth Lannert and Sylvia Camunez were also prominent LEI leaders. Lannert was the first president of the nonprofit and Camunez was president “when they got a lot of the infrastructure completed through capital outlay money,” said MHD resident and Las Cruces arts activist Irene Oliver-Lewis.
La Nueva Casita Café co-owner Melissa Salazar is also a prominent LEI member Archuleta said. She and her father, Jaime, have supported the W&S enchilada supper, the annual Winterfest event and other events and activities in the historic district.
Archuleta was “born and raised a block from Klein Park,” at 329 E. May Ave., and she is still researching the history of her adobe home built in 1923 by her father, a Pueblo Tiwa Indian and graduate of Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
McDonald also was born in MHD. Her great-grandparents bought their first house in Las Cruces at Church Street and Lohman Avenue in 1881, she said.
Flores lives at 418 E. Amador Ave. in MHD. Her family records show that Magdaleno Baca Sr. established his homestead there when the original Piro-Manso-Tiwa Tribe settled the area in the early 1800s.
The city has taken over the LEI community garden at the corner of Spruce Street and San Pedro Avenue, Archuleta said, where two plots are given to W&S students annually, where Flores helps them plant and grow vegetables that they harvest.
The nonprofit continues to work on the tribal gateway that will be located at the south end of Amador Avenue, said Flores, who is lieutenant governor of the Piro Manso-Tiwa Indian tribe. (Mike – three gateways were planned and the tribal gateway is the 3rd.)
LEI adopted Klein Park eight years ago, McDonald said, and continues to sponsor the park’s participation in the Keep Las Cruces Beautiful program, and to work with children in the W&S program on local participation in the Toss No Mass and Great American Cleanup programs.
LEI meets at 5:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month (next meeting: March 7) in the fellowship hall at El Calvario Methodist Church, 300 N. Campo St. Everyone is welcome to attend, and to join LEI.
For more information, visit www.las-esperanzas.com.
Mike Cook may be contacted at email@example.com.