One day when Alexandra Romero was around three years old, she was at her grandparents’ Santa Fe home with her older cousins when they began to quarrel with her and locked her outside. The adults were occupied so no one noticed the little girl let herself out of the yard and wander down West Alameda on foot, with traffic speeding by. She had covered several blocks when she startled a couple of pedestrians, who asked if she was lost. “No,” she replied confidently, “I know where I’m going.”
Now 27, Romero laughs as she recounts that bit of family lore. She can’t recall her intended destination that night, and maybe she didn’t really have one. But she still projects the same self-possession and steely determination today, as a first-generation college student who is holding down a full-time job and juggling car payments and a mortgage.
Those qualities may be why she is rising towards prosperity in a state where very few people do. According to the Forum for Youth Investment’s Opportunity Index, a composite of factors that give young people the best chance for upward mobility, in 2019 New Mexico ranked dead last among U.S. states. And by all accounts the Covid-19 pandemic has only made things more difficult. Low paying jobs, the limited availability of affordable housing, and a fragmented social safety net mean many young New Mexicans have difficulty getting ahead. Romero’s tenuous successes, if anything, illustrate the adversities that turn so many others back.
Like about half the people living in New Mexico, Romero was born and raised in the state. A strong work-ethic ran in the family: Her dad was a prison warden, working his way up from a corrections officer on the graveyard shift, and her mom worked for her family’s trucking business, which moved all manner of freight, from bales of hay to railroad equipment. The business went under in the great recession but her grandfather still occasionally drives a semi, Romero said, even though he is well past 80. “He says the day his driver’s license gets taken away is going to be the worst day of his life.”
Romero attended Santa Fe High School, where she was an outgoing student and co-captain of the dance team. But things at home were falling apart: her parents went through an acrimonious divorce, and it fell to Romero to look after her little brother, who had epilepsy and a learning disability. She graduated from high school in 2011 but the stress of shuttling between her parents’ homes was overwhelming, and at 18 she asked to move in with her dad on the grounds of the Santa Fe Penitentiary. “I felt like I was at a crossroads,” she said. She struggled with the decision, which ruptured her relationship with her mom and brother. “I felt selfish for it,” she said. “I felt like I was choosing myself.”
She enrolled at Santa Fe Community College after high school with the ambition of completing a nursing degree but wasn’t earning good grades and in the middle of her second semester she dropped out. “Being that young and failing at something, I never planned to go back to nursing,” she said. Instead she got a job as a teller at First National Bank of Santa Fe, starting just above the minimum wage at $10.75 an hour.
Romero couldn’t support herself with just one job, particularly when at age 21 she decided to move out on her own. She wound up working several evenings a week at the Buffalo Thunder hotel and casino, which was better money but stretched some of her days to 18 hours when she had back-to-back shifts.
Those were particularly tough years for working New Mexicans, said Andrea Serrano, the executive director of the grassroots non-profit Olé. The state remained mired in recession, with an elevated unemployment rate, long after neighboring states had begun to recover. The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislature made tens of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts in 2013, resisting a proposal that Olé and other organizations had championed to use oil and gas revenue from the state’s $19 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to improve and expand early childhood education programs. “How is it that we can be such a ‘poor’ state yet sit on so much wealth?” Serrano said.
One unexpected benefit of Romero’s casino job was that she became friends with a soft-spoken doorman, David Espiricueta. An immigrant from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, his family had come to the United States when he was just a child. They began dating, and after a couple years began thinking of buying a home together.
They got help from the nonprofit organization Homewise, which helps working New Mexicans become homeowners. Santa Fe and Albuquerque lack affordable housing, said Homewise’s marketing director Robert Morlino. The organization helps families with down payments, and builds affordable mixed use developments to expand the housing stock.
Romero and Espiricueta fell in love with a property in a small neighborhood off Airport Road. As first-time homebuyers with income beneath a certain threshold, the couple was eligible for an $8,000 grant from their mortgage provider. And Espiricueta picked up a second job. With both of them working 60-hour weeks, they had little time for each other. “If there are two full-time incomes, you should be able to make ends meet,” said Romero, ruefully.
But they were grateful for their home. It was nicer than any place either of them had lived before. “I’m really proud that we have a place to bring our families,” she said, describing how when Espiricueta’s young nieces and nephews come over, they run riot through the place. In 2019 they were married, and in February of 2020, Espiricueta became a permanent legal resident.
Romero has managed all this with hard work and frugality, a contrast with some young people she served at the casino she saw spending money to go out every weekend. “They’re living in the moment,” she thought. She and her husband rarely went out, and they didn’t splurge on what some others viewed as essentials: for their first three years of home ownership, they lived without home internet service.
She also avoided some of the traps her peers fell into, she said, like those who spring for a Camaro or a new truck with nice rims, but accept loans with exorbitant terms and end up frittering away their income on interest payments. “People get suckered into that,” Romero said. She gets around in a Honda Accord, what her brother calls a “mom car” — but the mileage is so good she only fills its tanks once a month, and it requires little maintenance.
She learned that lesson from experience. Soon after the couple moved into their house in 2017, the water heater broke, and that same month one of their dogs got sick. Between the appliance repairs and the veterinary bill, they were out $3,000—and then Romero lost her job. In just three months, she maxxed out two credit cards trying to keep afloat, debts that more than three years later she is still paying off.
But unemployment turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Presbyterian Healthcare Services was opening a new campus in Santa Fe, and needed staff to fill entry-level jobs. The starting wage was $12 an hour, and working in healthcare revived her interest in the field. “I could finally see for myself that I could be passionate about nursing,” she said.
As a Patient Access Advocate in the emergency department, she checks in patients, verifies their demographic information and insurance coverage, and helps coordinate their care. Her wages have risen over the last three years to around $21 an hour. That’s well above Santa Fe’s current minimum wage of $11.80 an hour, which last ticked up in March 2019.
But even so, two full-time wage earners can’t afford a home in Santa Fe, she said. “At least one of us has to be working a second job to make ends meet.”
Only a significant pay increase would change their situation. So, in early 2019, she decided to go back to school to become a nurse, an occupation that is part of one of the state’s fastest growing industries.
Returning to school wasn’t easy. When she left Santa Fe Community College in 2011, she had not informed the registrar to drop her from the courses, so her transcript was marred with three Fs and her GPA barred her from financial aid. She said she had to jump through hoops to get back into good standing, submitting a written appeal and earning good grades for a probationary period.
Getting student loans wasn’t realistic, she said, because she was already carrying a mortgage, but her dad helped her with tuition her first semester as she regained her footing. And the price of Santa Fe Community College is just a fraction of the University of New Mexico’s, which makes it attractive for many New Mexicans. In 2019 more than half of students enrolled in post-secondary education in the state were at community colleges or two-year branches of the public universities, according to state data. Romero was eligible for a partial Pell grant, and received a couple of scholarships that are contingent on her maintaining good grades and attendance.
Now with classrooms shuttered by COVID-19, Romero is doing all the classes from home. For her lab in anatomy and physiology, she had to order a sheep brain to her home, delivered with a pack of surgical tools. “I’m really not looking forward to dissecting that on my dining room table,” she laughed.
Meanwhile Espiricueta juggled two jobs, installing windows and doors for a construction company, and tending bar at Del Charro, but the latter laid him off when the state closed restaurants and bars due to the pandemic. This put the couple’s finances in a precarious position again, and they started receiving notices for overdue mortgage and utility payments. But they reassessed their budget, cut back on meals out, and used their $1,200 federal stimulus checks to catch up on their home payments.
Romero’s schedule is arduous. Thursday through Saturday she works twelve-hour shifts in the emergency department, and Sunday through Wednesday she is a full-time student. But her goal is in sight: a nursing assistant certificate this year, and next year an associate’s degree. At that point she can begin the 2.5-year nursing program. She has a clear plan, “down to each class, each semester.” On completion, it will open up jobs that would double her income. “Once I get there, then my husband will be able to get back to school and accomplish the first degree in his family,” she added.
Santa Fe Community College plays an important role for strivers like Romero, said its president Becky Rowley. The degree-seeking students there tend to come from a lower socioeconomic background and see it as a route to greater prosperity. “That’s why they’re here,” she said. “They want to be able to have a different life.”
Romero is progressing, but maybe it shouldn’t be so hard. Advocates say that instead of leaving it up to individuals like her to beat the odds, the state can change the odds for all young working New Mexicans by addressing structural factors that are holding them back. “Far too often, where we live determines how we can expect to live, more than just about any other personal or individual factor,” said Delbria Walton, policy manager at the Forum for Youth Investment.
As state legislators convene in 2021 to chart New Mexico’s path forward, Serrano said they need to think differently about economic growth than they have in the past. “We can’t cut our way to prosperity. We can’t do it on the backs of working families.”
Although Romero managed to become a homeowner, many residents of the capital do not because there is simply not enough affordable housing. In October the median home price in Santa Fe topped half a million dollars. Michael Barrio, executive director of the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, says communities in New Mexico need to prioritize affordable housing in their budgets, including by setting aside resources in housing trust funds as done successfully in Portland, Oakland, Tucson and Boulder. “Policymakers simply need to act.”
Other advocates say that social safety net programs should be permanently expanded. For instance, the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by dropping administrative requirements in order to broaden the group of people eligible for public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance. According to Teague González, public benefits director at the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, this prevented tens of thousands of New Mexicans from falling into poverty — but its future is uncertain. “I would implore the federal government to extend the flexibilities that they’ve given states during COVID to make those flexibilities permanent,” she said.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of mandatory paid sick leave, and state lawmakers say they will introduce bills requiring that all employers provide a minimum amount to their workers. A 2019 report by advocacy organization New Mexico Voices For Children calculated that nearly half of the state’s private-sector workers were unable to accumulate paid sick leave.
Romero’s employer, Presbyterian Healthcare Services, allows workers to accrue paid time off. But facing budgetary pressure early in the pandemic, in lieu of furloughing employees it required Romero and colleagues to use 72 hours of their leave, draining or overdrawing their balances. Romero faces unique risks as a frontline health worker, too, and this makes her anxious. “Working in a hospital, you’re fearful to get sick but you’re more fearful to bring it home to your loved ones,” she said.
Still, this hasn’t deterred her from a career in healthcare — if anything, seeing its importance during the pandemic has strengthened her resolve — and she’s grateful for what she has. “I know people who work really hard day in and day out and barely scrape by, and they don’t have a beautiful yard or a beautiful house, and their car is always giving up on them. And so they’re working towards something but it’s a goal for them to achieve. What we’re working really hard for, we enjoy now. And I know that’s really lucky.”