Being proactive in the community is the basis of civic engagement and a functioning democracy. That’s why Las Cruces residents and District 3 city councilor Gabe Vasquez gathered for a town hall at Lynn Middle School.
Vasquez, who was elected last November, held the first of what he said is a series of meetings to address community issues. He invited newly-hired police chief Patrick Gallagher and Las Cruces police officers to speak about public safety, which Vasquez said was one of his district’s biggest concerns during his campaign.
“There’s been a lot of property crime, some violent crime, burglaries, and a lot of it unfortunately has happened in this part of this district,” Vasquez said. “And so when I was thinking about what should I do for my first community meeting, it was a no brainer to me as we have to address these immediate concerns that people have and it gives us an opportunity to bring out our new police chief so he can meet the residents of this district who are in my opinion probably being disproportionately impacted by some of these crime issues here.”
Being a good steward to the community is Kat Sanchez’s goal. She and her partner live in the district with their four children. Sanchez said she attended the forum because public safety is a top priority for her as a parent and district member.
“It’s important for us to take responsibility because we’re part of the community,” Sanchez said. “It’s not just one person’s responsibility. It’s not the government’s, it’s not just the police officers’, it’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Thousands of women nationwide participated in January marches for the second year in a row. Sanchez, who works for the women’s organization Young Women United, said she and her family protested as part of their civic duty. She said getting involved matters because it’s easy to complain, it’s more difficult to take action.
“As a female, as a Latina, a Chicana, it’s also our responsibility to run for these elections,” Sanchez said. “If we want to make sure there’s diversity in the city government, if we want to make sure there’s diversity at every level, we need to make sure that we’re a part of that and we’ve got to be visible and we’ve got to go out there and run for office as well.”
Civic engagement isn’t limited to attending public meetings. It’s about interacting with the community, and that’s the aim of the Branigan Cultural Center’s new exhibit, "What’s Your Las Cruces?" The museum wants to hear more stories from residents about the city’s history, culture and identity.
The center is asking people to share their family photographs and objects to add to the display and post on social media. Curator Norma Hartell has sectioned the exhibit into five stations that showcase important people, places and items of the Mesilla Valley.
“We have some protest posters that we are hanging up so we encourage people to maybe bring their own posters or pictures of community activism that they have done,” Hartell said. “We have also five different objects in our objects section. That includes a dress, a military jacket, a metate, a bracelet and that’s just to encourage people to tell their story of objects that they may have of Las Cruces.”
Community participation is key to growing the exhibit. Hartell said the museum wants to preserve the stories of people living in the Mesquite historic district to Mesilla. She said heritage is important and when people bring in objects like the metate, a mortar and pestle, it tells a more complete story of the region.
“It’s symbolic to a lot of Latino communities because that’s where you grind your corn and essentially for my family that’s where you would make your tortillas from,” Hartell said.
One of the museum’s visitors is Stevie Paz. Paz is a native of Las Cruces and said art has been a fixture in her life since she was a child.
“So I’m Mexican, I was raised here in Las Cruces and a lot of it is mostly religious art,” Paz said. “So my grandmother had fixtures of the Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary all throughout the house, statues, everything like that so I grew up pretty normalized to those types of religious art.”
Paz works at NM CAFé, a faith-based community activist group. She said she was drawn to the display’s political theme.
“What sticks out about it is my coworker Johana Bencomo is featured in the activism piece of the exhibit and I think it portrays a lot of women that are getting involved in activism, politics, especially in the climate that we’re in and it’s important for women of color to have that voice and to have opinions about what’s going on and to be able to express that,” Paz said.
For Vasquez, civic engagement includes following up on the pledges he made to residents during his campaign and listening to their concerns.
“That’s what keeps people engaged because once they don’t believe or have trust in their elected officials, they become more reluctant to engage because they believe that their voice doesn’t matter,” Vasquez said.
Meetings like this allow voices to be heard. Some hope more people will also be heard at the ballot box. Women’s marches this year used the theme “Power to the Polls,” with a goal of registering one million new voters.
"What's Your Las Cruces?" will be open through mid-March at the Branigan Cultural Center at 501 N. Main Street. Admission is free. More information is available at museums.las-cruces.org or by calling 575-541-2154.