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Courtesy Photo from the LOR Foundation Web Site Maria Gonzalez

Representando Al Norte: Maria Gonzalez

Being raised in a community where your history connects to every part of your present, it’s difficult to find the courage to leave. It is similarly difficult to forge a path and stay.

Questa del Rio News is committed to highlighting different members of our community, both those who have created their paths and planted their own roots in the community that raised them, and also those who have pursued lives outside of the community — through our Representando series. This series is dedicated to those who are Representando al Norte in various facets of life.

For our December issue, we spoke with Maria Gonzalez.

Maria graduated from Questa High School in 1999. Initially, she went to Las Vegas, Nevada with her brother to attend the University of Las Vegas there. Finding herself at odds with her older brother, she felt it was necessary to go out and forge a path for herself, leading her to a move to Maui.

“We went to Hawaii on our senior trip and I made friends there who I kept in touch with so when Las Vegas didn’t work out for me, I went back to Maui and lived in Lahaina,” Maria says.

She worked two jobs at the famous Lahaina Fish Company and at Maui’s Swiss Café while preparing to start school at the University of Hawaii. When she was admitted to school, she found herself homesick around the holidays, so she realized it was time to return back to Questa.

Coming home, Maria’s vision to attend college didn’t waiver and she enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Taos. This was right around the time she started dating her now husband, Jason Gonzalez.
“I decided to stay in Questa for a bit longer, since Jason and I were getting serious,” she recalls. In February of 2001, she found out she was pregnant with her oldest daughter, Anastacia. “She was born on 9/11/2001 but thankfully, she was born at 1:30 in the morning, so she entered the world before the towers collapsed, I am glad because it was before all that bad juju was in the air,” she says.

After a long night of bonding with and caring for her new baby, Maria recalls waking up to screaming in the Midwifery. “It was about 7 or so in the morning and Jason and I were sleeping and all the screaming woke us up. We freaked out and asked the midwives what was going on and they turned on the TV and we realized what had happened.”

Within hours of their first child being brought into the world, Jason, who was in the National Guard at the time, had to report to active duty at the armory in Taos. “It was such a traumatic time for our new little family. While we were overjoyed at just bringing new life into the world, we were devastated because we missed out on bonding time.”

Thankfully, Maria found support from her mom and sister who lived in Questa. Just when she had gotten the hang of being a mom, Maria found out she was pregnant with her second daughter. She gave birth to Aracelli in 2003. With two babies under two, Maria and Jason were planning a big Catholic wedding when they got news in December of 2003 that Jason would be deployed overseas to the Operation Iraqi Freedom war.

“It was such a hard time for us as a family. We were working with Father Doug to get our classes taken care of to ensure we could be married before he left. Because this was an extenuating circumstance, the archdiocese gave us permission to proceed without completing all of our classes. We planned a wedding in four days! Father’s joke was “you are the only family I know who receives four sacraments in one day: Confession, Baptism (Araceli), Holy Eucharist, and Marriage.” Our families worked together and threw us a potluck for our wedding. It was a crazy time, but we made it work,” she said.

While Jason was deployed, Maria continued to take care of their daughters while working part-time at his family-owned gas station. “Jason would call maybe once a week and it was always in the middle of the night because of the time change. His unit was hit with an improvised explosive device (IED) and the first thing he did was call me to tell me he was alive.”

After 18 months being deployed in active combat, Jason returned home to his daughters, who were 2 ½ and 4 years old.

Upon his return to Questa, Maria was able to find a job with Community Against Violence (CAV) in Taos, where she worked as a Shelter Advocate. She had obtained her associates degree during her husband’s deployment.

While working as CAV, she recognized her passion for working in the community helping local youth. “I recall seeing Valerie Segura, who worked with the Boys and Girls Club. I told her I really wanted to work with their group and when a position came available she called me.”

This is when she realized she wanted a career working with youth and helping them recognize their potential.

Part of her driving force for her career choice is an experience she had in high school with her counselor. “I remember he told me that I needed to go into the military because I had no chance of getting into college. That experience really made me realize words matter and I would prove him wrong.”

In 2009, Maria graduated with her bachelors degree and continued pushing her career forward, holding positions with the TeamBuilders, Presbyterian Insurance Company, and Las Cumbres Community Services.
One of the more memorable experiences she had was in her job with Presbyterian Insurance Company, where she was responsible for traveling the northern New Mexico territory helping people who were experiencing mental health crises. “I remember traveling to Raton and seeing how economically devastated the area was. The coal mining industry just stopped there and left the community in shambles. I thought about Questa and really worried about what would happen to Questa now that the mine had closed,” she says.

Currently, Maria is a driving force ensuring the town of Questa and the northernmost communities in Taos County have resources necessary to invigorate change and growth. She is the Community Officer with the LOR Foundation, who is responsible for funding nearly a dozen initiatives in the area over the past year. Additionally, she is the Coordinator for the Vida del Norte Coalition, whose mission is to unite northern Taos County communities to prevent and decrease youth substance use.

“Our youth are our future, and I am so honored to be able to serve in the roles I currently am, where I am able to empower and encourage kids to reach their greatest potential. They need us and honestly, we need them,” she says.