Don Usner: I first photographed Sophia Salazar in 1997, when she was attending Conjunto Preschool in Española, an early childhood education program that integrates children who have various challenges — developmental, cognitive, behavioral — with kids who are on a more typical trajectory. Sophia’s mother and grandmother both worked in the program.
Nearly two decades after taking Sophia’s photo, I recognized her name at a teller’s window in a bank in Albuquerque. Later, I arranged to interview and photograph her with her child and husband in Santa Fe.
Sophia Salazar: I was born in Española, New Mexico, and went to Conjunto Preschool in Española when I was 3 and 4 years old, so over 20 years ago. I met you on a field trip — I can’t remember the details and I’m not going to pretend to — but that’s where you shot that candid photo, and now that’s what I see everywhere, because my grandmother still works at Conjunto, where the photo is on the wall. And my mom and grandma have the photo at home, too. So that’s what I’m associated with, the girl in the picture — the girl in the black-and-white photo.
After preschool, I went on to Los Niños Kindergarten [Center] in Española, and then Hernandez Elementary, Española Middle School, and then Española Valley High School. After I graduated, I went to Northern New Mexico College for a while, and then the University of New Mexico.
I started studying in education, but then I got into working for the financial industry and I decided that that was the route I would go instead. I now work for a small community bank in Albuquerque. I love Albuquerque, and I enjoy what I do.
The preschool program helped me in a lot of ways. As a child, I had trouble dealing with my anger. And so at 3 and 4 — that’s really when you’re learning to socialize — preschool helped me to understand how to deal with my feelings. Also, in that preschool there were some children with disabilities — some physical and some psychological or emotional. So I learned tools to interact with all types of children and get around day to day. I still use those tools now.
Growing up in Española, I didn’t know if it was different or harder or easier than anywhere else. But now, when I introduce myself to people and say I’m from Española, they say that I don’t sound like I’m from Española, or I don’t act like I’m from Española. Just being from Española seemed to label me, but I just grew up in that lovely place, with the beautiful people and the beautiful landscape. Looking back now, I do realize that Española is a rural, poor, high-crime community. Still, I think its reputation leaves out Española’s lovely people and the wonderful things that the community has to offer.
I took a lot for granted when I was a kid. Now that I have a child of my own, I see how hard it is to provide the best of everything for your child. I’m learning how hard it is to be a parent. And I think Española was a great place to grow up, because of what my family and community provided, and New Mexico is a great place for my husband and me to raise our family. All of New Mexico is beautiful, the culture is beautiful. There are things that we have here that you can’t get anywhere else. I’ve always been in love with it.
I also know that the more resources and tools that children have to succeed, from earlier on in life, the better chance they have. It’s kind of like, the better the college education, the better the chance of a successful career, statistically speaking. And starting even earlier than that, starting when they’re 3 or 4, however young you can, programs like preschool or any resource that kids can have early on to help them learn and improve their abilities for dealing with the real world, that is so important and helpful. So, I wish there was a preschool like my preschool in my community, and in every community.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.