Climate Change Impact: New Mexico with Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández
Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District. Born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Leger Fernández is a 17th generation Northern New Mexican. As an attorney and advocate, she won important legal battles to advance voting rights, promote tribal sovereignty, and protect the environment and acequia waters. In Congress, she serves on the House Natural Resources, House Education and Labor, and House Administration Committees. She was also elected by her colleagues to serve as Chair of the Committee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, working on a range of issues for Native communities, including economic development, health, cultural preservation, and education. Leger Fernández also serves as Vice Chair of Communications for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
How has climate change and climate-related disasters impacted your district’s arts and culture community?
Creative workers, those folks who know how to translate New Mexican culture and share it with the world, are struggling. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic bring grief and mourning to our communities, but the creative economy took a big hit. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, 63% of creative workers experienced unemployment, translating to over 2 million Americans. With social distancing restrictions it was difficult for musicians to book gigs and for other artists to open galleries.
I think, as well, that this is a time that is shaping Nuevo Mexicanos. We are resilient people, but the beginning of the pandemic was difficult for everyone. Being unable to gather to mourn and celebrate together, to support each other and their communities in person, began to form a tear in our social fabric that creatives can help mend.
The people of my beautiful and beautifully diverse third district are uniquely tied to the land. I think it’s a common feeling for Nuevo Mexicanos. The Earth feeds us and I often say ‘agua es vida,’ water is life. I’d say climate change is chipping away at that cultural heritage. A place to live, eat, and watch the next generation grow, that’s not something we want to lose. We want to preserve the cultural heritage of our beautiful state, and that includes protecting our air, land, and water for generations to come.
How has the local arts and culture community in your region addressed climate change?
When you begin to lose your land, you begin to lose a piece of yourself. As I mentioned, New Mexicans are strong. We take an enormous amount of pride in living in this state. You can see that in the different regions and in our communities, no matter what district you visit. There are dozens of murals spread out across our neighborhoods. You may pass a giant, majestic roadrunner with carefully painted blue and yellow feathers on the way to the grocery store, or a wall that depicts Zuni dancers and the pueblos painted in yellows. There are so many representations of our beautiful landscapes as well. Through them all, our devotion to the region is palpable.
Our diverse culture, intimately tied to the well-being of the environment, is what frames conversations on climate change in our community. Our ranchers and farmers are an important part of New Mexican culture; they feed us and contribute greatly to our economy. They are key voices at the table when thinking of solutions.
New Mexico is getting hotter. Our droughts and wildfire seasons are getting longer, and we are seeing the effects of climate change become increasingly more damaging. We know that if our families want to continue to call this beautiful place home, we have an obligation to address these issues.
What can federal, state, or local lawmakers do to help effectively prepare for and respond to the rise in natural disasters?
The most important thing lawmakers can do is provide funding for the infrastructure communities need to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Local responders are on the ground, they see firsthand the tragedy and the loss. Not only is it important to provide them with emergency aid, we must think about prevention and rebuilding. As lawmakers, whether that be on the federal, state, or local level, what we can do is fortify the safety net of these providers.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be proactive, and that we do not wait for a crisis to arrive to get all hands on deck. Our nation is already suffering the catastrophic effects of climate change, and we’ve seen how marginalized communities are the most impacted. When Storm Uri hit Texas, the state’s electricity infrastructure quickly collapsed, and millions of people were left without power in freezing temperatures. Puerto Rico was still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017 when Fiona hit [in 2022] and left the entire area without power.
How can policy support the preservation of place-based cultures in the face of climate-related disasters?
Our land and our people are intertwined. To preserve cultures, we need policies that center the environment, humanity, and the economy. In New Mexico, 1 in 10 paychecks are tied to the arts. That’s why I introduced the Creative Economy Revitalization Act, to create a workforce grants program to employ artists and writers to create publicly available art. This would be beneficial to our whole country, which lost an estimated $15.2 billion in the arts and cultural sector alone due to the pandemic. This is a jobs program, so it will work through the Department of Labor. It will also work with the National Endowment for the Arts to create public art.
These are the types of programs that will protect and preserve our cultures as we move forward. As we continue to face the hardships of climate-related disasters, we must not only encourage but help our people in their creative endeavors. There is power in public art, and now more than ever it is important to fuse it into our economies. Creatives do the important work of providing spaces for sharing culture and stories. These spaces are often sites of communal healing. As a member of Congress, it’s my responsibility to support their preservation through legislation.
This blog is part of a series of Q&As with federal, state, and local legislators about the impact of the climate crisis in their areas, how local arts and culture communities are addressing the issue, and how lawmakers can help their regions effectively prepare for and respond to the rise in natural disasters.