Tiny Torreon boasts first library on NM side of nation


On a hill in the far northeastern corner of the rez sits the Torreon/Star Lake Chapter complex, with its 360-degree view of practically nothing. But if you like to read, you will never lack for entertainment in this remote, somewhat desolate community. Torreon is the site of the first public library on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation.

A bookshelf decorated with traditional weaving items atop it.

Special to the Times | Elizabeth James
Books await patrons at the new community library in Torreon, New Mexico.

The Torreon/Star Lake Community Library and Youth Center did not happen by itself. Mostly it is the brainchild of Mario Atencio, adjunct University of New Mexico professor, Torreon Community Alliance director, and all-around community-minded guy. But the true impetus behind this bright, pleasant space in the chapter’s former Head Start building is the Torreon residents themselves, and their voracious appetite for books.

“The New Mexico State Library has a bookmobile that comes around this area,” Atencio explained. “We were the ones using it the most. (New Mexico Tribal Libraries Program Director) Alana McGrattan said, ‘You guys should get started on a library of your own.'”

That was all the encouragement Atencio needed. He was off. Not knowing that there is a full page of requirements to set up a state-sanctioned public library. Fortunately, New Mexico State Librarian Kathleen Moeller-Peiffer took pity on little Torreon and waived enough requirements that the chapter was able to qualify for $39,000 from the state’s general obligation bond to fund county and tribal libraries.

The library opened its doors last May. “At first, it was just me sitting at a desk in the corner,” recalled Atencio.

Donations of books started to trickle in, and Atencio bought more. The chapter hired Nellie Yazzie as librarian. Atencio is volunteering as the interim director, but “now that we’re in the budget, we should be able to hire a permanent director,” he noted.

The library is not just a place to check out books. “These days, a library functions as a maker space, as well as an incubator for inventors and business start-ups,” Atencio said. “That’s what I’d like this library to be.”

This past summer, with the help of Carl Stern, a computer expert who divides his time between La Jara and Albuquerque, and UNM student Frederick Lee, the library hosted both a youth leadership workshop and a video workshop that also integrated robotics, local history and Navajo language.

“We made a video of the ‘Last Indian Raid’ using programmed robots as actors,” explained Stern.

“The Last Indian Raid” was the name the papers gave to a 1950 incident in which a young Torreon man killed trader “Hooch” Graham after an argument over the post’s notorious practice of requiring patrons to buy something before the Grahams would cash their checks.

In the video, the roles of Hooch and the Navajo man are played by robots programmed by the youth, while Chapter President David Rico narrates in Navajo. Here is the video:

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