From mothers protecting their families to soldiers protecting their brothers in arms, what makes someone a hero is their bravery in times of uncertainty.
Billed as a history book for young people, “Heroes of the Rio Abajo,” edited by Richard Melzer and John Taylor, contains 24 true tails of the bravery and kindness of the men and women of the lower Rio Grande Valley, centered here in Valencia Cuonty.
The book, published by the Valencia County Historical Society in 2019, has recently been named the winner of the Historical Society of New Mexico’s 2020 Pablita Velarde Award for an outstanding children’s publication related to New Mexico or Southwest borderlands history.
“Reviewers felt each of the 10 contributors to the book did an excellent job highlighting lesser known stories and characters of our state in a style that will be engaging to young readers,” a recent press release from the HSNM read. “The 24 heroes profiled offer a true reflection of the diversity of New Mexico’s cultural heritage and should stand as sources of pride for the youth of the Rio Abajo.”
Both Taylor and Melzer, well-known, local historians, who have written extensively about the Rio Abajo and its people, said receiving the recognition from the society was an honor.
“We were really honored to be recognized in that way,” Taylor said. “Richard and I have collaborated on a number of things that have won awards, but the thing I particularly like about this is it build on what BG (Burr) worked on.”
Burr was a longtime Valencia County historian, who collaborated frequently with Taylor and Melzer, most recently in 2019 with the completion of “Notable and Notorious Neighbors in Valencia County.”
TechKnowledge Press, Burr’s publishing company published the book less than a year before his death in late September 2019.
“When we were done with ‘Notable and Notorious,’ we thought we should do an update of ‘Heroes.’ So we went back to the original, updated the stories and added new ones,” Taylor said. “We were really pleased with the way it turned out.”
Taylor said former Los Lunas Schools Assistant Superintendent Juliette Romero Benavidez had been a champion of the book, making sure it was distributed to all the district’s libraries and telling elementary and middle school teachers about it.
“We are really hoping it would be promulgated through the schools so kids could use it for projects and find out about history on their level,” he said.
When asked who his favorite hero of the book was, Taylor said it was hard to pick.
“The stories are all so personal. If I had to pick, it would be Carlos Otero,” he said. “I knew him personally. There’s a little more of a personal connection here and the influence he had on santeros in the valley, state and country.
“We were pretty careful how we picked the people. We wanted to make sure they were representative and made a difference.”
This isn’t the first time “Heroes of the Rio Abajo” has seen print. Melzer edited and contributed to the original book, which was published in 1996, also by the VCHS. The original edition contained 12 stories of bravery and was also written for children.
“We like to write and do things for all different age levels,” Melzer said. “We work hard to bring more attention to the Rio Abajo; most of New Mexico history is up north, in the Rio Arriba. We wanted more attention here.”
Melzer and Taylor aren’t the first writers and historians to do that, Melzer said, referencing pioneers such as Maggie McDonald and her father, as well as Tibo J. Chavez.
“We are just continuing that tradition,” he said. “We thought it was a good time to update the stories and add more; we have twice as many heroes this time and not just military heroes like Daniel Fernandez and Maximiliano Luna.”
The duo wanted to give children real, local heros, who would teach lessons about history, about what it means to be a hero.
“In the end of the book, we challenge kids to think about who their heroes are and to write about them, come to a conclusion about why they are heroes,” Melzer said.
The Valencia County Historical Society’s goal is to donate a copy of the book to every school in the county, he said.
In addition to Taylor and Melzer, eight other authors contributed to the history book — Rena L. Chavez, Patty Guggino, Thomas L. Hedglen, Pauline Jaramillo, Margaret Espinosa McDonald, John W. Pope, Sandy Schauer and Julie Van Valen.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.