Tomás Atencio
Photo by Rick Bela.
Credit: Rick Bela

Tomás Atencio, a sociology alumnus who also served many years as a lecturer in the department, died July 16 announced Richard L. Wood, chair, University of New Mexico Department of Sociology. Atencio was 81.

“Tomás Atencio was deeply dedicated to making UNM as a university and Sociology as a discipline fully relevant to New Mexican social realities. When I arrived as a young professor, he was enormously valuable in orienting me to our local social reality and connecting me to communities in northern New Mexico. He will be much missed,” Wood said.

Atencio earned his doctorate in 1985. His dissertation, “Social Change and Community Conflict in Old Albuquerque, New Mexico,” received the George I. Sánchez Memorial Award (a national prize for outstanding scholarship on Latino topics), and it eventually led to his publication (with Jayne Aubele and Mary Kay Cline), Albuquerque: Portrait of a Western City (Clear Light Publishers, 2006).

He pioneered the popular Sociology of New Mexico course. Atencio’s teaching drew heavily from his areas of specialization, including social welfare, social work (in which he had a master’s), race/ethnicity and social development.

Atencio’s work as an activist carried over into his work in sociology.  His commitment to social change included directing the Migrant Council in Boulder, Colo., guiding working-class neighborhoods to develop their civic empowerment, battling the heroin trade in his hometown of Dixon, N.M., and launching the Learning While Serving AmeriCorp program for Pueblo and Hispanic youth, and invigorating traditional agriculture in northern New Mexico.

His legacy, however, comes through his career as a public intellectual. His life-long goal, starting with La Academia de la Nueva Raza, a grassroots educational school that he and his friends created at the height of the Chicano Movement, was to have Native and Chicano communities come to new forms of learning using traditional cultures. In his core argument, the key for carrying out the movement lay in gathering el oro del barrio, the golden nuggets of knowledge among the dispossessed. In la Resolana – the winter custom of the village folk gathering on the sunlit southern side of their homes – they deliberated on life’s realities.

Atencio’s friend Levi Romero, the state’s Centennial Poet, is also from Dixon, N.M. Romero has a degree in architecture from UNM and now teaches in Chicano Studies at his alma mater. Romero said, “Tomás' use of the concept of Resolana in his work enabled me to see how Resolana and other traditional concepts could be used in contemporary design applications and methodologies in architecture and planning. He predicted Resolana Electrónica as a social communications media tool well before the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter became standard means of communication.

He was a true visionary who never lost his appreciation or fascination for traditional knowledge and vernacular wisdom. Most importantly, he taught that everyone should celebrate and honor their own traditions and experiences and that through oral history documentation and engagement in plática we could attain, preserve and share a collective awareness for holistic living through what he described as ‘una vida buena, sana, y alegre.’” 

Atencio proposed the method of community dialogue and camaraderie to recognize and apply local historic values for effective challenge to industrial, modern, colonial and Western high-culture domination. Groups far and wide found the concept of la Resolana exciting for dealing with social problems, and so they adopted it for work with the incarcerated, troubled youth, and the issues being addressed by faith-based organizations. It led to an invitation from Stanford University’s Ernesto Galarza Lecture series, receipt of the Maclovio Barraza Award for Leadership, and publication (with Miguel Montiel and E. A. Mares) of Resolana: Emerging Chicano Dialogues on Community and Globalization (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009).

Atencio brought creative energy and ideas to the classroom, which touched many students, whom he also mentored. Tomás Atencio held a special place in the history of the University of New Mexico and of the Department, one that merits our deepest appreciation.