A Game of Four
Meet the candidates running in November’s most contested City Council race
By Evan Chandler
September 27, 2023 at 12:00 am MDT
Cover art: Anson Stevens-Bollen
City Council District 1 includes the site of one of Santa Fe’s most prominent culture clashes and economic polarities.
Not only is the district home to the Plaza, both a tourist-centric locale and a spot with deep traditional significance to the city’s residence, but its borders also include the city’s largest shelter for the homeless and the dense Cerrillos Road corridor. In addition to the downtown area and historic neighborhoods, the district includes all the territory north of the Santa Fe River and east of Cerrillos, plus neighborhoods along the west side of the city off West Alameda and Agua Fría streets down to Siler Road.
As Santa Fe chooses its next round of leaders, the box where the obelisk once stood and the crowded sidewalks near Pete’s Place send up distinct distress signals.
On the Plaza, what’s left of the Soldiers’ Monument after protesters toppled it in 2020 may be decorated with flowers, but the make-shift wooden covering represents an ugly wound that has not healed. Instead, it has become a symbol of city leadership’s failure to act.
Meanwhile, the visibility of people living on the streets and the hardships of a shortage of affordable housing persist despite public spending to assuage them. Yet, District 1 also includes the city’s highest-valued real estate. The median home price for the “Northeast City” region rose 14.6% in the second quarter of 2023 from a year earlier—increasing from $1.2 million to $1.375 million compared to $604,500 as the citywide median.
Outgoing Councilor Renee Villarreal served two terms, winning a four-way race in 2016 and running unopposed in 2020, but announced early she would not seek re-election in the Nov. 7 contest.
Like Villarreal, all four candidates facing off for the open seat grew up in Santa Fe—restaurant owner Alma Castro, metal recycler Brian Patrick Gutierrez, former operations specialist Katherine Rivera and lawyer Geno Zamora.
They must grapple with how to address the changing city and how to distinguish themselves in the most crowded local race this season.
With just two candidates each vying for the seats in District 2, 3 and 4, only voters in District 1 will have the option to rank candidates. If none of the candidates earns a plurality of first-ranked votes, ballots for candidates with the lowest number of votes are redistributed to the next choice.
SFR met with each candidate ahead of the election to discuss their various experience, motivation and goals. See page 13 for map of the district and key voting information.
Café owner and labor organizer uses intersectionality to find common ground
Alma Castro agrees to meet with SFR at Tres Colores Restaurant across the street from City Hall on Sept. 8, the day candidates turned in the first round of campaign finance reports to the city clerk. At the same time, a few miles down Cerrillos Road, diners are starting to pack in for a typical lunch rush at her family’s restaurant, Café Castro. The mariachi musician, labor organizer and business owner returned to Santa Fe in 2020 to take over when her parents were ready to retire. Her homecoming inspired her not just to run for City Council, but to do so using public campaign financing.
“The campaign is based on having big money out of politics, so every conversation I have, it gets to really be about people’s issues,” Castro, 35, tells SFR. “It’s much more one-on-one asking what can I do for you as a constituent, and I love that.”
The Agua Fria resident says visits with would-be constituents help her learn about community members who live in parts of the district different than her own, and others reaffirm hyper-present community issues like affordable housing and the growing population of the unhoused within the city.
“I hear about [housing or the unhoused] at almost every door in some fashion,” she says. “Mostly, I think my platform around wraparound services and multi-use housing really resonates with folks because we need housing and because we are in a crisis that not only involves people being unhoused because there’s not access to physical housing, but also their needs aren’t being met around addiction, mental health and just support in general.”
After graduating from Santa Fe High School in 2005, Castro earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College before she moved to Chicago, where she taught and volunteered at public schools in addition to being a labor organizer. She says she helped the Chicago Workers Collaborative organize around temp work, and is already using those skills in her own café's business model, which allows for employee ownership.
“My family has always sort of figured ways to stay in the city, and it’s never been easy to keep up with the cost of living as a working class family,” she says. “I want to give more people an opportunity to have inroads that way. Not every business is going to make millions, but the fact that we can just stay here and continue to raise our families in the city we know and love is all I’m asking for.”
The District 1 contest marks Castro’s first attempt at public office, but she’s already dipped a toe into politics at City Hall when she served on the Arts Commission, but publicly resigned because she disagreed with the city’s handling of obelisk and its sidelining of the commission.
She tells SFR that she’d like to see the obelisk replaced with a ground-level mosaic, with the idea to then locate a monument for veterans of all backgrounds at a different location. She spoke against a plan from Villarreal and others to rebuild the obelisk with the cracks filled in earlier this year and says the City Council “needs buy-in” for whatever comes next.
“I don’t think we should just leave it alone,” she says.
Shortly after Castro entered the race, outgoing incumbent Renee Villarreal endorsed Castro, and Castro has hired the same campaign manager Villarreal used, Cecile Lipworth. Lipworth tells SFR she promotes having women in office to ensure good representation.
“I think our City Council could really benefit from someone like Alma,” she says. “She’s young, and she’s dynamic. She really understands community and what it means to be in the community and be the voice of a community.”
On a recent afternoon, Castro and several campaign volunteers meet at Earl’s Laundromat on Agua Fría Street before they spread into the surrounding neighborhood. As a member of the first generation born in the US to El Savadoran parents and a Spanish speaker, Castro navigates campaigning in two languages.
Along the way, Castro passes her uncle’s house, where a sign for her campaign has fallen over. She adjusts it before moving on. On her campaign flyers, signs and in conversation, she’s also sure to include the name the Tewa people gave to the Santa Fe area prior to European colonization— O’Ga P’Ogeh Owingeh, or “white shell water place.”
“There was a name before Santa Fe, and there was a name before O’Ga P’Ogeh Owingeh, and we are such a connected community. This land is ours, all of ours, and we should know its history,” Castro says. “I’m very proudly a mixed person. And I don’t identify with any community in particular; I identify with the fact Santa Fe is my home.”