Barbara Salinas-Norman was a Chicana activist, a bilingual teacher, an author, a publisher and an artist. She was “intelligent,” “inspiring,” a “trailblazer.” But her life had begun to unravel, and this once well-connected woman apparently died alone in her Santa Fe home, where her body lay undiscovered for several months behind an unlocked door. Her decomposed remains were found Monday at the Zia Vista Condominiums on Zia Road.
Police originally speculated that Salinas had been dead since October, but family and friends said Friday they thought the 70-year-old might have died long before that — a year or more ago. According to a preliminary autopsy report, she died of natural causes.
Salinas’ body was discovered by her brother-in-law, Louis Ponce, who said Friday that he had become concerned about her because he hadn’t heard from her for a long time. He and his wife, Edna, Salinas’ sister, decided to drive from their home in East Pasadena, Calif., to attend a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. A niece of Salinas was dancing at the event.
On Monday, the couple drove to Santa Fe to check on Salinas at Zia Vista and found her body lying in a filthy living room. She was lying near a favorite poster, a takeoff on Rosie the Riveter. This version shows Rosie as a skeleton, with a red cloth on her head and her arm raised in a fist under the caption, “Sí, Se Muere!” Yes, we die.
Stories from friends and family suggest Salinas’ life had been unraveling for some time. She often slept in her car and washed up in the bathroom at a local library. The gas and electricity had been turned off in her condo because she wasn’t paying her bills. She ate at soup kitchens. Her home was in foreclosure.
Yet Salinas, known as Bobbi, had a lot going for her. A Mexican American, she grew up in East Los Angeles in a family of five girls and one boy. One sister became a nun. Her father worked for the water and power company, and her mother was a homemaker. Her parents were both New Mexico natives, according to a 2005 story in The New Mexican. Her mother was from Belen and her father from a community near Silver City.
Salinas earned a bachelor’s degree in education from California State University in Los Angeles and a master’s degree in public health education from the University of California, Berkeley. She became involved in the Chicano movement during that time and considered herself a founding mother of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a student organization promoting higher education among Chicanos.
In the 1980s, she was a bilingual teacher in the Oakland, Calif., public schools.
She founded and ran a publishing company called Piñata Publications in the office of her then-husband, Sam Norman, an Oakland lawyer. She began writing, illustrating and publishing her own books designed to help Mexican American children identify with their culture. She gave up teaching to write full time in 1983.
Salinas’ first book was a bilingual ABCs workbook for children; others were about Indo-Hispanic folk art traditions.
In Los Tres Cerdos: Nacho, Tito and Miguel — Salinas’ version of The Three Little Pigs — the third pig, Miguel, builds a home made of adobe bricks. The illustrations depict New Mexico-style furnishings, Indian pottery, kiva fireplaces, vigas and retablos. The book received the Tomas Rivera Award in 1999.
In her book La Cenicienta Latina, a young woman goes off to medical school before coming back to be with her “prince.”
Some of Salinas’ other books include Folk Art Traditions I, a 137-page book written half in Spanish and half in English, describing Hispanic Christmas traditions. It includes recipes and instructions for decorations. Traditions II is about Día de los Muertos. Both of the books are written for use by schoolteachers.
In a 1998 interview in The Miami News, Salinas is quoted as saying that when she was teaching, “The books in Spanish came from Spain, and the children in them looked European.” And, she added, “Here we were, eating beans in Frito Bandito land. We were never pictured as attractive people, only as short and fat.”
Salinas was the speaker at an all-day event in 2004 at Oregon State University, in a series funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant.
She was married and divorced twice, most recently from Norman, but she had no children. She moved to Santa Fe in 2005, where troubles began to mount.
Her brother-in-law, Ponce, said he last came to Santa Fe to see Salinas two years ago, after being unable to reach her by phone. He said she wouldn’t come to the door until police arrived.
“She was very OK,” Ponce said Friday. “She came out and talked to us.” But she never called after that.
He tried to call Salinas, he said, and when she didn’t answer, he began writing letters. But he never heard back from her, and none of the letters was returned as undelivered. And because Salinas had talked about going to Spain to teach, he said, he thought perhaps that was what she had done.
Eventually, Ponce decided “to find her no matter what.” On Monday morning, he and his wife drove from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. They got to her condo at around 11 a.m.
Ponce said the door was unlocked, and he walked inside. “Wow, the smell was awful,” he said. He ran back to his motor home to get a flashlight. The curtains were drawn in the condo, and even at midday, the rooms were “pitch black.”
When he came back inside, Ponce said, he stepped on Salinas’ wallet, and then he saw her body, which he described as mummified. “I ran like hell,” he said.
Ponce called police on his cellphone.
“If you saw the apartment, you would never walk inside it,” he said. “I never knew anybody could be that filthy.”
The floors were covered with piles of debris, indicating Salinas was a hoarder.
In some ways, Ponce said, he was not surprised because he had cleaned up similar messes in California when Salinas moved out of previous residences. “It’s been this way for the last 10 years,” he said.
Peggy Trujillo, a librarian at the New Mexico State Library who had known Salinas since about 2009, said Salinas often came there to try to sort out matters related to her condo and other personal business. She brought crates containing papers scattered with excrement from mice. She told Trujillo that she was being threatened with eviction.
Salinas never could figure out how to work her cellphone, so Trujillo let her use the library phone.
Though she was troubled, Trujillo said, “she was very intelligent,” and they became friends. Sometimes they went to the movies. Salinas was especially fond of the movie Eat Pray Love and its star, Javier Bardem. “She was so passionate about the movie. That was her dream story,” Trujillo said. She apparently had met a homeless man at one point who reminded her of Bardem, and they had camped together, Trujillo recalled.
At other times, Trujillo would invite Salinas over for dinner. And occasionally, they participated in Native American ceremonies together. She said each time Salinas went into a sweat lodge, she refused to remove her large ring portraying Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Salinas also loved libraries and was once discovered in a public library early in the morning, after she had been locked inside for the night.
Trujillo said she and Salinas often talked about the things she had done and the books she had written. “She could talk and talk,” Trujillo said. Salinas had photographs of herself with celebrities such as Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt and Carlos Santana.
She was always trying to get Trujillo to take vitamins. “She was very particular about food. I know she cared about herself. In no way was she suicidal,” Trujillo said.
During the time that Trujillo was in contact with her, Salinas was “pretty much homeless,” Trujillo said. Because the condo association was trying to evict her, she often slept in her car, a Toyota 4Runner, in the Sam’s Club parking lot. When Trujillo asked her why she did that, Salinas complained that when she stayed at her condo, mice crawled over her while she slept.
When Trujillo suggested she leave the condo, Salinas refused, saying, “No, I’m a fighter.”
Sometimes Trujillo drove Salinas to her home so the Zia Vista managers wouldn’t see her car parked there.
Trujillo never spent any time in Salinas’ apartment, but when she was able to peek inside, she saw that her friend had kachinas and pictures on the walls — and floors covered with papers.
But she hadn’t seen Salinas since late 2011, and like Ponce, she thought Salinas might have moved to Spain to teach. “That was her dream,” said Trujillo, who believes Salinas has been dead for more than a year.
Trujillo said she and Salinas’ sister and brother-in-law went to check on a storage unit that Salinas had been renting in 2010. But the space has since been emptied, Trujillo said.
Carol Guzman, who also had met Salinas at the state library, recalled a four-hour conversation with the writer, in which they both revealed that they had been going through some difficult times. “She knew where I was coming from and was very supportive and gave me hope that everything would work out for me,” Guzman said.
Guzman said she had known about Salinas and her work before they met because she had been exploring ways to help teachers integrate Hispanic culture into their classroom curriculum. Salinas was a pioneer in that field. “She was so inspiring to me,” Guzman said. “She was a trailblazer.”
While Salinas was lucid during the conversation, Guzman said, she was aware that Salinas was becoming increasingly isolated.
“She was a brilliant, caring person who should not have been alone after having given so much of herself and her energy to her writing and organizing,” Guzman said.
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.