Dr. Victor La Cerva had been working for the New Mexico Department of Health for only about a week in February 1980 when one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots broke out at the maximum security facility south of Santa Fe.
He was sent in to help treat surviving inmates.
“It was like going into a combat zone,” La Cerva said.
The triage experience was a startling introduction for the young doctor to what would become a career in public health with a particular focus on finding effective ways to curb violence.
It also might have sparked a notion that would lead La Cerva, 70, to co-found a local men’s wellness organization that has since helped thousands of men — in Santa Fe and across the nation — break through barriers, build community and become leaders in a movement aimed at promoting a healthy, holistic version of masculinity.
A father of two adult daughters, Rosa and Gina, and married to Carla Cross, La Cerva also has become an author of several self-help books for men and has started a podcast that addresses men’s wellness issues.
After launching New Mexico Men’s Wellness in 1984, La Cerva said, “It sort of quickly became clear to me that this was a violence prevention measure.”
What he learned: “If men were in touch with their own wounds, they were less likely to pass it on. If men know how to deal with their own anger, then they’re not going to be destructive with their anger to themselves or to other human beings.”
The men’s wellness initiative was timely, emerging when government officials and advocates, including La Cerva, were beginning to examine violence as a public health phenomenon. But as the nation continues to wrangle with rising levels of gun deaths, suicides and violence against women, the effort seems to have come far ahead of its time.
La Cerva’s group has grown over its 35 years from one presenting an annual conference for men to one that organizes seven events each year, as well as numerous support groups and informal gatherings. Because of his efforts, La Cerva has been selected as one of the Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2019.
Howard Kaplan, one of dozens of people who nominated La Cerva for the honor, said he met La Cerva and learned about the group when he “was going through a low period” in his life.
“I could not believe that there could be a group of 80 to 100 men gathered … to share their hopes, fears, trials and tribulations in a safe environment. Needles to say, that weekend changed my life,” Kaplan said in his nomination letter.
Marc Choyt, another person involved in the organization who nominated La Cerva for the award, said, “It’s nearly impossible to calculate the impact that Victor has had on men in New Mexico.”
La Cerva, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., began his medical career running a pediatric emergency room in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and aiding midwives in home births on the side.
Yearning for a different lifestyle, he was drawn to Santa Fe, a place he had visited.
“I drove through it in a snowstorm and fell in love with it,” he said.
He was 30 when he began his 25-year career with the state Department of Health. He retired in his mid-50s as medical director of the department’s Family Health Bureau.
Through his work with the agency, La Cerva helped organize a men’s wellness conference focusing on physical health and nutrition.
“I realized fairly early on in that first conference that the real juice was in helping men become emotionally fluent,” he said.
Instead of their diets, they wanted to talk about marriage, divorce, fatherhood, spirituality, sexuality, jobs.
That was a launching point for the organization.
“It became a volunteer effort,” La Cerva said of what has become a yearly conference at Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú. “I led the conference for the next three years.”
The group now has several leaders, he said, adding there’s no “guru,” no “sage on the stage. We’re all in this together.”
One of the biggest challenges for the group, which has become an incorporated nonprofit, has been getting young men involved, La Cerva said. It has been working to expand and diversify. Part of that effort has been through a relationship with Fathers New Mexico, a nonprofit in Santa Fe and Albuquerque that supports young dads.
When young men come to the group’s events, he said, “there’s always dramatic things that happen.”
He also has been reaching out to younger men through the organization’s Facebook page and website, nmmw.org; through his podcasts, available at myheartsongs.org; and through books, which he offers for a donation. The most recent is Letters to a Young Man in Search of Himself, published in 2018. He described it as “21 letters from an old guy to a young guy, hopefully with something of value.”
La Cerva sees communitywide value in helping men open up and get personal.
“We’re as sick as we are secret,” he said. “Men tend to operate in isolation.”
But, he added, “If you create a safe space for men and give them the time to tell their stories and their perspectives, people are incredibly open and honest, even about shadow things that have happened in their lives.”
The New Mexican will host a dinner reception Dec. 4 at La Fonda on the Plaza for the 10 Who Made a Difference for 2019. The event will include short videos in which the honorees tell their stories in their own words. Tickets are available to the public for $85 at the Lensic box office, 505-988-1234, or ticketssantafe.org. We also will publish a special magazine Dec. 4 featuring the honorees.