Protecting Water, Moving Hearts Through Cowboy Poetry

Jan 30, 2019

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is underway in Elko, Nevada this week. One young poet taking the stage is Olivia Romo, a bilingual activist who uses her art to tackle environmental issues facing the West. She told KUNR’s Holly Hutchings why she thinks poetry can spark change.

As a child, shelling corn on the porch or working the sheep with her father, Olivia Romo was absorbing the tales he told as they labored - which were usually about her great grandfather. Her dad was proud of their cultural stories and their connection to the land. The love of storytelling was passed down to Olivia, and she channeled her loved ones into her work.

“Some of my best inspiration came from some of the characters and people in my community,” Romo says.

Romo still tells stories that are meaningful to her, but they now center primarily on risks and uncertainties surrounding natural resources that she says are dwindling in her state of New Mexico, as well as across the West. In her day job, she works for the New Mexico Acequia Association, a state-wide grass roots nonprofit organization which works to protect water in the acequias - or communal irrigation - of New Mexico. She says her job keeps her close to her roots.

“I travel across the state working with farmers and ranchers,” Romo says. “I call them characters because that’s what it is. I take it home and start writing about it.”

Her work focuses on the struggles and cultural histories of these characters. In the New Mexican desert where she lives, this Poetry Slam champion says she hopes her words about the decline of valuable natural resources in the Southwest will move listeners to action and evoke positive changes.

One of Romo's poems, Los Ojos Sagrado de San Jose, or The Sacred Eyes of Saint Jose, reflects the work being done in mines around Romo's home in New Mexico and the effects, she says, that work has had on the lands and water in the area.

She says she wants people across the West to celebrate cultural and spiritual traditions and enjoy clean water and access to resources and food. She says fewer and fewer young people are becoming involved in agriculture because they are being encouraged to leave, leaving long-lasting consequences.

“There’s a huge pressure where people are being pushed away from the land,” she says. “And when we lose our connection to Mother Earth we start to lose our connection to our stories. So I think it’s really critical that we look back at our ancestry and listen to those songs, and those corridos and those stories, but also begin writing our current struggle and our current celebration of who we are today.”

Romo is one of many poets sharing their stories at the week-long festival currently happening in Elko. "The Gathering," as it's called, also welcomes Western dancers, storytellers, music, folk art exhibits and workshops.

Cowboy Poetry is in its 35th year. The Gathering will last until February 2, 2019. For a full list of events, visit https://www.nationalcowboypoetrygathering.org/full-schedule/.

As a note of disclosure, KUNR Public Radio is a media sponsor of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.