Griego stepping down from city council after 40 years

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner After four decades of public service, Charlie Griego is stepping down from his seat on Alamosa City Council.

ALAMOSA — After four decades, Charlie Griego — the Alamosa city councilor that people often refer to as just “Charlie,” is stepping down from his seat representing Ward 3.

As that day grows closer, Charlie, always an impassioned speaker, says he is grateful to his constituents “for giving him the opportunity to work on their behalf, to be their voice, and to make Alamosa a better place to live.”

Sitting in his office in his house on Tremont Street, Charlie’s surrounded by certificates and plaques honoring his contributions over the years. As the twelfth of fifteen children, it’s the only house he’s really lived in since the day he was born, and it’s come a long way from the two-room structure with dirt floors and a pump for water he knew as a child. The house is in “The Bow Wow”, an area named for the stray dogs that used to be dumped there by their owners.

He describes having a “good childhood” where there was always food, even if it was just tortillas and beans. And his family was close. “We had to be,” he laughs. “We were fifteen in two rooms.

“My parents only spoke Spanish so that’s all I spoke. When I was six years old, my sister-in-law — she spoke English — took me and my younger brother to the elementary school and left us there,” he says. “Somebody’d come to the house and said, ‘Your kids need to go to school or you’ll get in trouble.’ So, she took us.”

It was tough being in a classroom surrounded by language he didn’t understand and teachers assuming he was handicapped. “But kids adapt fine,” he adds, laughing. ”And at least we got new clothes.”

Charlie did more than adapt. Despite being told by teachers that he and other Hispanics would either “end up in jail, collecting garbage or being drunks," he discovered he had a talent for calculus.

Four days after he graduated from Alamosa High School, he enlisted in the military, spending six years as a medical field technician before returning home, enrolling at Adams State University and buying his first business. He was 25 years old.

“My sister ran the Mexico Café. Next to it was Greco’s Marlight Lounge. I’d saved a little bit of money, so I bought the bar. My brother, Val, was my partner. He was only 20. Everybody thought well, this guy’s not gonna make it, but we stayed in that business for 30 years and ran five successful businesses.” There’s not a hint of bragging or boasting in his voice.

Charlie and Val had a spinach farming and harvesting business in Blanca and Fort Garland with partners, Fred Ashida and his son, for 17 years and two restaurants – his sister’s Mexican Café plus Tacos and More on Main Street. They also bought property near the airport and built a liquor and convenience store. Meanwhile, Charlie also served on city council.

When asked what motivated him, he credits the way his parents, Elias and Valentina, raised their children.

“My dad and I were real close,” he says, crossing his fingers. After money was stolen that he had saved to start a business, Elias worked as a laborer, mainly in construction, for the rest of his life. Asked if the experience made Elias bitter, Charlie shrugs a bit as if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “Maybe. Probably. But you do what you have to do for your family.”

At age 25, the same year he bought the bar, Charlie was elected to his first term on city council. “I figured if I was going to be in business, I needed to have some kind of rapport with the city.”

He went into office with an agenda. Youth. Senior citizens. And to make Alamosa one Alamosa.

“This community was divided back then. The north side — south side was a big thing and they were putting the jail and detox in Wards 3 and 4. When I went on council, there was this older guy. Quentin Garcia. Big, tall guy. Kind of intimidating. I used to tell him, Quentin, we have to get involved and play the game. Once they let us in the door, they’re not kicking us out. We’re not doing nothing for nobody. We can’t just be token Hispanics.”

When asked about accomplishments while in office, he lists a few along with the people who helped to make them happen, such as Mayor Ferris Bervig, a “Christian man who was color blind,” and worked for Community Resources and Housing Development Corporation, and a developer named Al Gold who built affordable housing in southern Alamosa.

A new building for the Boys and Girls Club of the San Luis Valley. “There were a lot of unsung heroes involved in that. The community really came together.”

The city built the Recreation Center in southern Alamosa when, initially, the plan was to build north. “We argued and argued and said we’ve got baseball fields and the rodeo out there. We’ve got room to grow.”

When asked about disappointments, Charlie brings up an area called Stockton Addition. After learning septic tanks were polluting groundwater so badly it was “killing people’s grass," the city annexed the area and ran water and sewer lines right up to people’s houses, but he never paved the streets. “Those streets are still dirt and it’s my failure.”

Charlie speaks of those projects with something akin to pride, but the passion — and compassion — is most deeply heard in his stories about people. The kids harvesting spinach who he encouraged to go to school. Telling the Alamosa students he visited after first owning a business, “Look at me, you can do this, too.” Those he has helped get their papers. Connecting vulnerable people being exploited by their employer with the Attorney General’s Office.

And he also recalls some of the harsh descriptions he hears of people who are down on their luck and homeless. “I hear that and flashback to the past. The way we lived — fifteen kids in a two-room house with dirt floors? They would have called us homeless back then, too. They were talking about us.”

With Thanksgiving just days away, Charlie was asked what he’s most grateful for now, as he’s leaving office. He doesn’t hesitate.

“My wife. We’ve been married 42 years. She’s supported me all the way. People who say couples can’t work together are crazy. I’m most grateful for my wife.”