‘Family probably had the biggest impact in my life – seeing how you look after one another and how that translates into how you look after the community,’ the Democratic 3rd Congressional District candidate says.
When Ben Ray Luján was in elementary school, his paternal grandparents moved into his house. Even though the couple lived next door, Luján’s parents wanted someone with them all the time.
The move didn’t change life for Luján, who fondly recalls a childhood with the constant presence of his grandparents. Even before the move, his family ate most meals with them. He knew their cuentos (stories). He felt how they were valued by their 10 children and the extensive web of Lujáns.
More than anything, he witnessed the power of a family’s love, a love that extended to their community. The couple, who were married for almost 75 years, sang Spanish ditties to each other, sometimes making up lyrics and laughing together.
“They were very much in love – I learned lessons in life about looking after each other,” Luján said. “Everything they did revolved around family.”
When his maternal grandparents were hurt in a major vehicle crash, family stepped up again. Luján’s mom, Carmen Luján, and her five siblings took turns living in the grandparents’ Jacona house for a week at a time. Luján describes that period during his high-school years as a family reunion every week.
“That was how everyone’s world revolved,” he said. “They were our No. 1 priority.”
The value of family and taking care of one another is embedded in Luján’s foundation. That value has shaped his political perspective, including how he approaches his role as a Democrat seeking re-election in the 3rd Congressional District. He’s facing a challenge this year from Republican Jeff Byrd.
“Family probably had the biggest impact in my life – seeing how you look after one another and how that translates into how you look after the community,” he said.
Forty-year-old Luján recently shared stories of his childhood during conversations often interrupted by scattered cell service as he was being driven to community events – a Cochiti Pueblo feast day one time and a parade in Taos another.
Luján’s description of his childhood mirrors that of generations of Northern New Mexican natives who grew up in large, intimate families, living together and nurturing the land, animals and water they needed for survival. His father, Ben Luján, happened to be a member of the N.M. House for 37 years and House speaker for more than a decade, but the younger Luján said politics didn’t play much of a role in his early childhood.
He grew up in his dad’s childhood home, next door to his grandparents and down the street from two aunts and uncles. Each generation added a room to the original two-bedroom home Luján’s great-grandparents had built.
Luján was the fourth and youngest child. He was eight years younger than his brother who was closest in age. If he wasn’t with his parents, Luján was with one of the neighbor kids or some of his 26 first cousins on his dad’s side or 13 uncles and aunts who lived in Nambé, Jacona and Pojoaque. Sometimes the Lujáns’ back pasture became the community baseball field.
“There was always someone to play with,” he recalled.
They raised sheep, as Luján’s grandpa had. All the work has been handed down over generations of Lujáns – tending to animals, harvesting a garden, maintaining the acequia. Ben Luján added goats when a friend convinced him of the value of goat’s milk. Ben Ray Luján remembers long milking sessions when goats kicked over their milk buckets and he had to start over.
Both of Luján’s grandpas were known for their large, productive gardens where they raised such traditional crops as green chile, tomatoes, corn, zucchini and squash. His aunts planted one big garden they shared as well.
“On the weekends, you’d be out there sun up to sun down, taking a nap with the breeze blowing during the heat of the day, maybe drink some tea or lemonade if you were lucky, and then once it cooled off, you’d be back out there,” he said.
Luján has continued that tradition, planting a garden with his mom between his house and his parent’s home. Luján lives now in his grandparent’s home, next door to his childhood home.
“It’s where I find peace – tilling the garden or land, working the pasture, repairing the barn,” he said. “People say, ‘Why do you do that on your day off?’ It’s not work. It’s therapeutic.”
As much as Luján was born into a life full of Northern New Mexico traditions, he was born into politics. The night he arrived, his dad had won the primary for his second-term as Santa Fe county commissioner. The polls had closed, and his parents were eating dinner at a friend’s house when his mom announced her water broke.
To his young son, Ben Luján was a hard worker who cared for his family and community, not a politician. He was a welder, a jack-of-all trades who was up at 5 a.m. so he could begin whatever task needed to be done on their 3-acre property. The Lujáns’ devotion to their network of neighbors, family, constituents and fellow parishioners at Our Sacred Heart Parish in Nambé was a constant in Ben Ray Luján’s life.
“Those are the life lessons I was brought up with, something that helped shape me and who I am,” he said.
Learning political lessons
Luján hung out at the State Capitol in Santa Fe as a page when he was a young boy, but he didn’t realize the impact a powerful legislator could have until he attended one of his father’s committee hearings on taxes.
Luján was a junior in high school, worried about how his dad would fare during this complex debate over tax policy. Then he heard Ben Luján speak with conviction and compassion. In that moment, Ben Ray Luján learned the importance of being prepared and educated about the issues.
“I remember a technical exchange was taking place but how impressed, overwhelmed and proud I was with the knowledge my dad had,” he said. “It was one of those moments where I was appreciating a different side of him that I didn’t see around the dinner table.”
Another moment that shaped Luján’s view of being a legislator occurred at his breakfast table one day. When someone knocked on the door in the middle of breakfast and asked to visit with Rep. Ben Luján, Carmen poured the visitor a cup of coffee and left the kitchen with her son.
“Here’s this young man in high school, I don’t even think he was voting age, and dad took the time to sit down and talk with him,” he said. “Dad always said, ‘Know when to listen and know when it’s your turn to speak up.’”
While his dad showed him how to be a responsive legislator, Luján said he reflects on his mom’s compassion when voting on legislation. As Congress debates education funding, or Medicare’s future, his mom advises him: Don’t forget the moral argument.
“She said to me, ‘When you look at a policy, you have to remember there are people who are impacted by the decisions you make,’” Luján said.
Luján also understands the significance of water and changing weather for families, like his, who have relied on their land for sustenance. The Lujáns understand the importance of caring for an acequia so their family and their neighbors have water.
It is Luján’s connection to New Mexico’s land that guides his philosophies on the importance of protecting water, investing in solar energy, increasing fuel efficiency in vehicles, reducing energy use to fight climate change, and designating wilderness areas in the state.
“Sustainability is a way of life in New Mexico,” Luján said, citing energy-efficient adobe homes and acequia maintenance as examples.
Finding his way
Luján began his own political path as student senator advocating for Pojoaque High School and then New Mexico Highlands University. Like many children of prominent parents, Luján has had the burden and advantage of being Ben Luján’s son (Luján would never call it a burden). Some speculated whether Luján landed his first political job as deputy state treasurer or won his first election as Public Regulation Commission member because of his father.
“I think everyone makes their own way,” Luján said. “You are who you are as a person because of who your family is. They are a very big part of my life. I would never ever shy away or turn away from the support of my mom and dad or any of my family, for that matter.”
He thinks media has dug into his background more because of his family. “There’s a larger light that’s cast on you, and you have to work that much harder to prove you are capable of providing the services, of doing the right thing, of working hard,” he said.
During his 2008 political campaign, media published stories when one of his opponents claimed Luján was gay and his parents hired an escort for him. The accusation was particularly painful to Luján because it insulted both his parents and his girlfriend, Dawn Peavey.
The couple has been together for almost five years. Whenever Luján is in New Mexico, he said they are together.
Luján and Peavey share a connection over the values of work and family; Peavey cares for her mom in Santa Fe.
“I’d love to have a family,” Luján said. “My brother’s boys were hanging out with Uncle Ben this weekend, and that’s important to me. We’ll see what the Lord has in store for me. We want to make sure if, and hopefully when, we have children, I’ll have the time to spend with them that they deserve.”
Caring for family
As Luján ponders his future, he is still learning life lessons from his parents. Following the tradition of generations before, family members are rallying around his mom and dad as Ben Luján copes with advanced-stage lung cancer.
“Just when you think your mom and dad have taught you all they are going to teach you in life, you realize there is so much more you have to learn about faith, about family, about nurturing,” Luján said. “The strength and courage my mom and dad have shown through this – I can’t even quantify it.”
Throughout Ben Luján’s cancer treatments, his son is reminded of his origins. “When family is needed, family steps up,” he said.
Deborah Busemeyer is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe. Previously she was the communications director at the New Mexico Department of Health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A prior version of this article incorrectly said Luján’s father was speaker of the House for 37 years.