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A northern New Mexico favorite son, gone too soon
Photos courtesy of Vigil Family
 
By Ernest Gurulé
02/10/2021
A note from the Publisher:

Val (Valentin) Vigil and I were born and raised in the same small community in northern New Mexico, Costilla. We share so many commonalities, such as citing education as the most important issue, never forgetting where we came from, having a never-ending work schedule, much to our choice, and he was a contractor employed by La Voz for several years. He loved going back to Costilla and the nearby Amalia mountains year after year. My staff, family and I will miss his “energizer” personality. Vaya Con Dios, Val Vigil.

The American landscape is dotted with feel-good stories of men and women who, despite the longest of odds, find success. For those, there is no blueprint nor map to get you from here to there. Instead, it’s a checklist gifted by fate that one can choose to use or disregard. Val Vigil chose the former, right down to the smallest detail.

The youngest of six, Val (Valentin) Vigil, age 73, passed away on February 5th, grew up Costilla, New Mexico, a place where, he joked, it took passing a bond issue to get a new stop sign. It is a place of abundant beauty, where spectacular mountains and endless prairie landscape explain the reason families have remained for centuries. But, outside of farming, there are few opportunities. Little changes on this vast open space. But the Vigils remained and so, too, does the family property.

Vigil was raised mostly by his mother and older siblings. His father, a shepherder, was often away, sometimes as long as eighteen months at a time. “He would send money every month,” said Vigil in an early 2021 interview. “But it wasn’t very much…maybe a hundred dollars a month.” When he could come home, Vigil said of his father, it would be for just weeks only to leave once again. For a child, the father’s absence would be an eternity. Still, families did what they had to do to stay together, to survive.

But Vigil’s mother, Felicia, along with her older sons, kept the family’s small farm going. “She was a go-getter…tough but also affectionate,” he recalled. Older brothers Robert, Donald, Manuel, Billy and sister Betty Jane also did their part. When Robert and Billy returned from the military, they, more than anyone, helped light the fuse on what would become Vigil’s lifelong love of education.

Vigil began with an Associates Degree. It allowed him to substitute teach. It would be another fourteen years before he would return to Adams State University and graduate. Later on, Vigil would serve on his alma mater’s Board of Trustees.

But the classroom became part of Vigil’s past when he moved his young family to Denver in the early 70’s. He worked construction for a few years until he realized intense summer heat and numbing winter cold were not a sustainable way to make a living. In a short time, he opened up a tax preparation and accounting business, one that still operates today.

Perhaps as a surprise, even to Vigil, he found his way into politics, local and state. He served eight years in the Colorado State legislature and later, eight more on Thornton’s City Council. He loved the arena, especially local politics, said daughter, Valerie Vigil. “He loved city council,” she said, because it moved faster. “He liked being able to make changes for the city that he could see right away.” He liked the idea of helping “a lot more people, sooner.”

He loved the legislature, as well. But change came slowly along with frustration. Not until he was term-limited out of the legislature did a pet project of his finally become law. It was the Assets Bill, a measure aimed at giving in-state tuition to the state’s ever-growing population of undocumented students. The idea of the measure came to him almost by accident, she said.

“He had found out about a young valedictorian out of Aurora who couldn’t go to college,” she said, because he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition, also because he was undocumented. The Assets Bill would have corrected that, but it languished. In 2013, former Governor, John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law. Vigil, seven years out of office, attended the signing.

Though proud about the role he played in helping lay the foundation for the bill, the event was bittersweet. He was pleased that it became law, sad that it took so long. “Look at all those kids we missed,” his daughter recalled him saying. A decade had passed from the time the bill was introduced to its passage. It was an eternity to Vigil. “I tried but just couldn’t make it (pass).”

But it wasn’t just the impact that legislation had on education that Vigil loved. She recounted a day when she called her dad from her office at school and explaining how one of her students was having such difficulty registering for college at Front Range Community College. Before ending the call, her father said, “I’ll be right there. I’ll get him registered.” He showed up a little later, took the student to the college and, in no time, registration was complete. “He just had such a big heart.”

“My dad did so much,” said the high school counsellor of her father. “Dad would come to school and read Dr. Suess. If I needed a chaperon (for a field trip) to go to the State Capitol,” she said she could just pick up the phone. On one field trip to the Capitol, instead of having students watch the legislative process, he would “sneak them off to show them faces hidden in the marble.” He’d tell her, “they won’t remember how a bill passes, they’ll remember faces in the marble.”

Vigil’s friends were legion. They were from political life, former students, and clients. “He was the ‘Energizer Bunny,’” said friend and protégé, former state senator Joe Salazar. “He was a community man who lived to serve others. He was always checking up on people.” Though Vigil and Salazar served in the legislature at different times, Salazar thought of him as a mentor. “He always provided sage advice; advice that would benefit people.”

Like others, Salazar remembered Vigil’s legislative dedication to education. He was a strong and committed proponent of bilingual education, Salazar remembered. It may have been from Vigil’s own New Mexico childhood, where it was not uncommon for Spanish to be a child’s first language. The Asset Bill was an off-shoot of that. “He was born from struggle,” said Salazar. “He knew what people go through and also knew that education was the great equalizer.”

Another colleague and friend, former state Senator Polly Baca offerred, “Val Vigil was a family man, an elected official, a man of the people who led with commitment and compassion – someone I was proud to call friend. He will be missed.”

At press time, funeral arrangements were pending. Vigil is survived by his wife Annabelle, daughters Valerie Vigil and Nadine Cordova, son-in-law, Sam Cordova, grandchildren Brandon Vigil, Jared Cordova and wife, Brianne, Amanda and husband Jorge Alvarez and one great-granddaughter, Hazel Cordova.

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