Melissa Candelaria joins Education team

By Maria Archuleta

I spoke with New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s new senior education attorney, Melissa Candelaria, about the roots of her work in social justice. Melissa has years of legal, policy, and advocacy experience. She serves as an Oversight Commissioner for the 19 Pueblos District and is a citizen of the Pueblo of San Felipe. Melissa has worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and for federal and state agencies, as well as non-profit organizations. She attended law school at UNM and received her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did your upbringing influence your work?

I was born and raised in San Felipe Pueblo. My grandfathers and grandmothers and parents instilled me with core values of giving back to the community with the skills and gifts we have been blessed with by the Creator. They taught us to be generous in spirit and to do our part to make this world more conscious, caring, and compassionate. 

As Native young people, we were encouraged to embrace all that makes us special and unique and to treasure our shared language, culture, and traditions. My community understood that a Western education would enable us to participate and influence the larger community outside of the Pueblo, and I also knew I wanted to go away for college. I have always been interested in seeing and learning new things. 

Dartmouth was definitely a culture shock. So many of my peers went to elite prep schools, and I graduated from Bernalillo High School. I found my own way and learned to trust myself as a capable person and to excel academically in a competitive environment. I knew that my background made me very unique in this setting and helped me to synthesize the best of both worlds. 

Were you always interested in shaking up the education system?

Actually, yes. My undergraduate degree is in sociology and I minored in education. In public school, I didn’t see a diversity of students or teachers, the curricula left out the history and culture of indigenous peoples, and there was no Native language instruction at all. 

In college, I thought I was going to open my own charter school. I was very much interested in systemic change and creating a paradigm shift in education. I knew education opportunities for children of color, including more Native teachers in the classroom, was a way to make those changes. 

When I came back from college, I started working at a Native American prep school that has since closed. But my path changed, and I was drawn to assist tribal governments more broadly and worked on health and social services, development, sovereignty, and intergovernmental relations, but I always had special focus on education. 

What made you decide to become a lawyer?

Everybody already thought I was a lawyer. 

I had been working on public policy issues with the tribes and knew that having a legal background and skills would allow me to be a more effective advocate. It helped me empower individuals and communities to be successful and thrive. It goes back to my core values of giving back and serving others unconditionally and unselfishly. 

Having a law degree also made it possible to be an advocate at the national level. It was exciting to work on national public policy like the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act that impacted all of Indian country. I also had the privilege of working on state legislation like the Indian Education Act, which if implemented with the Yazzie/Martinez case would positively transform and further revolutionize education opportunities for our Native students. 

What do you hope to accomplish next?   

I approach my work with my heart. There is so much that still needs to be addressed for Native people and communities of color. The challenge is huge, but we cannot be discouraged by the enormity of the challenge.

I’m excited to be at the Center and to push for equitable education for all children. They deserve the opportunity to succeed. I’m very fortunate to and honored to work with the social justice champions here.