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10 Who Made A Difference - 2020-12-02

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Saving veterans’ space and preserving Hispanic culture

GILBERT ROMERO

STORY BY DANIEL J. CHACÓN | PHOTO BY LUIS SÁNCHEZ SATURNO

When the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Montezuma Avenue was about to go under a few years ago, Gilbert Romero jumped into action on behalf of his fellow military service members. “I was not going to let this place shut down,” said Romero, a U.S. Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient who became commander of the downtown post in 2017 and has since breathed new life into its operations. Romero had proven his leadership abilities years before, when he became president of the Caballeros de Vargas, a religious fraternal organization that had tried unsuccessfully to get a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas in downtown Santa Fe. “They had failed because of politics, I guess,” said Romero, who also has served as president of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council. “I went around and worked [to raise enough money] to have it made.” For his work on behalf of veterans and his commitment to preserving his community, the 68-year-old Romero has been selected as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2020. While he takes great pride in his commander post at the VFW, Romero’s dedication to Hispanic culture — which he says is more important than ever — has not been without its share of controversy. He was highly critical of Mayor Alan Webber’s decision to remove the de Vargas statue from Cathedral Park downtown. The mayor has said he pulled the statue out of the park for safekeeping ahead of a planned protest that he feared could turn violent. “I’m not happy at all, and I told him to his face, too,” Romero said, referring to Webber. Romero said the reason he’s so passionate about “our history, our culture and Santa Fe” is for future generations. “I have five great-grandkids,” he said. “I want those kids to know where we come from.” Romero was nominated for the award by Richard Barela, past president of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, which bills itself as the city’s oldest Spanish cultural organization. Barela lauded his friend’s willingness to help others, regardless of time or difficulties that may be encountered. “He’s a very caring, methodical man who shares his energy and his time for the betterment of veterans” and to help preserve Spanish culture in Northern New Mexico, Barela said. Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo called the award “an awesome honor” to be bestowed on Romero, whom he called a “dedicated military man, a dedicated husband and a dedicated family man.” “Gilbert has just been involved in so many things throughout the community with the Fiesta Council, the Caballeros de Vargas, la Union, the VFW,” Trujillo said. “You know, there’s nothing that Gilbert won’t do for his community.” Melissa Mascareñas, past president of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, called Romero a “remarkable man.” “Not only did he serve his country in the Army, but when he retired and came home, he continued to serve his community,” said Mascareñas, who has known Romero 15 years. “There isn’t anyone that Gilbert won’t help. He is a true leader that has our Hispanic culture at the top of his priority.” Mascareñas said Romero’s love for the area shows when he steps in to help fix problems. Locally and nationally, organizations like the VFW have struggled in recent years, but Romero refused to accept the loss of a key outlet for veterans. “The local VFW was almost forced to close its doors, and with the help of his wife, Dorothy, they were able to keep the doors open and make so many wonderful improvements,” she said. When The New Mexican called Romero for an interview about his award, he and a small group of workers were busy painting inside the local VFW. “I’ve had great support — I love it,” he said. “And I’m able to help my veterans. That’s what it’s all about.” Romero, whose father was a World War II veteran, didn’t set out to join the military but turned it into a career and retired after 20 years. Romero said he was grew up in Chupadero, near Tesuque, with four brothers and five sisters. “It was a great life,” he said. “My dad had a little ranchito .We had cattle and all these animals and also did farming.” After he graduated from Santa Fe High School, Romero got married and started working construction with his father-in-law. Six months later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. “Whatever plans I had were froze, and I had to serve my country,” he said. “But I enjoyed it so much I stuck it out 20 years.” Romero, who served as a drill sergeant for three years, said he earned a Bronze Star during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Romero said he had the option to stay in the military longer but retired to return home to his father in New Mexico. “But my dad was so sick that I said, ‘Nah, I’m gonna go home and spend time with my dad,’ ” Romero recalled. “He lasted 17 months after I retired, so it was worth getting out and spending time with him.”

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