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Senior profile - Cristino B. and Mary Lou Griego

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Family’s passion for roots, wings

To say that Cris and Mary Lou (Nelson) Griego are dedicated to A cause is an understatement. It was a cause that began their relationship 44 years ago and they, singly and as a couple, have continued to dedicate themselves to various causes ­— societal, educational and personal, as in family.

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The couple chimed in to say, “What we’ve done, we’ve done out of love. Kids have been our life, from the day we had our first to the hundreds we inherited as educators.”

Cris Jr., who was born June 4, 1945, claims “a nontraditional northern New Mexico upbringing “despite his surname, Griego, associated with the founding fathers of Santa Fe who accompanied Oñate on his early trek to northern New Mexico. He was born in Corrales, N.M., to Cristino B. Griego Sr. and Zita (Rinaldi) Griego. He has two younger brothers, George, who now lives in Bernalillo, and Leonard, in Albuquerque. When the family was growing, most of their time was spent on the Rinaldi Ranch Valle Salado near Mount Taylor and in Corrales ­— with Mrs. Griego’s parents.

The elder Cristino was a 27-year career air force pilot at Kirtland Air Force Base during World War I, so the family followed him around. When Cris Jr. was 5 years old, the family spent two years at Puerto Rico’s Ramsey Air Force Base and later on, when Cris was 12, the family followed Mr. Griego to Casa Blanca, Morocco, where they stayed for two years.

A one-woman boycott
Cris Jr. graduated from Valley High School in Albuquerque in 1963. He served in the U.S. Army from 1963-67. Then with GI Bill funding, he began higher education studies at St. Michael’s in Santa Fe. In 1969, spurred on by a cousin to come to Las Vegas, Cris transferred to Highlands University, where he completed his B.A. degree in social science and biology in 1971. Wasting no time, Cris completed his M.A. in guidance and counseling in 1972, and later earned a second master’s in educational administration in 1976. During this period, Cris also worked as a graduate assistant for special services and as a residence director at Highlands.

In February of 1969, however, Cris experienced another life-changing moment. As he was driving by Columbia Supermarket, near the HU campus, his eyes met a “strange sight, a one-woman boycott. From my Chevy, I did a double take. I thought I saw Cher (of Sonny and Cher fame) carrying a sign, ‘Boycott Grapes.’” Well, he did more than the double-take, one thing led to another, and within six months, he and Mary Lou (Nelson) were married. “And we’ve lived in ‘marital bliss’ ever since ­— for 44 years.”

Cesar Chavez’s influence
Mary Lou explained that her “idols” had been Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association and fought for the rights of migrant workers, and that her “one-woman” boycott had been in support of these efforts.

So, enter the scene, Mary Lou Nelson: Mary Lou was born to Randolf and Cecilia Perea Nelson Sept. 6, 1947, and spent her first eight years in Dilia. The family, including Mary Lou, sister, Angela Irene (Wolff) and brother, Alfredo (who eventually became mayor of Las Vegas), lived in Dilia during the summers, but their parents did migratory work in different areas — Boise, Santa Rosa, Texas, Pueblo. It was a hard life, and migrant housing was often substandard. This activity ended in 1955 when the elder Nelson refused to have his family housed in a “chicken house,” and said, “we are better than animals.” He took a job working at Swanson’s Laundry in 1955, and the family began their life in Las Vegas when Mary Lou was 8.

Mary Lou attended Las Vegas City Schools, graduating from Robertson High School in 1965. She went straight into college at Highlands, graduating in 1969 with a major in elementary education and a minor in physical education. She subsequently taught for three years with the West Las Vegas Schools.

From Pecos to Las Vegas
She left teaching for about 10 years to raise her children, Cristino B. III, Emiliano Joaquin, and Mario Randolfo. Then she returned to college to earn her K-12 endorsement in library science in the early ‘80s. She served as Pecos Elementary School librarian from 1983 and then went to Robertson in 1987, serving as librarian there until her retirement in 2006.
She said that one of the important lessons she learned during her career was how to reconcile having a career while at the same time raising children.

Cris, too has served the educational community with distinction. He said, “From each of my educational experiences, I gained so much and I’m grateful for the uniqueness and gains I made from each of the institutions I was associated with. Las Vegas accepted me as a native son. As a student at Highlands, Dr. Willie Sanchez opened my eyes to know who I am and maybe the potential I have.”

Cris worked 13 years with the West Las Vegas Schools as an elementary and high school counselor from 1974 to 1986. He referred to this period as his “growing years ­— the golden years at WLV. West gave me my corazon.” In 1986, he took a position as guidance counselor at RHS. Then in 1988, NMHU invited him to be director of recruitment. He subsequently returned to Robertson as assistant principal. He noted, “From each of my educational experiences, I gained so much and I’m grateful for the uniqueness and gains I made from each of the institutions I was associated with.”

Tied to SASO, CASO
Both Griegos have strong civic connections. Our mantra is “Si se puede” (It is possible). Since the early ‘70s, Cris and Mary Lou have been associated with various student activist groups such as Spanish-American Students Organization and Chicano-American Students Association. In the early ‘70s at HU, Chris says, “The takeover of the University was nonviolent, and the occupation of the administration building was not disruptive. Business went on as usual.”

Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Atzlan, an organization founded in Santa Barbara in 1965, was one group that the Griegos supported and brought to Robertson High School, in 1993. They felt that this organization provided opportunities to correct prevalent misconceptions or ignorance about diversity. “Our MEChA group developed our own constitution and curriculum geared to informing student members about their history. “Any given year, the organization had 100 students involved.”

Perform volunteer services
MEChA students learned about ancestry and were engaged in inter-generational projects. They would establish relationships with senior citizens in the community to work on various areas, e.g. santeros, quilting, ancestry, and community service such as cleaning cemeteries.

In 1996, RHS MEChA hosted the first annual Latino Youth Conference at the United World College and invited Dolores Huerta as main speaker. “Kids from all over developed a network and asked the RHS MEChA group to help them establish groups throughout the state to raise high school student consciousness about equality,” said the Griegos.

HU was ‘saving grace’
This “CAUSE” couple is committed to service to the community at large, serving with such groups as the State Board of Veterinary Medicine, the Legislative Judiciary Council, Habit Stamp Advisory, Children, Youth and Family, Casa de Cultura and the Las Vegas Water Consumers Association. They would like the public to know that Highlands is very special in their hearts.

”For so many of us, Highlands University was our saving grace,” they said. “Many of us attended Highlands because we could afford it. Our parents had ingrained in us the importance of higher education.”

The Griegos bought property near the village of Las Tusas nine years ago, selling the home they owned in Las Vegas. They call it La Querencia, as it represents to them “a nurturing place for our children, grandchildren, students, etc.” It is a representation “de cosas que dabamos a nos hijos” (the things which we gave to our children) — raices y alas (roots and wings) … but the idea that they should never forget where they came from.