Mernie DeBrine – The Legacy of a Political Trailblazer and Family Matriarch
In the annals of history, there are always those brave souls whose stars shined brightly, the trailblazers whose vision and hard work paved the way for change, while lighting the path for future generations.
Emerlinda G. DeBrine was one of them.
She was known as Mernie, born into a family with deep political roots. Politics was her public passion, but her family remained her personal passion long after the camera lights faded from the political stages she was such a part of for three decades.
Mernie was an attractive woman, outgoing and unafraid to speak her mind, blessed with an innate understanding of people that made her an effective leader. Much of her legacy is based on populist beliefs that embraced equality, fairness and integrity – and she was loyal to those principles all of her life.
In Earl DeBrine Sr., an engineering student at New Mexico Tech from Rochester, N.Y., she found the perfect partner. The local beauty met the handsome Yankee at a dance, or similar social gathering, where “townies” and “schoolies” got together.
He was immediately smitten, and she was intrigued. They married on May 29, 1957, in San Miguel Catholic Church, where, 65 years later, Mernie was eulogized as “a trailblazing and influential public servant, mother, grandmother and business woman.”
Condolences poured in from all parts of New Mexico — and beyond — following her death on May 28 at the family farm in Lemitar, family at her side.
Mernie’s activism began in the 1960s, amid a sea of change across America that included civil rights, women’s rights, the space program and Vietnam.
Her involvement started at the grassroots level, attending precinct meetings and county conventions, often with her four children trailing after her.
“We knocked on doors and stuffed envelopes as little kids,” recalled her daughter, Stephanie DeBrine, a nurse with Socorro Consolidated Schools and eldest of the four siblings. “I loved to just hang around and watch her in action.”
Much of that action took place in the Socorro County Courthouse, where Mernie, an ardent Democrat, served two consecutive, two-year terms as treasurer, elected both times with no opposition, during an era when politics was a noble cause, when people believed that change was possible by working through the political system in place.
Mernie was the first woman chairwoman of the Socorro County Democratic Party — of either party, for that matter — serving in that capacity for many years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She served on the Democratic Party State Central Committee as well.
In 1984, Democratic Gov. Toney Anaya appointed Mernie as the first woman member of the New Mexico Highway Commission. She was reappointed to a second term by Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican.
This fact alone tells you a lot about Mernie.
“She was always a really good listener, and worked with people to find common ground,” said daughter, Elaine DeBrine Howell, associate dean of student success at New Mexico Tech. “Everyone respected her for that.”
Among the achievements of the Highway Commission during Mernie’s tenure were major transportation projects, including the Paseo Del Norte highway and bridge, and the Unser Boulevard interchange linking Albuquerque’s west wide to the two major interstates.
In 1980, Mernie was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in New York City, pledged to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“Mom lived a life of politics back in the days when politics was worth living,” said son, Earl DeBrine Jr., a shareholder with the Modrall Sperling law firm in Albuquerque.
And at the National Convention in New York, “she was in her element — rubbing elbows with political big-wigs, attending a Broadway show followed by dinner at Sardi’s, visiting the Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and receptions around the city,” said DeBrine.
He recalled his mother and other delegates being pressured to back then-President Jimmy Carter; and even though Kennedy had released his delegates, Mernie was one of the few who stuck to her guns and cast her vote for Kennedy.
That kind of loyalty.
In the beginning
Pete and Gloria Gallegos welcomed a beautiful, dark-haired, brown-eyed daughter on May 26, 1932; it was a Thursday. The Gallegos name was and remains well known in Socorro County, with many veins rich in business and public service.
As a onetime Socorro County clerk, Pete Gallegos oversaw construction of the current county courthouse some 50 years ago. His wife, the former Gloria Miera, was a descendent of the 18th century cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, whose 1758 map of New Mexico became one of the most widely referenced from the Spanish colonial period.
It was only natural that young Mernie would listen to the stories told by her parents and grandparents, and that these family tales would form the foundation of her personal and political beliefs.
As parents, Pete and Gloria saw to it that Mernie and her brother, Raymond, were educated in Catholic schools (Pete Jr. died in infancy; Frankie died at the age of 9). Mernie attended a Catholic boarding school in Silver City before graduating from St. Mary’s in Albuquerque, with Raymond two years behind her.
In an era predating child-service agencies, the siblings shared an apartment in the city while attending St. Mary’s.
Perhaps because of that experience, she gave her own children a great deal of freedom, allowing them to choose their own interests, and all four followed divergent paths, with three eventually returning to their home town.
It was Peter, the youngest, who flew furthest from the nest, landing in Europe 12 years ago. Today, he works for UNESCO in Paris, France.
A woman’s legacy
For the DeBrine daughters, Mernie was a role model at many levels. They watched her evolve from the more traditional role of a 1950s wife and mother, to a woman at home in the world of politics from the local to national levels.
They credit their father for his unbridled support, noting that it was he who told Mernie “to go for it” when she wanted to run for Socorro County treasurer.
Earl Sr.’s support was strictly behind the scenes.
“The (Capitol) Bar was dad’s thing — politics was hers,” Stephanie said. “He had the bar and the farm in Lemitar, and most of the good stories about Mernie were about Earl, too.”
DeBrine Sr. rarely left the county, but he was proud of his wife’s accomplishments and the opportunities they gave her to meet people and affect change.
His death at the age of 57, in 1987, tempered Mernie’s enthusiasm for politics, and she more or less retired from public life to take over management of the Capitol and the farm.
But it’s the earlier memories of their mother that remain strongest.
“My picture of her is just going for it, speaking her mind and being very convincing,” she continued. “Mom was able to see the ‘rightness’ of an issue and to convey that rightness to others.”
“We spent our childhood at party headquarters,” she said with a smile, adding that she inherited from her mother strong opinions and the courage to voice them.
Both Elaine and Stephanie followed their mother’s example and, over the years, have been active in women’s political organizations, although Stephanie admits that she has lost some of her enthusiasm due to the extreme polarization in contemporary politics.
Mernie encouraged Earl Jr. to study law at Georgetown, a Jesuit-run university; and Peter’s work with international organizations reflects her humanitarian values.
But mostly they remember Mernie as Mom, an extraordinary cook, generous hostess and doting grandmother.
“I’m sure everyone has spoken to you about her cooking,” Peter said. “It was a gesture of love for her, steeped in our heritage and traditions that have been passed down through generations, very much like the book/movie, ‘Like Water for Chocolate.’ Magical.”
Their favorite food was a dish called turco, that was basically a tamale pie with pork and red chile in a cornmeal crust that Mernie’s mother taught her to make; that, and her Lenten meal of torta with beans and quelites.
Emerlinda DeBrine is survived by her four children and five grandchildren, amid a host of other relatives and friends. The farm remains in the family, as does that iconic “watering hole” on the Plaza.
A full life and a lifetime of memories. Quite a legacy.