Outside the village of Tierra Amarilla in northern New Mexico, a hand-painted placard proclaims "Tierra o Muerte" — Land or Death. The sign gives some indication of just how fiercely northern New Mexicans have defended their land and their culture — a culture that traces its roots back to the conquistadores who claimed this land for Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
of these communities remained so isolated — by geography as
well as gritty determination — that until the 1950s, most
Norteños spoke a form of Castilian Spanish
that is comparable to Elizabethan English. Many still do.
Between World War II and the 1960s, however, change swept across
the Southwest. Rutted, sometimes impassable roads were paved,
dramatically increasing mobility. Many small, agricultural
communities watched their one-room schoolhouses close, their kids
bused to bigger towns. General stores were replaced by
supermarkets. Communities deteriorated.
Mexico dug in. In June of 1967, gunmen raided the Rio Arriba County
Courthouse, protesting what they called the U.S. government’s
theft of their land — and spawning the sign that stands by
the road to Tierra Amarilla today.
didn’t end there. In 1994, Debbie Jaramillo was elected mayor
of Santa Fe, after telling a reporter that people might be less
enthusiastic about coming to her town if they knew that "someone
will burn their house down or put a gun to their head." The next
year, locals burned environmentalists in effigy when the Forest
Service halted timber cutting and firewood gathering on the Carson
National Forest to protect the Mexican spotted owl.
the forces of change have proven inescapable. The outside world has
bullied its way into northern New Mexico, bringing the placeless
anonymity of big-box stores and fast-food restaurants. And as that
change has swept in, the Norteño culture
has begun to fray.
Angela Garcia writes in this
issue’s cover story that the Española Valley has the
highest rate of heroin addiction and overdose in the nation. Though
numerous news stories in recent years have documented the problem,
few journalists have asked the question Angela asks:
Why? And no one has answered it quite the way
she does. Using anthropological research and interviews with dozens
of addicts, Angela traces the problem back to the land — and
the people’s severed relationship with it.
health experts have come to call this phenomenon "historical
trauma." It has been used to describe the deep psychological wounds
inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust, Japanese Americans interned
around the West during World War II, and American Indians who were
evicted from their traditional homelands or, later, sent off to
boarding schools to be stripped of their own language and religion
and indoctrinated into the larger Anglo culture.
suggests that cultural healing may only come when
Norteños can remake their ties to the land.
The cry, "Tierra o Muerte," has rarely rung so