Tierra o Muerte

by Greg Hanscom and Jonathan Thompson

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.

Many 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.

Northern New 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.

The resistance 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.

But 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.

Mental 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.

Angela 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 true.

© High Country News