Miguel Santistevan, a 40-year-old farmer, educator and community activist, might represent a more promising path. Descended from original land-grant settlers, he can trace his lineage back to both the conquistadors and members of Taos Pueblo. Santistevan is unsmiling as he fulminates against the loss of the land grants and the hardships it’s created for his people.

“Look around. We’ve got seventh-graders snorting prescription pills. We have alcoholics before they graduate, if they even graduate. Potheads by 12 years old,” Santistevan says. “We’re a lost community. Why? Because we have no land base.”

Santistevan believes his ancestors’ way of life was lost with the land grants. The pastures and woodlands gave them their sense of purpose and identity. When that disappeared, the people began a downward spiral into violence, alcohol and drugs. Through his academic, agricultural and nonprofit work, Santistevan is hoping to break that cycle. He wants to reconnect troubled teens in his community with the subsistence farming tradition that was only rediscovered a couple generations ago. With funding from the Santa Fe-based Kindle Project, Santistevan goes from school to school, teaching classes on traditional farming practices and their contrast with industrialized agriculture. He recently received a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation to pay students who get their hands dirty cleaning ancient acequias and tilling soil once farmed by their great-grandparents. He even plowed up part of a football field at an elementary school to grow corn and other staples. It’s a tough sell, though, trying to convince headstrong teens to become modest farmers like their ancestors. Santistevan doubts he can reach most kids, but increasing interest in revitalizing local food systems could make small-scale farming feasible for some locals, and he could help them find this niche.

Santistevan’s home farm, Sol Feliz, is a single acre in the sleepy neighborhood of Cañon, just outside town limits. He raises chickens and fruit trees, and grows native beans, corn and squash using traditional flood irrigation. The farm is also his seed laboratory. He’s experimenting with plants that have acclimated to the microclimate of the upper Rio Grande over centuries, and has thousands of seeds in jars, including rare strains of lentils and sorghum, which he’s collected from elder Hispanos and coaxed out of dormancy.

Santistevan says he’s essentially carrying out the concept of the old land grants, on a smaller scale. “The land grant itself is the most viable model we have for sustainability, about how you related to the land, how you designate land use.” With several families relying entirely on the same land to survive, it was important to designate where to plant, where to graze and where to live. Each family took its share without exhausting the resource. Santistevan says this approach is vital if the old ways of farming are to be revived.

Like other Hispano activists, Santistevan sees some value in the land-grant deeds. They shook things up, forced people to remember past offenses. But he thinks that even a wholesale return of common lands would not solve the problems of Taos’ Hispano population. Besides, he has no desire to fight unending battles in the same courts that took away the land in the first place. He’d rather pull weeds or plow furrows in his backyard. An acre of land is more than enough to keep one family busy and fed, Santistevan says.

Driving back to his office through the summer gridlock, Romero lists other factors holding back the local economy. Being hours from the nearest interstate or commercial airport makes it tough to attract new industries. Resistance to change — in other words, the desire to preserve Taos’ authenticity — has delayed modernization. The Internet could open new doors, as the local electric cooperative is installing broadband for every home and business in Taos County, using $64 million in federal stimulus funds. That won’t quell the bitterness surrounding old land grants, though, and will likely accelerate the influx of newcomers looking for a beautiful place to live. Tourism and the second-home economy are keeping Taos afloat, and most Hispanos are just trying to survive in that reality rather than fight it.

Romero empathizes with the activists’ goal of using the deeds to reclaim the land that is slipping away, dragging what’s left of a moribund culture with it.  They won’t give up, he says, but they’re fighting an almost impossible battle. Not only were the common lands on the Hondo and Serna grants dismantled decades ago, the enormous value of those lands now makes it far more difficult for activists to regain them from private landowners or the federal government.

The heirs who serve on working land-grant boards elsewhere in New Mexico have managed to hang on to a piece of their patrimony, yet even so, many are getting older or leaving rural villages. Traditional uses like grazing are carried on not so much to survive, but to honor custom. The successful boards achieve small victories and help their local communities, but more importantly, they are a symbol of Hispano pride: A validation of a people’s deep connection to the land, and a sign of control. In Taos, that control is all but gone.  

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

J.R. Logan is a staff writer for The Taos News. This is his first story for High Country News.