Troubled Taos, torn apart by a battle over historic Hispano land grants

  • A new home within the 22,000-acre Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant, which the King of Spain gave to a prominent Spanish soldier in the early 1700s. Many Taos Hispanos believe that the land still belongs to a handful of heirs who trace their ancestry back to the original settlers.

    Sharon Stewart
  • San Ysidro, patron saint of farmers, by Belearmino Esquibel. On display through May 2013 at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.

    Museum of Spanish Colonial Art
  • A house for sale on the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant in Taos, where Hispanos have filed warranty deeds on traditional lands that have tied up real estate transactions. Buyers showed no interest in this property, so the owners are now hoping to rent it.

    Sharon Stewart
  • Farm fields in the Arroyo Hondo land grant area.

  • Ofelia Trujillo Sandoval, feeding chickens on her farm near Taos, c. 1939.

  • Map from the Taos County Historical Society 1968 publication Land Grants in Taos Valley.

    Taos County Historical Society
  • Reies López Tijerina, right, with some California Brown Berets, during a four-day Alianza convention near Abiquiu Dam in 1969, where Tijerina announced plans for making a citizen's arrest of New Mexico Gov. David Cargo and Norris Bradbury, head of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories.

    Mark Bralley
  • On the northern edge of town, the adobe Taos Pueblo is still occupied by the tribe that constructed it more than 700 years ago. In 1971, the tribe regained ownership of a 48,000-acre spiritual site in the mountains, which the U.S. Forest Service had taken over, but the tribe doesn't get involved in Hispanos' efforts to regain their traditional lands.

  • Ernest Romero stands at a sign marking the entrance to one of the Taos Valley's traditional land-grant areas, now dotted with development, some of which is tied up in legal battles over property rights.

    J.R. Logan
  • Spanish Colonial furnishings available at a strip development on the La Serna land grant.

    Sharon Stewart
  • David Maes, who grew up in Taos, left for a career in the Coast Guard, then returned to retire, has worked to protect traditional farmland, but his and others' efforts to create a land-use code were thwarted.

    Sharon Stewart
  • Miguel Santistevan, whose ancestors were conquistadors and members of the Taos Pueblo, works with Taos youths to save his "lost community." Santistevan blows on a conch shell to call a rotation of Sangre de Cristo Youth Ranch participants to their next tasks.

    Sharon Stewart
  • Miguel Santistevan shows the dried peas, still in their pods.

    Sharon Stewart
  • Miguel Santistevan demonstrates how to winnow dried peas to ready the seeds for planting on Sol Feliz Farm.

    Sharon Stewart

Taos, New Mexico

On a cloudless June day, Ernest Romero and I are parked on a ridge top in front of a home that gazes out over scenic northern New Mexico. The 2,200-square-foot adobe sits on three acres of piñon forest and is quintessentially Southwestern, with sand-colored walls complemented by sky-blue trim, wooden beams and red Spanish tiles. It’s for sale for $425,000.

The glorious view is a major selling point: Towering granite cliffs above, and, to the west, the Rio Grande Gorge slicing into the sage mesa. The snowcapped Truchas Peaks line the southern horizon. A few hundred feet below, a smattering of trailers and ramshackle adobes make up the 200-year-old, mostly Hispano hamlet of Valdez — just out of sight.

Many homes like this were built on this ridge by wealthy out-of-towners starting in the mid-’80s — back when Romero’s wife founded a real estate agency in Taos. Romero, the firm’s managing broker, has a full crop of white hair, light olive skin and a polished grin. He looks informally earnest in blue jeans and a collared shirt with pens in the breast pocket. A 10th-generation Taoseño, he’s also worked in the town government, run a community bank, and managed the local hospital. He’s serving as my guide to the tremendous changes of the last 30 years.

Romero sees a stark divide between longtime residents and the relative newcomers who are drawn by the dramatic scenery but know little about the local culture. “There is an absolute disconnect between (that house’s owner) and the Hispanic family that has been here for generations,” he says, gesturing at the house, which is mostly hidden behind a massive wood gate. “They don’t talk to each other. They don’t know each other. And that goes both ways.”

That disconnect is at the heart of a controversy that has gripped the entire community –– the latest chapter in a long-running dispute over who owns much of this valley and a good portion of New Mexico. The dispute dates back centuries, to when this territory was ruled by Mexico, and before that, Spain. It was resurrected in October 2010, when a group of five Hispanos — a term referring to descendants of the original colonial settlers — filed documents with the Taos County Clerk claiming 20,000 acres of private land, including the ground under the house where Romero and I are parked. The land is part of the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant, which the Spanish crown awarded to 45 families in 1815 to encourage settlement of the northernmost fringe of the colonial frontier. Among the documents recorded in 2010 was a genealogy going back to 1789, a land patent that was approved by Congress in 1908, and a warranty deed asserting that the entire grant belonged to the five members of the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant Board (the deed’s filers) and anyone else with a blood tie to the original settlers. Two months later, other activists on a different board filed similar documents, claiming rights to another swath of private land — the 22,000-acre Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant just south of Taos. That filing also included a patent, a genealogy and a warranty deed.

Once they became part of the public record, the activists’ warranty deeds began popping up whenever anyone tried to buy or sell any of the houses and lots within the 42,000 total acres, as title companies did standard title searches to verify ownership. They cast a cloud on all properties in both grants. Title underwriters got spooked, and many stopped issuing insurance policies altogether, so sellers couldn’t sell and buyers couldn’t buy. There are 12,800 properties within the old Serna and Hondo land grants, adding up to 35 percent of the county’s total property tax base. Suddenly, a pretty big chunk of the local economy was in limbo. Property owners and other residents on both grants (including many descendants of the original Hispano settlers) were incensed. The president of the Taos County Association of Realtors, an Anglo, called it “economic terrorism.”

It wasn’t long before lawsuits were filed to get the deeds off the books. The town of Taos sued the Serna grant board, and a state district court judge expunged that deed in just three months. Three national title insurance companies filed a joint suit in federal court more than a year ago to have the deed for the Arroyo Hondo grant cleared, but that case remains mired in legal maneuvering. A cloud still hangs over the Hondo grant.

The house Romero and I are visiting, listed for sale for the last six months, has been shown to potential buyers just twice. Even in a depressed economy, that is a serious lack of buyer interest, especially in such a desirable location. The activists’ move “has definitely had an effect on value. And it’s had an effect on the number of transactions,” Romero says.

The movement to revive the old land grants has flared up periodically for decades, making defiant statements of a superior right to lost land –– land that sustained local Hispanos for generations before it was taken or sold. The Taos deeds reveal that even the Hispano community is divided over how to address the old grievances. And much of the trouble is largely a reaction to what’s been going on in Taos lately. Most Taos Hispanos have no interest in something as arcane as land grants, but they are acutely aware of how the land that once defined their culture continues to be taken by Anglo strangers.

Tara Lumpkin
Tara Lumpkin
Aug 20, 2012 03:20 PM
This is a good article, pointing to the most important issue in Taos: People can't work together. Ever. The fragile ecosystem can support only so many trophy homes, only so many trailers, only so many people, period. Yet there is complete denial about this by anglos, Hispanics and Native Americans, hence the scrapping. The work force is hopeless: You'll receive some of the worst service imaginable in Taos from people who have a sense of entitlement, from realtors, to servers, to retail owners (who always leave that sign out: back in 5 minutes). There is little ability among community members to think outside the box. The local government has been corrupt off and on for years. The patron system is intact. Taos is a town of renegades and individuals who backbite and attack each other, both intra and inter group. It's hard to imagine Taos pulling through this current mess, which is largely economic and educational, unless something happens to make people care. We need green businesses, a green airport, a zoning plan (the town looks like hell with storage units on green pastures and junk all over on the side south of town as one approaches from Santa Fe). We need a real university with a campus, not an online outpost to UNM-ABQ. The real issues appear to be: (1) Management: Will we ever be able to elect officials who can run the town without corrupting and with foresight? (2) Environment: Can we green the county (bike paths from Ranchos through Taos to Seco anyone?) and, thus, improve the town’s economy and quality of life? (3) Education: Can we create a fantastic educational system? Or will Taos’s charm forever be that we are behind, corrupt and ugly like any other developing country, like any other paradise lost?
Carl Colonius
Carl Colonius Subscriber
Aug 23, 2012 01:53 PM
JR has captured much of what makes Taos what it is: a unique and special place, kind of like a clay vessel, with fingerprints of the potter seen clearly in the glaze. It’s a place with inherent and historic tensions. What community doesn't have issues, doesn't have problems to work through? I do resent Tara’s characterization of Taos as hopeless in such absolutes; if that is her belief, and she walks in such cynism and negativity, then she should move to a place that makes her happy.
I'm not turning a blind eye to the issues in Taos and other rural communities in northern New Mexico, but I see a whole bunch of folks working every day to push the stone to the top of the hill, and unlike Sisyphus, there are gains made.
Sure we have issues with elected officials making decisions some of us don’t agree with, or cronyism. Attend meetings and hold them accountable. Vote them out.
Earlier this week, 60 plus Taoseños gathered at the Taos Ale House to discuss and strategize on next steps for implementing the Taos Bicycle Master Plan. The general tone of the crowd was positive, working to encourage safe biking in town and the surrounding areas, creating connectivity between public spaces both by adding bike lanes on new and reconstructed roads as well as developing the trail system infrastructure off-road. We have some of the best rides anywhere - tell me you've experienced the Rift Valley Trails, or ridden the South Boundary Trail in October, with crisp air and golden aspen leaves layered on the single track. And have you visited UNM Taos' campus? I can't believe you have, or you would recognize the HUGE steps Kate O'Neill and her staff have taken to create educational opportunities for the entire community. New facilities, diverse faculty, huge solar array to power the campus... it is anything but an “online outpost” as you say.

There are people that care in Taos, care about Taos. Let me get you a cup of coffee at the World Cup - best coffee around. I like your ideas about the real issues, and I’d love to make sure you know about the groups that are working on solutions to the problems.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Aug 29, 2012 02:23 PM
Hm. Taos trasher versus Taos booster. I've been to Taos three times and I like the place, even though I agree with Tara over the attitude problems. But I tell ya what, it's like Tucson, just on a smaller scale. Cronyism? Nepotism? Culture wars? Welcome to the southwest!

The burst financial bubbles of the 80's through 08 covered a lot of good land in McMansions, many of which now stand empty, waiting for the next deep pocket to buy in, move in, and become one with local insanity. It's worthwhile to note that the financially well-padded generally cultivate only other financially well-padded persons, ignoring those of leaner means. Want friction? How 'bout a blast from the past? Think of how the Spanish overran the tribes, then the Mexicans, finally our beloved US of A, creating layered conquests. A tide of money swamping an otherwise not-so-wealthy area can feel a little like a conquest.
Jim McMahon
Jim McMahon
Aug 30, 2012 10:45 AM
Where I live, in southern Utah, the descendants of the original mormon settlers think they are entitled in some way to govern as they see fit...ignoring the input of the newcomers who have built homes on the land they sold. These guys have gotten rich on land that was nearly worthless but still act like they own the place. Meanwhile the local Piute tribe lives in poverty on their reservation.

I guess really this is sort of the history of the world...the conquerors act as they will until they are conquered. It would be nice to think we could all work together but I see very little evidence of it anywhere.
Mark C Dalen
Mark C Dalen Subscriber
Sep 16, 2012 02:26 PM
For an historical background of NM land issues may I suggest Enchantment & Exploitation by W de Buys. Although the book was written in the early 80s this HCN piece proves it is still relevant. I re-read this book upon completion of this article to remind myself just what 400 years of isolation & repeated conquest can wreak on the sociology of an area....
Linda Kastelic
Linda Kastelic
Dec 25, 2013 04:49 PM
Much of the current difficulties between Anglos (yeah, right) and Hispanos is the reluctance of either side to investigate prior uses. And in particular, the concept of "Common Areas". An understanding of this concept is crucial to understanding the current lawsuits over the Hondo Grant and the Serna Land Grant. "Grey's Valley" is a great little story, explaining Common Lands and early settlers' misunderstanding of the concept. The story takes place in S. Colorado where many of the original Hispano communities also settled.

Tara, communication problems are just that communication problems and the only way to make any progress is for each of us to honor the other and TALK, TALK, AND TALK. Many come to NM in general for the ambiance, but they bring their own values and communities and money into our beautiful little towns and rarely become involved in the community issues. Many are only here a few months of the year. And Max, I recently found out that my family are heirs to portions of the Maxwell Land Grant. So, you never can tell this is NM. And regarding cultural differences, and out-of-towners, just look at Santa Fe. When my sons were young, they could fish in the Santa Fe River. Yes, fish in the Santa Fe River! :)
Rita Gibbs
Rita Gibbs
Dec 25, 2013 07:44 PM
Fascinating article. I have always felt a little uncomfortable in Taos and even Santa Fe, despite their beauty and cultural relevance. There is a simmering but palpable anger between the 3 primary groups of residents; Hispanos, Native Americans and Anglos. It feels unfriendly and I never feel really welcome. I also felt the same in Kanab, Utah where I live for 5 years. The Mormon majority called outsiders " move-ins" and tolerated us just barely. The inbred theocracy that was called local government was laughable. They hate tourists and the BLM and the federal government even though their economy depends in large measure upon all three. The Taos situation is even more complex, of course. I could never live there because I would always have the sense that I was trespassing. Then again, the Hispanos are trespassing on Native American's land.