The forgotten history of wilderness, and a possible future

Mexican American lands were taken upon annexation into the U.S., part of a history that is too often ignored.


If you ask a Mexican American, they will probably tell you that a place like the Gila Wilderness is not “wilderness” at all. They would say that the land there is stolen.

The first person whose life will help tell this history is Reies López Tijerina. For five days in October 1966, Tijerina and his group of activists, La Alianza, led a takeover of part of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. They renamed it the Republic of San Joaquín del Rio de Chama, a reference to the 1806 Spanish grant that claimed the territory from the original Apache, Ute and Pueblo inhabitants. Tijerina’s organization, whose full name was La Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres, included more than 6,000 heirs, descendants of the original recipients of 50 Mexican and Spanish land grants. He was eventually arrested for the violation of public lands, but not without first having his say.

In black-and-white archival footage of La Alianza’s takeover, Tijerina stands tall and dapper in a dark suit, his hair neatly arranged with brilliantine in the same way that I remember my father styling his. Tijerina speaks in the middle of a crowd of law enforcement officials, explaining that La Alianza will take full responsibility for the action. When a man wearing a badge tries to cite a law to him, Tijerina interrupts, “Yes, I know your laws already. We’ve been citizens of the United States for 120 years, and we know the laws.” Frustrated with being treated like a second-class citizen, he references his in-depth studies of land law, not only in the United States, but in Mexico and Spain as well.

La Alianza’s aim was to restore the land to the Mexican American families dispossessed following the Mexican-American War, when Mexico lost half its territory to the United States. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, also promised to make citizens of, and protect the property rights of, the approximately 110,000 Mexicans who chose to remain on lands annexed by the United States. But as with many U.S. treaties, this one was not fully honored.

When I teach Chicanx Literature at the University of North Texas, I always start the class with a screening of the first episode of the four-part documentary film Chicano! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement. Part one, “Quest for a Homeland,” begins with La Alianza’s land takeover. Every semester, the students express frustration and disgust that they do not learn about the Mexican American civil rights movement until they are well into their college education. These students are by and large from Texas and educated in Texas public schools. I feel for them, too. I grew up in Texas and didn’t learn about Chicanx history until I got to graduate school, first at UCLA and then at Rice University in Houston.

The ideals of the U.S. civil rights movement included transforming education so that such gaping holes of knowledge get filled. A part of that plan worked. Otherwise, this queer Chicana born in South Dallas would not be setting the curriculum in a college classroom. But so many of the contributions to U.S. history from Black, Indigenous, Mexican American, Latinx and Asian American communities still get left out. The overwhelming narrative that gets taught serves the delusion of white supremacy. The story of wilderness is no different. But the history of American conservation is not as white as we think it is.

The overwhelming narrative that gets taught serves the delusion of white supremacy. The story of wilderness is no different.

TAKE ANOTHER EXAMPLE from New Mexico: Estella Bergere Leopold. She was an American conservationist along with her scientist-writer husband. Their five children also became leading scientists, academics and conservationists; three have been named to the National Academy of Sciences. But your typical admirer of Aldo Leopold does not know the heritage of his wife and children. Why does the Mexican American background of one of the leading families of American conservation remain hidden in plain sight?

Estella Bergere was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1890 to Eloisa Luna Bergere, a descendant of the Lunas, one of the oldest settler families in the state, and Alfred M. Bergere, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland. The Lunas trace their lands back to the Spanish era, to the 1716 San Clemente land grant that dispossessed Pueblo tribes in the area south of present-day Albuquerque known as Los Lunas. The family stayed on during the transition from Spanish colony to Mexican territory, and from Mexican territory to U.S. territory and, in 1912, the state of New Mexico.

Aldo first arrived in the Southwest in 1909, freshly graduated from the newly established Yale Forest School, to begin as a ranger, first in Arizona territory and then in New Mexico territory. He met and married Estella in 1912. Their eldest son, Starker, was born in 1913, followed by brother Luna in 1915, Adelina “Nina” in 1917, and Carl in 1919; the youngest, Estella, was born in 1927, after the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where Aldo was professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. Even then, Estella and the kids spent summers with their family back in Santa Fe.

None of this so-called conservation would be possible without the original and ongoing dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Certainly, American conservation seems to mean well — establishing not just wilderness areas but national parks, monuments, forests, city parks and protected beaches. But there’s an insidious cover story going on here: that white Americans are the purveyors of this generosity. None of this so-called conservation would be possible without the original and ongoing dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples. In a sense, one might understand Aldo Leopold to be a father of American wilderness. He went on to make an impact in the areas of ecological restoration and environmental philosophy, too. But the wilderness movement in the Southwest was built on lands acquired through the dispossession of many Mexican American families of their property rights, which were originally established by first displacing countless Indigenous peoples from their relations with lands and sacred places. With this context in mind, what does it mean to be a father of American wilderness, anyway? When I say that the history of American conservation is not as white as we think it is, I want to draw attention to the Mexican American Leopolds as much as to emphasize that educators, environmentalists, conservationists and activists need to make the ongoing violence of colonization visible when we tell the story.

So, when you ask a Mexican American about the wilderness and they tell you that it’s stolen land, do they mean that it’s stolen from Mexican Americans — or from our Indigenous relatives?

MEXICAN AMERICANS’ MIXED IDENTITY includes our past as both colonizer and colonized. The third person who helps us understand the meaning of wilderness for Mexican Americans is Enriqueta Vásquez, a Chicana feminist writer and columnist for El Grito del Norte, the newspaper associated with Tijerina’s land-grant movement. 

In the context of a movement that did not always make space for women’s voices, Vásquez’s column was titled “Despierten Hermanos!” (Wake Up, Brothers and Sisters!), and her subject matter ranged from women’s rights to cultural pride and environmental justice. Born in 1930 in southern Colorado, she grew up learning lessons of resilience from her family of migrant farmworkers. After surviving an abusive marriage and while taking care of her two children as a single mother on a secretary’s salary, she crossed paths with Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles, the Chicano civil rights leader of the Crusade for Justice in Denver. Vásquez joined the movement and never looked back. When Gonzáles asked Vásquez and her second husband to move to northern New Mexico to help run a community school teaching Mexican American history and culture to children, she readily agreed.

In New Mexico, Vásquez became part of Tijerina’s crusade for the land. But she and the staff of El Grito — which was comprised entirely of women — did not always agree with his approach. His goals involved repossession of the lands, while Vásquez and her colegas advocated for a position closer to that of Native nations to manage lands in a communal way. She urged readers to recall what Mexican Americans can learn from our Indigenous relations and our elders about how to care for the land. The Chicana writers of El Grito wanted hands off the land in the same ways that they wanted hands off their bodies. To these writer-activists, the liberation of women and of the land from colonization were one and the same.

In a Dec. 7, 1970, column titled “La Santa Tierra,” Vásquez wrote: “We learned from our viejitos of the balance of nature; that we should not kill birds, for they ate insects. … That is a balance of nature; to know how all living things complement and harmonize with each other. That is how all things live from the earth.” After commenting that those without a college education may in some ways be fortunate to escape “the Gringo value system,” she also reasoned, “We can well understand why to a people who are capable of living in harmony with nature, it is very difficult to understand the concept of ownership and possession of land.”

Vásquez did not learn this from scientists, conservationists or white American writers like Leopold. The biggest insights, she argued, come from the peoples who embody survival and defiance: “If there is a whole truth,” she wrote, “it must come from the people who have been able to endure for thousands of years.” She urged the movement to “come home to our true selves, to our Indigenous being, to our Indian family ties … alongside our Indian brothers and sisters, as a comrade nation.” The Chicano Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement, she advised, intersect on the land. “We go the way of the land; the way of the earth, the way of the water; the way of the wind,” she wrote.

In the spring of 1970, in the column “Our New Nation is Born,” Vásquez described a concept of land banks that had emerged at the second annual Chicano youth conference in Denver. There, conference participants set a political agenda for the movement. “Lands rightfully ours will be fought for and defended,” Vásquez explained. “Land Banks will be set up immediately at the Crusade for Justice. Their purpose is to hold land communally by and for Chicanos.” That idea of communalism is significant, as is the common cause against colonial violence across the globe, especially when the movement declared solidarity with political prisoners in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

Land banks, of course, differ greatly from the American concept of wilderness; their aim is to help liberate the land and the colonized peoples who care for it. Certainly, in the years that followed, they did not become a dominant land management practice. But the current #LandBack movement — as Indigenous land restoration is known today — is gaining momentum. In 2018, more than 17,000 acres were returned to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe in western Oregon. In 2019, the city of Eureka, California, returned 200 acres to the Wiyot people. The Esselen Tribe purchased back 1,200 acres in Northern California in July 2020. And in 2021, over 18,000 acres of the National Bison Range and its resident bison herd are being restored to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I prefer the #LandBack vision to the alternative. American wilderness sits there with its soul hollowed out, emptied of the peoples who help animate the land.

American wilderness sits there with its soul hollowed out, emptied of the peoples who help animate the land.

WILDERNESS TO THE MEXICAN AMERICAN is stolen land. Whether it’s stolen from Mexican Americans or stolen from Native nations will simply depend on who you ask. I join Enriqueta Vásquez in rallying Mexican Americans and Chicanx to “come home to our true selves” to build coalitions with Native nations and advocate for #LandBack. It’s what our ancestors would have wanted us to do. Because what’s a land bank but another way of saying #LandBack?


This perspective is an excerpt from First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen, forthcoming from Torrey House Press in April 2022.

Priscilla Solis Ybarra is associate professor of Latinx Literature at the University of North Texas and senior fellow for the Study of Southwestern America at Southern Methodist University’s Clements Center. Her first book, Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment, won the Thomas J. Lyon Book Award in Western American Literary and Cultural Studies. In 2016, she was an Aldo and Estella Leopold Writer in Residence in Tres Piedras, New Mexico. She is also co-editor of Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial. She lives on unceded Wichita and Caddo lands not far from where she was born, on the banks of the Trinity River, to a Mexican immigrant mother and a second-generation Mexican American father.

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