‘Men like you weren’t meant to own land’

Rural Colorado has a history of discriminatory lending.

 

A small pen of sheep outside a farm in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

When Alfonso Abeyta returned from the Korean War in 1961, he dreamt of taking over his family’s ranch in south-central Colorado. Located just outside of Mogote, a small town with ancestral roots in New Spain, the Abeyta family had raised sheep and crops in the San Luis Valley for generations. Like many others in the region, the Abeytas are descendants of Hispanic settlers who came up the Old Spanish Trail in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In order to keep the ranch operating, shortly after Abeyta came home from the war, he drove to the local Farmers Home Administration branch in nearby Alamosa, hoping to secure a loan to help the family get through the year before they sold their sheep in the fall. But his application was denied. And as he turned to leave the office that day, the loan officer told him something he never forgot. “Men like you weren’t meant to own land,” the agent said. “You were meant to work it.”

“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” Abeyta told me on a crisp February morning, looking down at his thick, knotty hands. “I was devastated.” He had been a U.S. Marine, but he was raised a farmer, and that’s all he knew. So when he was denied the money he needed to run the family operation, he was left with few options. He and his wife, Martha, were forced to move six hours away to Denver in search of work. 

“I had to give up my way of life,” Abeyta said. 

For the Abeytas, that day marked the beginning of a long legal battle. They weren’t alone: During the 20th century, hundreds of Hispanic farmers and ranchers across the San Luis Valley were routinely denied the credit they needed to keep going. Much like the better-documented biased lending practice known as redlining, which affected minority residents’ access to services across the U.S., discriminatory lending against Hispanics in the Southwest set in motion a devastating cycle of displacement and destruction that undermined a unique culture. 

Unable to access loans, the Abeyta family began a life of constant migration between the city and their beloved Conejos County. And yet, despite the odds, for 50 years they kept their ranch afloat, their family intact, and their fight for justice alive.

Alfonso Abeyta stands outside Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church he and his wife attend in Conejos, Colorado. Abeyta was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by Hispanic farmers and ranchers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ben Waddell

MOGOTE IS ONE of a handful of largely abandoned towns that hug the Colorado border with New Mexico. The area is surrounded by rolling hills of sagebrush and native grass, which stretch toward the horizon, where rugged hills engulf the light-turquoise prairie. At some point they give way to steep canyons carved out of the earth by the Conejos River. The steady stream, which feeds the Rio Grande, flows relentlessly toward the valley below from the mountains where the Abeytas have summered their sheep for the last 150 years.

This is the same landscape that the Spanish conquistadores saw in 1680 when they fled Taos, New Mexico, after the Pueblo Revolt. And centuries later, in 1833, it was the place that hardy settlers like the Abeytas’ ancestors chose to call home when they received the Conejos Land Grant from the Mexican government. In 1848, Mexico ceded half of her territory, including Conejos County, to the United States in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Still, as men like Abeyta frequently remind outsiders, “We never crossed the border, the border crossed us.”

Throughout the 1930s, most Hispanic settlers in the San Luis Valley survived on subsistence farming and ranching. Families planted rows of beans, corn and squash, feeding their gardens with agricultural ditches called acequias that were identical to the ones their Spanish ancestors dug during the colonial period. Like those who came before him, Abeyta spent his own childhood working the land, tending crops and speaking his native Spanish.

When the U.S. emerged from the Great Depression, the federal government took a more active role in agricultural production. By subsidizing the cost of equipment and providing landowners with large operating loans, it transformed farming in places like the San Luis Valley. Credit allowed farmers and ranchers to invest in their fields and herds early in the year without having to come up with large sums on their own.

For white rural Americans, these low-interest loans encouraged unprecedented growth and expansion. But for Hispanic farmers, like Abeyta and his neighbors, the subsidized loans were often used to push them out of farming and ranching altogether.

For white rural Americans, these low-interest loans encouraged unprecedented growth and expansion. But for Hispanic farmers, like Abeyta and his neighbors, the subsidized loans were often used to push them out of farming and ranching altogether.

Like redlining in urban areas, unequal access to credit in rural America baited minority farmers and ranchers into inescapable financial traps. Richard Gomez, the first Hispanic loan officer in the area, explained to me how this worked. First, the loan officers would deny Hispanics government loans, which had the lowest-interest rates. Then they’d refer them to private lenders who offered higher rates and worked with appraisers to undervalue their land and assets. This left Hispanic borrowers eligible for less credit. Unable to invest adequately in their farms and ranches, Hispanics received just enough money to get in trouble but never enough to keep their farms and ranches afloat.

“In time, they’d fail or simply leave. The land would go back to the bank, and who do you think was there to buy it up at a discounted rate at the courthouse? The Anglos. It was a big scheme,” Gomez told me. As a result of these practices, many Hispanic families in the valley lost their operations and left for good. But Alfonso and Martha Abeyta were different. 

WHEN ABEYTA WAS DENIED his first loan in 1961, he and his family moved to Denver. But most weekends, they’d drive home to Mogote, where they used their savings to keep the ranch afloat. Over the years, they kept applying for loans. The results were always the same, but the Abeytas kept a record of every loan they were denied with the hope of one day holding the loan officers responsible for their actions. To this end, in 2000 Alfonso Abeyta joined Garcia v. Veneman, a class-action lawsuit filed by Hispanic farmers and ranchers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

The main plaintiff, Guadalupe L. Garcia, was a third-generation farmer from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Anglo loan officers denied Garcia operating loans, and eventually he lost his land. As Garcia explained in his declaration to the U.S. House of Representatives: “To add insult to injury, FSA (Farm Service Agency) assisted the Anglo farmers in purchasing our farms at a special master’s sale,” he wrote. “In fact, one of the purchasers was the same neighbor who years earlier had stated that it would only be a matter of time before he would own our farm.” 

Garcia’s account coincided with what Gomez observed during his time as a loan officer in the San Luis Valley. Gomez submitted dozens of declarations in the Garcia case to support the farmers. “It was known in this area you had very little chance of getting a farm loan if you were Hispanic and my observations while working at the FmHA (Farmers Home Administration) confirmed it,” he wrote at the time. 

“In fact, one of the purchasers was the same neighbor who years earlier had stated that it would only be a matter of time before he would own our farm.” 

In 1986, for example, Gomez noted that only two of the 30 farm loans given out in the San Luis Valley went to Hispanics, even though just over 40% of the valley’s residents reported being Hispanic on the U.S. Census. And even when Hispanics were given loans, the agency would delay the delivery of funds, making it hard for them to run their operations without going bankrupt. 

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains sit east of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. In 1986, two of the 30 farm loans given out in the valley went to Hispanics, even though just over 40% of the valley’s residents reported being Hispanic on the U.S. Census.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Garcia v. Veneman was not the first case claiming discriminatory practices. In 1999, African Americans and Native Americans brought two separate class action lawsuits against the USDA. Both cases were successful in establishing a pattern of discriminatory lending. As a result, Congress appropriated $2 billion to African American plaintiffs, and in Keepseagle v. Vilsack, the government created a settlement fund of $680 million.

These precedents gave the Abeytas hope. But then, on Sept. 10, 2004, a district judge denied the claimants in Garcia v. Veneman class certification, a classification that would have given them the ability to sue the government as a group. According to the court, the litigants failed to present enough hard evidence to warrant a class action lawsuit. However, as Gomez pointed out, there was little evidence to work with because the white loan officers had denied Hispanic borrowers without fully processing their loans. “It was as if it never happened,” Gomez lamented. 

Abeyta was devastated, but by then he’d connected with other plaintiffs, including Garcia. Together, they continued to pressure local and national representatives to look into the case. Their dedication paid off in 2015, when President Barack Obama instructed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to create a settlement fund for Hispanic farmers who had been adversely affected by discriminatory lending. The fund — which became known as Garcia v. Vilsack — allowed Hispanic farmers and ranchers to apply for compensation. As the culmination of decades of legal battles, it should have been a moment to celebrate — but it wasn’t. Only 5.9% of the 53,803 claims filed were approved for payment. And by filing for reparations, applicants signed away their rights to file grievances against the government in the future. 

Alfonso and Martha Abeyta were among the fortunate few. In 2015, they received $250,000. The settlement hardly made up for their decades of hardship, however. “It was just a drop in the bucket,” Martha Abeyta told me. “We didn’t have much of a life on the weekends because we were here (in Mogote), and then during the week we were there (in Pueblo or Denver). And the kids had to switch schools. … For all the sacrifices we made, for all the things we had to give up. For all the things we couldn’t give our kids. No, the $250,000 is nothing, nothing,” she said. “And, it came a little late.” 

TODAY, YEARS AFTER THE HEYDAY of discriminatory lending in the San Luis Valley, Hispanic farmers and ranchers still find themselves at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis their Anglo neighbors. Because of this history of bias lending, Hispanics are less likely to inherit land and equipment, leaving them with less collateral to expand their farms and ranches. It also means that if they need credit today, even if they’re eligible, they face less favorable lending terms than producers with more assets. 

Hispanic residents’ inability to grow wealth like their white counterparts helps explain the income gap in places like Conejos County, where the median income for white families was $52,159 in 2017, compared to just $27,739 for Hispanics. It also sheds light on the massive wealth gaps in the United States today. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2016 median wealth for white families was $146,984 compared to $6,591 for Latinos/Hispanics and $3,557 for Black people. 

The Abeyta family reflects these disparities. According to economist Patrick O’Brien, they lost just over $3.4 million dollars in forgone income as a result of being denied agricultural loans. Still, as Abeyta has long maintained, his struggle was never about the money: “It was about what is right.”

Ben Waddell is a writer and an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College based in Durango, Colorado. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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