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.