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Know the West

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


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.

The original Hispano settlers struggled fiercely to eke out an existence in the 7,000-foot-high Taos Valley, dealing with wild swings in temperature and a scarcity of water. To promote settlement, beginning in the late 1700s, the Spanish crown granted large tracts of land to individuals, groups or towns in what became New Mexico. After the Mexicans threw out the Spanish rulers, the Mexican government issued more land grants. Many were “community” grants that included small private parcels for homesites as well as large areas held in common and used for grazing livestock or gathering firewood and building materials.

U.S. troops invaded Mexico in 1846, aiming to take control of California and the Southwest, and Mexico surrendered with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Though the treaty put much of Mexico’s Northern Territory (including New Mexico) into U.S. hands, it promised that hundreds of land grants and other Hispano holdings would be respected if their owners could prove the validity of their claims to the U.S. government.

It’s hard to say exactly how much land belonged to Hispano settlers and heirs; Congress eventually acknowledged almost 6 million acres of various land grants in New Mexico. But the process was sketchy at best. The U.S. government created the office of the Surveyor General, and then the Court of Private Land Claims, to confirm grants, but both were underfunded and plagued by corruption. Probably the worst example was Henry Atkinson, surveyor general from 1876 to 1884, who tried unsuccessfully to claim the 380,000-acre Anton Chico Land Grant, southeast of Santa Fe, for his own cattle corporation.

In the second half of the 19th century, the millions of acres of communal land on grants held by poor, Spanish-speaking villagers became easy targets for Anglo attorneys and speculators who used courtroom acrobatics and bribery to take over the land. Land-grant heirs were largely oblivious, as a good portion of the grants ended up in the hands of Anglo ranchers and logging companies. Common lands were often seized by the U.S. government as “public domain” and later absorbed by the fledgling national forest system. The Forest Service eventually enacted regulations and limits on use that irked many grant heirs who’d relied on the forests for generations.

When the heirs began to realize that they’d lost the land, they had little recourse. Records during the territorial period are spotty and imprecise, and the countless land sales and lawsuits amount to a rat’s nest of unscrupulousness. “It’s literally lost to history,” says David Correia, a land-grant scholar and associate professor at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a mess that we’ll never be able to unravel, so it becomes this flashpoint.”

The movement to assert Hispano rights to the old land grants took off in the 1960s. Texas-born, ex-evangelical preacher Reies López Tijerina blew into New Mexico’s rural villages, trumpeting about past injustices. He was a charismatic leader, and his message of loss and dispossession resonated with many poverty-stricken Hispanos. He organized grassroots opposition to state and federal authorities, called the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (the Federal Land Grant Alliance), which quickly gained thousands of members. There were increasing conflicts between Hispano farmers and ranchers and the Forest Service over grazing, water and firewood rights on public land that once belonged to grant heirs, including episodes of arson and fence-cutting. The climax came in June 1967, when three carloads of armed land-grant activists stormed the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in tiny Tierra Amarilla, west of Taos. They tried to place the county’s district attorney, who sought to prosecute Alianza members, under citizens’ arrest. Two lawmen were wounded by gunshots, another was severely beaten, and the raiders escaped into the woods. A sympathetic jury found Tijerina not guilty of charges related to the courthouse raid, but he served two years in prison on other charges involving an attempt to take back national forest land. The resulting international attention put a spotlight on the land-grant movement.

Since then, the movement has evolved from a radicalized revolt to an institutionalized part of government. Juan Sanchez is president of the Chilili Land Grant Board, which manages 8,000 acres of common lands in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque. He is also chairman of the New Mexico Land Grant Council, an agency of state government created in 2009 to help land-grant boards with planning and organization. In the last 40 years, Sanchez says, policy-makers have become more educated about past wrongs, and activists no longer use guns to seek justice. “We can’t do that no more,” Sanchez says. “There’s always confrontations in the land-grant movement, but those battles are taking place in court. It’s a different level than all the shooting.”

Activists pushed the Legislature to pass several laws in the last decade governing communal land-grant boards. There are now 33 registered with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. The parcels they control range in size from as little as 15 acres to tens of thousands and are still used by heirs for grazing, firewood-gathering and hunting. The five-member boards are elected by heirs interested in using the common lands who can trace their heritage back to the original settlers. Usually, heirs must register with the board and pay minimal dues or fees for using the land. (Just determining the number of “heirs” can be impossible. I’m a great example: I grew up in Colorado; both of my parents are from South Dakota. But a few distant relatives on my mother’s side were New Mexican Hispanos, so I learned recently that I’m an heir to at least two grants near Albuquerque, and probably more.)

As government units similar to municipalities, land-grant boards are eligible for state and federal funds to manage common lands within the grant. Boards are steering taxpayer money to projects like riparian restoration and forest thinning. A land-grant legislative committee created in 2003 sponsors bills and doles out state funds to the boards. A program at the University of New Mexico focuses on archival research to retrace the boundaries of traditional common lands. The boards and heirs hope to use these maps to determine lost land and petition for its return.

In 2008, for example, 32 acres of former common lands that somehow wound up in state hands decades ago were returned to the Abiquiu Land Grant. Gilbert Ferran of the New Mexico Land Grant Consejo, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of land grants, says the Abiquiu grant has about 75 member heirs who use its several thousand acres for grazing, timber and firewood harvesting, and hunting.

Nonprofits are also teaming up with land-grant boards to promote economic development. The Albuquerque-based Center of Southwest Culture is using farming, housing and eco-tourism cooperatives to revitalize rural, land-based Hispano villages on the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, San Fernando y Santiago del Rio de las Truchas Land Grant. Those heirs share thousands of acres of common land administered by the grant board, and small cooperatives — each composed of a few families — are allowed to use the land for a minimal fee to grow organic crops or guide trips into the neighboring Pecos Wilderness.

“Land grants are historically collective organizations, cooperative organizations, and they operate on the principle of community-based decision making,” says Arturo Sandoval, who heads the Center of Southwest Culture. “Co-ops are just a modern expression of a cultural phenomenon that’s been in place in New Mexico, through land grants and acequias (communal irrigation ditches), for the last 400 years.”

Most of today’s land-grant boards are in remote areas where common lands haven’t changed much from a century ago. But in Taos, activists feel increasingly desperate in the face of a rapidly changing landscape. Former common lands are being devoured by development, while boards still struggle to organize.

As with most other grants, the histories of the Arroyo Hondo and Cristobal de la Serna grants are extremely muddled. On the Serna grant, alleged common lands were cut into narrow parcels called lineas and redistributed to heirs as a part of a tax survey in the 1940s. Lineas are sometimes only a few feet wide and miles long, and many families don’t even know which linea they own. Activists have long asserted that the lineas area was always used in common. Prior court rulings, however, have determined that the Serna grant was a private grant, meaning no land was ever held in common. On the Hondo grant, Anglo speculators and miners challenged the government’s original survey of the common lands, arguing that the cuchilla del cerro (ridge of the mountain) that served as a landmark for the grant’s eastern boundary in the original Spanish documents referred to a ridge in the foothills, not the mountaintops above. In the end, the government sided with the Anglos and left out about 10,000 acres that were subsequently picked up by the Forest Service.

The deeds for the Hondo and Serna grants were filed in the belief that they would lead to the return of lost land. Both boards were formed within the last three years and are registered as communal land grants with the state, but neither has any legal control over actual property. The Serna board recruited about a dozen heirs, who supposedly proved to the organizers that they had blood ties with the original grantees. That small group then voted in the current board members. The Hondo board members didn’t bother with an election. They appointed themselves, and it’s unlikely that there are more than two or three other heirs who recognize that board’s authority.

When the controversy over the warranty deeds erupted in early 2011, the Serna board backpedaled. Its members said they recorded the documents seeking publicity for their effort to regain control of the 7,000 acres of lineas that run in parallel tracts from the center of Taos toward Picuris Peak, 10 miles south. Without a precise survey, it was quicker to file a deed based on the 1903 patent for the entire 22,000-acre grant. Clouding the titles to thousands of private properties was an accident. “It went beyond what we thought it would do,” says Francisco “Comanche” Gonzales, a Serna grant heir who helped the current board file the deed. The whole bungled affair attracted plenty of bad press, infuriating many of the same heirs that the board needed to unite. The board now plans to start over from scratch. It has requested $150,000 from the Legislature to survey the lineas, but memories of the deed debacle make that an unlikely prospect.

The five members of the Hondo board — three of whom belong to the Ortiz family — are clinging to their questionable conclusion that the 1907 patent from Congress gives heirs perpetual title to the entire grant. While the patent says that the grant belongs to the “heirs, successors and assigns” of the settlers forever, the noun “assigns” is commonly understood to be anyone to whom property is sold or transferred — meaning that blood descendants could sell their individual parcels to non-heirs. However dodgy the deals might have been that wrested land from Hispano heirs, the language in the patent does not negate them.

After the Hondo board filed its warranty deed, an angry crowd of locals — heirs and non-heirs — turned up for the Hondo board’s next meeting to confront board members about their unilateral move to seize control of all of the properties. Some suspected that the deed was really a clumsy attempt to prevent foreclosure on a house owned by board member Lawrence Ortiz, who had defaulted on his mortgage. (The house was scheduled to be auctioned off the same day the Hondo warranty deed was recorded. No one placed a bid, and although a bank has since foreclosed, it’s been unable to sell the house because of the warranty deed.)

An unsigned letter posted at the Arroyo Hondo Post Office urged residents not to be intimidated by the “family board of trustees.” A highway sign announcing: “Entering Arroyo Hondo Land Grant” was spray-painted to read: “Entering ORTIZ Hondo Land Grant.” Palmela Reed-Ortiz, a sister of the three Ortiz board members, sued the board to disperse the cloud from a house given to her by her father. Yet her father’s signature appears on the warranty deed for the entire grant. During a deposition in that case, the 101-year-old father denied ever signing that deed. The district attorney in Taos, a supporter of the land-grant movement, has since charged Lawrence Ortiz with forgery and attempted fraud; he pled “not guilty” and awaits trial.

David Kramer, an Albuquerque attorney who represents Palmela Reed-Ortiz, says many land-grant heirs have legitimate grievances but need to follow state laws about forming boards, managing common lands and lobbying for funding and support. “The way to do it is certainly not to trick your dad into signing something that’s basically a sham deed,” Kramer says. “It seems like all of this, instead of being a genuine attempt to revitalize a land grant, just has a real flavor of self-interest.”

While some Hispanos think the controversy over the deeds was a black eye for the land-grant movement, others hail the deeds as a brave attempt to fight the unjust Anglo machine — ignoring the unsavory foreclosure and fraud details. “It did bring awareness and say that land grants are still alive in northern New Mexico, and this isn’t going to go away,” says Sanchez, at the New Mexico Land Grant Council.

The Hondo board tried to portray its actions as a continuation of the work the legendary Tijerina began 50 years earlier. Last summer, the board and a few supporters paraded Tijerina around the state to make appearances and give speeches. Now in his 80s, Tijerina received a hero’s welcome at most stops, and was even awarded the key to the city of Las Vegas, N.M. Tijerina’s appearance near Taos was more subdued. Breathing from an oxygen tank and hanging onto the passenger door of a white sedan, Tijerina spoke to a small gathering on the banks of the Río Hondo. His hair and beard were stark white, but his expressive eyebrows remained jet-black. Tijerina made no mention of the Hondo or Serna deeds. Instead, he launched into an anti-Semitic harangue in Spanish, asserting that New Mexican Hispanos were the true lost tribe of Israel. The small crowd was polite but underwhelmed by the rambling diatribe.

Regardless of whether the activists were effective, they brought a new perspective to growth here. Taos’ isolation and beauty have long drawn urban Anglo refugees. Eccentric artists like D.H. Lawrence (an English writer and painter) and Georgia O’Keeffe (a New York refugee) found a wealth of inspiration in the valley’s unique people and landscapes beginning in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the steep, north-facing slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains drew German-born Ernie Blake, who used a single-engine airplane to scout the location for a ski resort, Taos Ski Valley.

Tourism really took off in the 1980s, driven by year-round recreation and cultural attractions, the most famous of which is Taos Pueblo, an Indian reservation whose ancient multi-storied adobe apartments stand at the base of particularly beautiful mountains. The Pueblo borders the town but is its own world. For the most part, the tribal government has an uneasy relationship with its Hispano and Anglo neighbors, and prefers to keep to itself. The Pueblo embraces tourism on its own terms, strictly controlling visitation, and in 1971, the tribe leveraged its mystique to persuade the U.S. government to give back one of its spiritual sites, 48,000 acres around Blue Lake, which had been absorbed by the Forest Service 65 years earlier. When President Nixon signed the bill to return the land, he said it was righting a past wrong. The irony isn’t lost on Hispano land-grant activists.

Tourism has attracted more outsiders who settle here, including many retirees. The county’s population jumped by almost 50 percent between 1990 and 2010 — from around 23,000 to almost 33,000, with almost all new development within a 10-mile radius of Taos.

To cater to the increasingly affluent crowd, Taos boasts luxuries not found in the average New Mexican town of 5,000, including pricy restaurants, yoga studios, spas and nearly a dozen espresso shops. Bumper stickers proclaiming “London — Paris — Tokyo — Taos” promote Taos as a cosmopolitan village. Romero says most people bought land and built vacation homes for the laid-back lifestyle that includes the skiing and the art. But despite touches of elegance, most of the community is still made up of Hispanos and Native Americans who live in modest, or impoverished, conditions.

“It’s like a Disneyland,” Romero says. “You go to Disneyland, and you enjoy being there. But you sure as hell don’t want to be Mickey Mouse.”

Taos native Sylvia Rodriguez sees the newcomers who visit or relocate as charmed by the veneer of a quaint, multicultural art colony. The reality, however, is very different. “A lot of people come here to get away from the city, but we have our own version of it,” says Rodriguez, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of New Mexico who earned her doctorate at Stanford. “This is a ghetto — a colonially structured society, even today.”

The same gulf between rich and poor, newcomer and longtime local, can be found in other Western resort towns, but here it’s complicated by racial overtones and the bitter property disputes epitomized by the land grants. The dichotomy between rich and poor was highlighted in a 2009 community health report by Taos C.A.R.E.S., a coalition of agencies and nonprofits: “It has been said that there are ‘two Taoses’ — one that is enjoyed by an affluent population that takes advantage of a lifestyle that includes luxury residences, expensive restaurants, skiing, a golf course, and a wide variety of cultural and artistic events, and one in which over 17 percent live in poverty, over 30 percent do not have health insurance and the median income is ‘significantly worse’ than the state average.”

Taos County also suffers drug and alcohol epidemics that disproportionately affect Hispanics and Native Americans, the C.A.R.E.S. report points out, and domestic violence is a problem in both groups. Public schools, which are predominantly Hispanic, are struggling. In 2009, only 41 percent of Taos High School seniors graduated. (New Mexico’s average that year was 66 percent — the nation’s third-worst statewide graduation rate.) The troubled public schools have spawned charter and private schools that, until very recently, drew mostly Anglo students and further segregated the community.

Rodriguez argues that these social crises derive from a long history of conquest and occupation. In 1680, Taos Pueblo and other pueblo tribes drove out the Spanish invaders, only to have them come back for good in bigger numbers and better armed. In 1847, right after the U.S. Army invaded New Mexico, a gang of Taos Indians and Hispanos rioted and murdered several Americans, including Charles Bent, the territory’s first U.S. governor. To longtime locals, this wasn’t so long ago. Rodriguez sees echoes in modern Taos, even though “all of this is swept under the rug in a sanitized facade that we have to present to the customers.”

The facade worked for many residents for a while. Taos County’s total economy nearly doubled from 1994 to 2008, mostly propelled by home construction and retail sales related to the newcomers. The boom provided many longtime Taoseños with a paycheck, but the growing pains have been agonizing. Service industry jobs are usually seasonal and low-paying, with no benefits. And construction work is unpredictable, a truth that hit home once the housing market soured in 2008 and hundreds of laborers found themselves unemployed. Romero tells me about the lack of jobs in the current recession as we wind our way along a narrow dirt road in a mostly Hispano neighborhood. A man and boy blast by us on a four-wheeler. Chickens wander in a trailer’s dirt front yard. A lot of Hispanos do whatever they can to get by, Romero says: “They’re getting a temporary job. Hustling this, hustling that. There’s no permanency.”

The spike in growth and the number of expensive homes has sent the cost of living soaring. A recent affordable-housing study found that the median home value in Taos County shot from $125,000 to $211,000 in the decade that ended in 2010. Fewer than 5 percent of county residents who rely on a local job for income could afford to buy a house at that price. One-quarter of the county’s population lives in mobile homes, while another quarter of the total housing units are second homes or vacation properties that are usually vacant. Many of Taos’ young people have left for cities like Denver or Albuquerque, where it’s easier to find steady work and affordable housing.

Ernie Atencio, former director of the Taos Land Trust and a former HCN board member, says many of Taos’ oldest Hispano families now find themselves land-rich but cash-poor. With economic pressures mounting, it’s becoming harder for those families that still own sizable lots to avoid selling out piece-by-piece. “The vast majority of traditional local families have a strong sense of stewardship and connection to the land. They would rather keep it open and intact, but it’s their only access to any sort of wealth,” Atencio says. “People talk so much about, and venerate, the land-based cultures of northern New Mexico. But the land base is disappearing. So what happens to the culture?” Today, very few young Hispanos show any interest in farming or ranching. Much of the irrigable land around Taos is now fallow or already developed.

Not only are new subdivisions overrunning agricultural land, sprawl and poor planning have strained public infrastructure and led to unbearable traffic problems in Taos’ narrow downtown. The result is a random patchwork of industrial zones, residential areas and strip malls that is a blight on the landscape and a threat to public health and safety. Efforts to shape development through planning have been largely unsuccessful, in part because of Taoseños’ innate distrust of government and outsiders. In February, the Taos County Commission held a week of public hearings on a proposed land-use code that would have, for the first time, imposed zoning. The fundamental goal was to curb the loss of historic farmland while establishing areas where businesses could thrive and create better job opportunities.

The code took years to draft. But on the final day of hearings, another crowd of angry Hispanos filled the commission chambers. Insisting they had been left out of the process, they argued that the new code was being pushed by newcomers who wanted to protect their own property values with little regard for traditional uses. The day-long hearing was filled with “us-versus-them” rhetoric, and the voices of supporters were drowned out by their belligerent opponents. Faced with turmoil, the commissioners, all middle-aged Hispano men, voted to drop the whole thing.

David Maes — a Hispano who grew up in Taos, spent his career in the Coast Guard, and came home to retire — helped draft the code. Given the long history of government and Anglo betrayal, Maes says it wasn’t hard for opponents to get the Hispano base stirred up. “These are people who have lived here all their lives, who have very few resources outside their land and culture,” Maes says. “These people feel very threatened about this growing and endless wave of newcomers that’s coming and engulfing their beloved Taos.”

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.