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.

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

    FSA/LOC
  • 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.

    Percold/Shutterstock
  • 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
 

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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.

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