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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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.”

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