Law and land: New Mexico standoff

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Looking over the pastoral picture Tierra Amarilla paints - a sparsely populated scene of pine-studded mountains, mottled green meadows, and expansive blue skies - the visitor might believe that if there is an abundance of anything here, it is land. But for more than a century land has been at the center of the fears and the outright antagonisms that have arisen in this isolated reach of northern New Mexico.

Today a battle over a 500-acre wooded hillside has come to symbolize the long line of land deals - some legitimate, some shady, some blatantly illegal - that shaped this region as the United States expanded into what was once Spanish and then Mexican territory.

The piece of land just outside this little village was purchased legally, a New Mexico court has held, by Vista del Brazos, an Arizona investment group. But the land is also claimed by Amador Flores, a poor Hispanic farmer. Mr. Flores says he wants to return the land to community ownership, as he believes historical events intended it to be.

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After spending 62 days in jail this summer for contempt of court, Flores agreed to stay off the disputed land pending an appeal of his case. In his absence, however, a small band of militant Hispanics has moved onto the property. They have posting anti-establishment and threatening signs and have adopted ``Tierra o muerte'' - land or death - as their battle cry.

Most law and history experts say the land, part of a 600,000-acre grant Mexico made to settlers in 1832, was lost to community claims long ago. Some say it was in fact the original Mexican grantee who sold out his own people to American land speculators more than 100 years ago.

But the stubborn controversy remains a testament to the bitterness that has not died for poor Hispanic residents, many of whom are descendants of the original settlers. For them, for other Hispanics who have prospered here against difficult economic odds, and for the minority Anglos who continue to move to the area, the battle of Tierra Amarilla is a confrontation of cultures they cannot ignore.

It is a conflict between those who want life in what has been called a ``Hispanic Appalachia'' to remain untouched, and those who want change; between those taught by history to see outsiders - principally Anglos - as a threat, and those who welcome them in the name of ``progress''; and above all, between those who see land as an exploitable commodity, and those who see it as an inviolable part of a simple way of life.

``I'm not saying Amador Flores has a legal right to that property,'' says Robert Torrez, a New Mexico state historian and native of Tierra Amarilla. ``But there's a general feeling that in land disputes the courts have gone against people like Amador every time. The bitterness comes from a feeling that no matter how good their case, these people can't win.''

Flores says he has considered the land his since he fenced it in 1968 and began paying taxes on it. The short, quiet man says, ``Now is the time to return this land to the community.'' He says such community land is necessary for people here to carry on a way of life - gathering firewood, grazing animals, hunting - he believes is threatened by development.

``I want life to stay the way it is,'' he goes on. ``The outsiders, all they want is money. If they come here, taxes go up and we might have to leave.''

The Tierra Amarilla land fight has been called a real-life ``Milagro Beanfield War,'' after this year's popular novel-turned-movie about a poor New Mexico Hispanic who refuses to sell out the family homestead to money-hungry developers. But many locals say the comparison is inaccurate, only serving to romanticize Flores and the small band occupying the disputed land.

``They're just holding back progress, they're not doing anything for me,'' says Fermin Manzonares, who works in the Rio Arriba County clerk's office here. Having lived all of his 65 years in Tierra Amarilla, Mr. Manzonares says, ``I'd like my children to be able to stay here, but there's no employment whatsoever.''

Down the road, hardware store owner Henry Ulibarri says most people here support the kind of ``controlled development'' he believes could benefit the valley without destroying it. Claiming the area had ``five times the [present] population when I was growing up,'' Mr. Ulibarri, a partner in a group proposing a nearby ski run, says tourist jobs will help revitalize Tierra Amarilla.

His cousin, Carlos Ulibarri, says Flores's action is ``simple claim-jumping.'' The former teacher says there's little reason to educate area children if there are no jobs for them to fill. ``I know there was a land grant, and it should have been ours. But it was sold, so why cry over it?''

But Flores is not without supporters, mostly poor laborers who have some sense of having been wronged by history. ``This is our country, but it was stolen way back,'' says Tony Abeyta, who lives in a mobile home near Flores. ``We call this God's country, but if we surrender, the place will be full of what we call Gringos. Big business will make us like Santa Fe or Albuquerque.''

Another supporter is Baltasar Martinez, a painter who participated in a 1967 raid of the Rio Arriba courthouse that drew the National Guard, and national attention, to New Mexico land-grant controversies. ``People who poach or take wood off private land, they remember the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,'' says Mr. Martinez, referring to the treaty the US signed with Mexico in 1848. It guaranteed the property rights of Mexican citizens.

Many people here refuse to discuss the Flores claim, preferring that it just go away. But that will not happen as long as an armed group remains encamped up the hill, claiming they prefer death to giving up the land.

Pedro Arechuleta, the group's leader, calls the land - indeed, all of the Southwest - ``occupied Mexico,'' and says he will not leave until the US government returns the parcel to the local people.

Some locals grumble that Mr. Arechuleta is using Flores's case to further his own political agenda. Others say they believe possible solutions to a touchy problem are being held up by his presence.

Peter Holzem, a local lawyer for the title insurer in the Vista del Brazos purchase, says he has heard the owners might agree to a settlement setting aside 100 acres as community land. ``But nothing like that will happen with [Arechuleta] there, I can guarantee it,'' he says.

In addition, US Rep. Bill Richardson (D), who has called a congressional hearing on Spanish and Mexican land grants in Santa Fe next month, has suggested that national forest land might be set aside to give Tierra Amarilla the community property other land grants have maintained.

But for many here, just setting aside some land won't solve the problem. Tierra Amarilla, they say, must move beyond the suspicions that have divided its people for more than a century.

``I'm sympathetic with the frustrations, but we've got to put [history] behind us at some point,'' Mr. Holzem says. ``We can't hold up progress for the sins of the past.''

``I have sympathies with Mr. Flores,'' adds Carlos Ulibarri, ``but if we don't have development, how can we continue to live off these little fields of alfalfa?''

Pointing to a freshly cut meadow behind the old family caf'e he's now refurbishing, Ulibarri says he harvested 400 bales that he sold for $1 apiece. ``That's nothing,'' he says. ``I'm going to turn it into a trailer park.''

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