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Law and land: New Mexico standoff

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 1988

Tierra Amarilla, N.M.

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.

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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.

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.