March 2014

Cultivating a Future: Where Do We Go From Here?


Comments to the Chama Peak Land Alliance, Los Ojos, NM


Arturo Sandoval


Before we discuss where we go from here, it’s important for us to understand where we’ve been historically, and how we’ve gotten to where we are today.


The sobering reality is that northern New Mexico is in a deep crisis—economically, socially, educationally and psychologically. This current state of affairs has been caused by the cumulative effect of American colonial practices; by the collapse of traditional Hispano and Native American cultures under the pressure of modernity over the past 150 years; and by a fundamental and critical lack of visionary leadership by our Nuevo Mexicano leaders.


The statistics and data that indicate we are in crisis are depressing: Río Arriba County leads the nation in per-capita deaths from both heroin and prescription drug overdoses. Our school systems are churning out youth unable to read, write or do math at a college level. Our lifestyles suck: we suffer from high levels of obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, teen suicide. We are at the bottom of the barrel in almost every economic indicator for poverty. It’s not just Río Arriba County—this is true of all of the northern New Mexico counties. (1)


How did we get to this point of dysfunction and cultural disintegration?


Let’s look at two major factors.


First, America’s invasion of Mexico in 1846-48 was intended to create colonial riches and help US political leaders in the mid-19th century realize their dream of a Manifest Destiny. New Mexico was not immune to this colonial domination. Although some of us here in the north like to subscribe to the notion that northern New Mexico was a Shangri-La, a pastoral, idealized culture isolated from the mainstream impacts of US colonization, the reality has been starkly different.


By the 1880s, for example, the Chili Line had been completed from Antonito, Colo. to Española. It is important to note this because it was an integral part of the capitalist exploitation of northern New Mexico. Capitalists like Frank Bond in the Española Valley turned most Mexicanos in the Río Arriba area into sharecroppers who raised sheep. At his high point, Bond and other outside American capitalists were shipping up to 500,000 sheep per season north on the Chili Line to markets in Denver, Chicago and elsewhere. In that process, they exploited Mexicano and Native American shepherds and converted them into poor, underpaid laborers. So much so that beginning in the early 1910s and through the late 1920s and 1930s, people in the Río Arriba were suffering from well-documented widespread hunger and malnutrition. These outside American capitalists also degraded grasslands to a point of almost no return. Once the rangelands became severely degraded, Bond and others moved on to other areas of the West to continue the cycle of exploitation.


The same process of outside capitalist investors exploiting local timber resources also occurred during the same period. Mexicanos and Native Americans of the Río Arriba became laborers, felling and preparing timber for use as railroad ties and other uses outside of New Mexico. Millions and millions of board feet of commercial timber were harvested from the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests, and neither forest has ever recovered from this exploitation. (2)


The end result of these massive American capitalist economic activities in northern New Mexico created multiple negative impacts, but most noteworthy to me were that:

  • Nuevo Mexicanos were forced to become itinerant, low-paid wage earners who worked picking crops in Colorado and across the West; working as sheepherders in Montana and Wyoming and being forced to move away from sustainable ranching and farming;
  • Traditional cultures lost access to and use of natural resources that had been degraded to the point of not providing a sustainable lifestyle for norteños. As a result, we have not been able to successfully live off the land for more than a century; and,
  • Traditional norteño culture was blamed for the degradation and loss of grasslands, forests and watersheds. This blame game continues today and is the basis for much of current Forest Service policies limiting norteño access to grazing permits on public lands and to the limited commercial timbering that still occurs.


Second, Mexicanos/Chicanos/norteños in Río Arriba suffer from a lack of educated, insightful, selfless leaders. What our Mexicano opinion leaders and elected leaders offer us instead is a pastoral vision to solve the difficult problems caused by 100 years of complex modernity and capitalism. The vision offered by our elected Mexicano leaders is a back-to-the-future view. They say, “If we can only get the land grants back, if we can keep our acequias working, we can solve all of our problems.”


There are several critical issues created by this pastoral narrative for Nuevo Mexicanos seeking a better future.


One is that to make the case for return of Spanish and Mexican land grants, Nuevo Mexicanos have to adopt a narrow view of New Mexico history and our place in it. That is, we must hold a narrow view of ourselves that ties us to Spanish colonial law and that imagines us as European colonizers; that view denies our Mestizo ancestry and by extension, our deep social, political and economic interaction with the Pueblo and Native American world. It creates within us an identity crisis that disorients us psychologically and alienates us from each other. It stops us from building economic, political and social alliances with Native America in a geographic area in which together we dominate demographically. It also requires us to ignore or gloss over the devastating impact Spanish colonial rule had on the original inhabitants of New Mexico and the reality that the brutal colonial conquest was done by our ancestors. (2)


Second, while this pastoral vision of Nuevo Mexicanos creates support among American liberals because we are viewed as innocent tillers of the soil and respectful users of the forests, it limits our ability to talk about other critical issues like race and class. Once land-grant and acequia activists begin trying to discuss issues of race and class, we lose our liberal support and our chance to talk about the real issues we face. (2)


The pastoral narrative also shows an almost complete lack of critical thinking among Chicano/Mexicano leaders about how we dig ourselves out of the pit in which we find ourselves.


Given the complex problems we face, where do we go from here?


Before I share with you what we are doing, let me place what the Cooperative Development Center (CODECE) and the Center of Southwest Culture are doing in a larger global context.


If what we are doing really is going to be sustainable over the long term, we believe it is important to consider two global economic themes currently emerging. We consider these themes as important touchstones for all of our work.


The first major global theme is what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency.” Basically, he argues that world oil production is peaking and that the remaining oil left to be exploited is geometrically more difficult to find and extract. He argues that this long emergency into an oil-depleted economy will change forever everything about how we live. This post-modernity period, he believes, may occur as soon as 75 or 100 years from now.


What that means is that we will have to find and fill our basic needs much closer to home; and we will have to work hard together to meet our basic needs on a local and regional, not national or international basis.


The second major global theme we are tracking is emerging economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China, who as a group are showing consistent growth at a time when most nations have encountered recessions and deep uncertainty about future growth.


Despite being in the wealthiest nation in the world, New Mexico can be characterized as a place that looks, acts and thinks like those economies that are poised to dominate within the global economy by the end of the 21st century. It is in a unique position to leverage its current status in the world economy with its deep historical, cultural and political similarity to those nations that have grown significantly in the past decade. What that means is we have a chance to create sustainable 21st-century incomes for ourselves if we model our economic development efforts to mimic what is occurring in the BRIC economies. (3)


So, with those two larger global frames in mind, we began developing CODECE about five years ago and went into the field in early 2011. CODECE creates and supports sustainable lifestyles for Nuevo Mexicanos through three major economic lenses—organic agricultural co-ops, heritage and cultural tourism co-ops and value-added housing initiatives. The cooperative model we use for all of our economic development work in Indio-Hispano communities assumes that integrating organic agriculture, cultural tourism and value-added housing into a comprehensive regional plan is a strong approach in trying to keep rural Nuevo Mexicanos in place but earning a 21st-century income.


CODECE’s economic development model is based on several factors:

  • Using existing land and water resources but applying them in new ways
  • Avoiding the need for major capital investment for success
  • Tying economic development efforts to those of the emerging global economies of the 21st century (Brazil, Russia, India and China)
  • Relying on collective groups of people instead of an individual entrepreneur to create sustainable businesses


First, let’s talk about our organic agriculture cooperative model and what we’ve achieved to date.

Most of the arable land still owned by traditional northern New Mexico Indio-Hispano communities—nearly 46,000 acres in Río Arriba County alone—is either lying uncultivated or planted with hay or alfalfa. Most Indio-Hispanos own small arable plots—between five acres and perhaps as much as 20 acres per farmer, tops.

An acre of alfalfa produces about 50 bales; in northern New Mexico you can get between 3-5 cuts of hay or alfalfa per season. Alfalfa is selling for about $15 per bale. So, if you plant hay or alfalfa, you can expect to generate between $2,200 and $3,800 per acre. Out of this gross amount, you have to pay the baler, who charges about $2 or $3 per bale. So, for a 3-acre alfalfa crop, a farmer can expect to generate a gross income of about $6,600 per season.

In contrast, an acre of organic fruit or vegetables in northern New Mexico is currently generating between $20,000 and $45,000 per acre. So, for a three-acre organic crop, a farmer can expect to gross between $60,000 and $135,000 per season.


You can see from this comparison that small-scale organic farming can provide a farmer with a fully livable 21st-century income. Small-scale alfalfa or hay growing cannot.

To date, we have already incorporated four fully functional organic farmers’ co-ops. We expect to collectively generate $40,000-$75,000 in income from co-op farming efforts this year. Our co-ops have almost no investment debt because federally funded programs underwrite most of the start-up costs per acre. Our goal is to create between 25 and 35 organic farming co-ops in northern New Mexico communities within the next 5-7 years.

In our ecotourism program, we have incorporated two co-ops to date and are forming two others. Here again, these co-ops need very little capital investment to successfully become fully operational. Why? Because they are using millions of acres of public lands to roll out their camping, snowshoeing, hiking, horseback-riding, fishing, guiding and other lucrative outdoor activities.

Again, we have merely changed the perception of Indo-Hispano villagers from seeing these public lands as obstacles to economic development, especially private sector development, and providing them a model that utilizes these public lands as a source of sustainable income for co-op members.

Our third economic development program is value-added housing. Too many of our people live in mobile homes and other substandard housing. We expect to build multi-family housing units that mimic the ancient plaza model—families living in clustered housing around a central small plaza. This model, we believe, will use the built environment to create the social behaviors we want our villagers to express—cooperation, collaboration, mutual aid.


Even though we have only been in the field for a short period, several trends have emerged that make us believe we are on a good path.


First, the concept of building businesses through co-ops instead of individual owners has resonated at a deep level among community members.


Second, we have been incredibly humbled to find out that there is such a deep talent pool in the Indio-Hispano villages in which we are working. Our co-op members have, in every instance, improved upon our ideas, implemented efficiencies of scale, and sought and found their own resources at an incredible level. They are thoughtful, hopeful, disciplined and hard working.


Our small successes have not come without much difficulty. So far, we have lost co-op members to murder, suicide, alcohol addiction, mental health issues and other dysfunctions. Still, the model is proving to be resilient and adaptive.


Besides creating these economic opportunities through our co-ops, our Center is also committed to providing informal educational opportunities to traditional land-based communities here in the north. Through our la Carpa model, we expect to help people learn the things they need to learn to improve their lives immediately—whether it is how to balance a checkbook, or apply for Social Security benefits or help their children apply for college.


Using our informal education model, we hope to implement informal group therapy sessions that delve deeply into people’s personal experiences to find healing and self-centeredness.


The elephant in the room for the work of building community in the Río Arriba is the issue of poor mental health. We cannot merely put money into people’s pockets and expect they will then live exemplary lives. The challenge is to see if we can convince people to make more money and not spend it on alcohol; instead, how do we work with each other to see that investing our incomes in our children’s education and paying for a family health plan are better steps on the path to the justice we must have to ever achieve peace in our lives and in our communities.


We realize that we know very little about all of these complex issues. But we believe it is important that we be active in trying to create hope.


Broadly, here is what we believe needs to happen to make the Río Arriba a place that can sustain traditional peoples with a 21st-century income and an enlightened view of their role as gente de buena raza:


  • We need to nurture and recruit new leadership among our gente who will provide the selfless, community-based vision we need to use existing government resources and structure to help our communities move forward, and to not use elected positions to enrich themselves and their families.
  • We need to formalize a local and regional barter system to help ourselves save cash for other needs.
  • We need to create local, small cooperatives that use existing resources to sustain themselves over time, without the need for major capital investment.
  • We need to heal ourselves—economically, psychologically and educationally. It is way past time for us to sit around our kitchen tables together and figure out how to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in.
  • We need to become critical thinkers; to learn how to analyze the socio-economic forces we face daily, to have an enlightened and broad view of our place in the world; we must act in ways that force fundamental reform and rejuvenate our political, economic and educational systems.


We must see ourselves as part of a larger regional movement for change, but remain focused on our own families, our own work, our own communities.





  1. See Michael Trujillo’s The Land of Disenchantment: Latina/o Identities and Transformations. See Angela García’s Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Río Grande.
  2. See Jake Kosek’s Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico. See also Franz Fannon’s Black Skin, White Masks. And the work of Albert Memmi, et al.
  3. Manuel Montoya, Ph.D., Rhodes Scholar and professor at the University of New Mexico at the Anderson Schools of Business. Based on his (as yet) unpublished doctoral thesis on global economics.



Arturo Sandoval is president of the Albuquerque-based Center of Southwest Culture. The Center works to help develop healthy Indigenous and Latino communities through economic development initiatives, educational and cultural work. Sandoval was born in Santa Cruz de la Cañada and raised in Española, NM. 505.247.2729,,,,





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