The recent news of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) kicking ranchers and cattle off federally managed public land in Nevada stirred an emotional chord in me because of New Mexico’s history. The ranchers contend that their water and livestock rights were recognized by the state long before the federal government took over the land’s management. I started to think about why there is such distrust between traditional, land-based people and the U.S. government.
Growing up, I was told that our land and freedom were taken away by several different governments. First, we escaped Spanish rule in the pursuit of religious freedom, settling in northern New Mexico; then, there was the rebellion against the oppressive Mexican government; and, later on, the U.S. government promoted Manifest Destiny, invading New Mexico and killing our ancestors. That was less than four generations ago.
I grew up in northern New Mexico, in Santa Cruz de la Cañada, which has a long and rich history. On my father’s side of our family, the Bustoses, our land was settled by a widow with four children, one of the first women given land as part of the Santa Cruz De La Cañada Land Grant. Two of her sons later moved on to the Las Vegas, New Mexico, area. We can only imagine the challenges she faced and how strong she must have been to travel and settle in such an unforgiving environment. Our family survived because of her strength and belief in freedom. I remember Grandma Bustos as being well-educated and kind. She made the best apple pie ever; visiting was always a treat.
On my mom’s side, the Valdezes, I got to know my great-grandma, Altagracia. She lived on the land where I now farm in El Llano. She had a traditional two-room adobe house with vigas, latillas and cloth ceilings, as well as a wood stove. Water from the acequia ran 12 months because it was needed to water the livestock, as well as for drinking. She was a widow who married three times and outlived all her husbands. My grandmother, Genara, lived in Santa Cruz. Her home is still being used. I remember staying nights there under the pretext that she needed me to chop wood. I was really there because I enjoyed how she treated me. She would wake up early, make a fire in the kitchen stove to warm the house, make fresh tortillas, potatoes, and then wake me up and fry eggs. My mom, Trinidad, worked as a young child to earn enough to pay the taxes on the land I now farm. She was the first person to graduate from McCurdy High School in Española. She farmed the land while my dad worked.
The women in our family have had a large influence and have played a major role in our family’s survival. I often think about how, after the capture of Santa Cruz by the Americans and the violence and massacre of the men and young boys, the women were left with the responsibility of farming the land and how they started the healing process, protecting the next generation of men. I have clear memories of Grandma and Mom being very protective, of their sayings, of how their body language conveyed that I should be respectful of the dominant culture, or how to speak, or, in most cases, not to speak. As I recently viewed the old film Salt of the Earth, I started to understand how women all over the world have protected the future for all of us.
So, while I’m not endorsing the ranchers in Nevada, I can’t help thinking that there is some commonality between the situation there and the history of New Mexico, in that the U.S. government has historically overstepped its control of our destiny to be free, making decisions that affect our daily lives, and has often turned to violence as a remedy.
I think what happens is that the violence is not the end; it is actually the beginning of generations of resentment that gets carried to the larger population. And, then, when there is no process of healing, in the context of “us against them,” the “them” is never defined, so there is a moving target as to who is responsible for these acts, and it is a challenge to come to peace with all of this.
I recall the story of a poor man who had a cow stolen from him. The man meets the person who stole the cow on the street, a person of influence and authority. The poor man confronts the thief and says, “You stole my cow.” The person of power says, “Yes, I did. Can you forgive me?” The poor man thinks about the Creator and says to himself, “If the Creator forgives, so shall I.” So he forgives the person and then asks, “May I have my cow back?” The person of power says, “No, it’s my cow now.” This is the sort of story that makes me realize how, in relation to our environment and history, we can sometimes start to generalize our view of the dominant culture, rather than focus on a direct and recognized, perceived enemy.
Don Bustos, a member of the Santa Cruz De La Cañada Land Grant, owns Santa Cruz Farm, near Española. Bustos is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee-New Mexico.