A recent drive down an unfamiliar lane in the Española Valley introduced me to a sprawling trailer park that I had no idea existed. As I made my way through this residential area, I marveled at how close each of the homes was to the next. I was simultaneously struck by how, despite the population density, there was a total absence of nearby public parks or walking trails, let alone access to farmlands or wilderness of any kind. I surmised that, if anyone wanted to get out and walk or experience the awesome landscape of northern New Mexico to any degree, one would then simply have to go forth along the narrow sides of the road and compete with automobiles, all the while staying alert to the potential incursion of one’s right of way.
I would venture to guess that almost all the inhabitants of this residential area—and of many others throughout northern New Mexico—are descendants of families that have been here for 400 years and were not so long ago landed, land-based and highly familiar with the area’s forests and mountains. How could they not have been, when a mere 40 years ago all of this region was known for its thoroughly rural character, as well as for the integration of its “wilderness” areas into its people’s prevailing semi-self-sufficient and highly autonomous way of life?
Recalling my own childhood, which unfolded amid endless foothills and badlands on one hand and lush green alfalfa pastures, orchards, gardens and acequias on the other, in the same Española Valley, I asked myself how the present generation of Nuevo Mexicanos are able to survive culturally, physically, psychologically and spiritually on such slim pieces of land that measure but a few feet in every direction and have no access to anywhere? How is it that after so deep, rich and meaningful a multigenerational experience in this geographically, culturally and historically significant place, so many of us are now left not only without land but, also and just as importantly, without the memory and consciousness of land and place?
My father, a once free-spirited sheepherder, who wandered up and down the ravines, meadows and piedmont of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Las Truchas as a boy early last century, and whose family entered the expansive Nuestra Señora del Rosario de San Fernando y Santiago Land Grant at will for wood, micaceous clay and remedios, could, if he were alive, very well ask the same question of me. I, nowadays, spend most of my time on a mere four acres and rarely venture out beyond that, so shrunken has my own sense of land become.
In general, with each successive generation of Nuevo Mexicanos, it seems that both the geographical arena in which we live out our lives, as well as the actual knowledge, consciousness and sensitivity we possess as a result of rigorous interaction with nature, in all of its potency and complexity, has shrunk dramatically. It has even come to the point that entire generations are now experiencing “land” and “nature” largely via media and the tinted windows of the family car as it whizzes by the epic landscape that our grandparents used to dig their hands into when they planted or gathered natural resources for their survival.
Our present lack of land and land-consciousness is reflective of a people who, in recent history, have had ever-so-little control over their own lands, lives and livelihoods. Much has been written about the significant land losses in the 19th century to American businessmen and tycoons, unscrupulous lawyers, and even government interests and directives, but far less has been written about the way in which generic, contemporary public school education, national and regional media and advertising, the undermining of Native languages, the biases of the workplace and unmitigated economic pressures at play in our state have all combined to alienate traditional people from the land to which they once had a close connection.
If Native children and youth are to develop and regain a sense of belonging to this wider geographic space we call northern New Mexico, as well as a responsible consciousness of the earth, we will all collectively have to create opportunities for them to deeply experience the land over sustained periods of time. Regional thinkers such as Arturo Sandoval have gone so far as to propose that the inhabitants of mountain villages create economic enterprises in which thoroughly trained local youth function as guides into the national forests for visitors willing to pay for the experience of being out in remote areas under the guidance of knowledgeable and responsible individuals. In Gallup, the National Indian Youth Leadership Project has pioneered highly successful prevention and leadership-development activities in wilderness areas, where youth learn all sorts of survival skills. For several years, the organization has also carried out annual week-long summer youth camps in natural settings. Youth are provided with opportunities to learn traditional skills and knowledge, interact vigorously with nature, and even be active stewards of the land through service-learning projects. It seems to me that this model could be used to great benefit throughout northern New Mexico.
Another way to instill an understanding and appreciation for the earth is to engage area youth in farming and agriculture. In farm settings, youth can experience the magic of soil, seeds, water, sunshine, growing cycles, harvests and much, much more. By the same token, Nuevo Mexicano communities need to reclaim their own voice and initiate messaging campaigns in every media that reflect their traditional values—that the land is not for sale, that she is our mother, that she gives us all that we need and that we need to take care of her.
Writer, photographer and educator Alejandro López is author of Hispanic Folk Arts and the Environment of the Río Grande curriculum for grades K-12, produced under the auspices of the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.