Surviving the Depression (1929–1941), Enduring World War II (1942–1947), Abandonment, 1950s Drought, Revival (1960–80), Struggle to Remain a Village (1980–2017)
Part III of three articles by Hilario E. Romero
It is truly amazing that the village of La Bajada is still functioning. The concluding article of this series outlines challenges the village endured. The U.S. Census of 1920 shows the Montoya family as the most numerous of families in the village. By the 1940s they were joined by the Gallegos, Sánchez, Ortiz, Gonzales, Dimas, Baca, Armijo, Lucero, Valdez, Martínez, Lueses and Benavides families, among others. With the arrival of the U.S. highway system and the ultimate bypassing of the village in 1932, La Bajada Village struggled to subsist and deal with the massive changes that came in waves over the next eight decades. Once again, the greatest impacts were those instigated by the government of the United States, city and county governments and the droughts that occurred almost every decade since the 1920s.
Throughout the decades since the Great Depression, the village went from losing most of its Land Grant with all of the pasture and common lands needed to continue an agricultural and ranching existence—to devastation from recurring droughts, and struggling to reclaim water rights, which were diminished from time to time. Surviving the Depression, 1929-1941
“Black Thursday” or the Stock Market crash of 1929 sent shockwaves throughout the United States, especially in the larger cities. Unfortunately, President Hoover downplayed the crisis and blamed it on the Mexicans who arrived in the U.S., escaping the Mexican Revolution. By the “Roaring Twenties” many of those immigrants became U.S. citizens and an important part of the national workforce. President Hoover, with advice from his staff, inaugurated a mass deportation of U.S. citizens of Mexican origin. Between 1929 and 1936, an estimated 500,000 to 2 million, of whom 60 percent were citizens, were deported.
Residents of the village of La Bajada who were employed in the wage economy, along with their relatives and friends, initially took the news in stride. But the administration in New Mexico was unprepared after a year of inaction. In early 1931, Arthur Seligman, governor of New Mexico, began the state’s first unemployment initiative by using a combined $5 million in federal aid, building and highway funds. The new alignment for US 66/85, built three miles south of La Bajada Village, was completed by the summer of 1932. This bypass put an end to the Walden service station and camp but provided employment for some village families. Their road would no longer be graded and maintained by the state.
A decade earlier, the U.S. Congress passed the General Land Exchange Act of 1922, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to obtain title to privately owned land within National Forest boundaries, (Gerald W. Williams. The UDSA Forest Service: The First Century, USDA, 2000) including the Spanish and Pueblo Land Grants. The Majada Land Grant was reduced to 22,000 acres in 1930. What was left of that grant, along with the Caja del Río Grant, would be sold to the Forest Service. It was now three decades after the droughts of 1891-92, when the Forest Service made changes in the vegetation, replacing more palatable forbs and grasses with woody shrubs and trees not native to the area. They were unable to survive in the New Mexico environment.
After Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he initiated legislation to address problems that arose after two years of inaction by the former administration. In New Mexico, according to Suzanne Forrest in her book The Preservation of the Village: New Mexico’s Hispanics and the New Deal (Albuquerque, UNM Press, 1989, p.79), by 1932 estimates of 7,000-10,000 former Land Grant villagers from the middle and upper Río Grande Valley working in the beet and potato fields, sheep camps, mines and smelters in the San Luís Valley of Colorado (also in Wyoming and Montana) were laid off. In La Bajada, many resident heads of family had secured similar jobs near their village, while others went north for work. Those who remained struggled to make a living in the village in a time of drought while fighting for their water rights.
In 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of Public Works Act (FERA) was passed. It appropriated $3.3 billion nationwide to provide employment and stabilize purchasing power to help revive the economy. By the time funding arrived in New Mexico, it averted an emergency brought on by dwindling village food reserves due to drought and consumption. The villagers were able to ride out the year and hope the drought would end. FERA programs—using healthcare materials distributed by the New Mexico Department of Public Health based on middle-class Anglo American standards—also tried to teach young poverty-stricken Spanish-American girls post-natal care for their childbearing mothers.
At this time, Valentín Montoya was living in the village with his wife, Amalia, and a daughter. They were receiving relief funds because Valentín could no longer graze his sheep on La Bajada or La Majada mesas due to the drought. Later, in 1933, the Roosevelt administration pushed through the Civilian Conservation Corps, (the official title was Emergency Conservation Work), another program under the act that provided funding to offset unemployment for men between 18 and 25 years old. They were sent to camps in New Mexico for forest thinning, soil conservation and provided grazing services through the Bureau of Reclamation. The majority were young Spanish-American villagers who were paid $30 per month. They sent $25 per month home to their families to help get them off relief. (Forrest, pp. 112-116)
Another New Deal program, the Hispanic Land Reform Program, began under the Resettlement Administration after the Tewa Basin Study of 1935 had outlined the realities of problems facing northern New Mexico villagers (Forrest, p. 143-144). The program was set up to purchase lands (including Land Grants)—some still in the hands of villagers or lands that had been taken from them by the Court of Private Land Claims between 1891 and 1904—then offer temporary grazing permits, specifically to those families. The families were also offered loans. However, due to underestimation by officials regarding cash profits versus costs of transportation to markets and expenditures, it was impossible for ranchers to pay back the loans (Forrest, p.145). The Caja del Río and La Majada Land Grants were among several designated for this program in 1937, and range surveys, maps and a range management plan were completed by 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service. La Majada Land Company was formed by a group from Colorado that leased much of the Land Grant for its own profit. In 1953, management for the area was passed to the Forest Service and eventually renamed the Caja del Río Unit.
These well-meaning attempts by New Deal programs to solve Depression-era problems in New Mexico did not fit in well with most rural Spanish-Americans. Residents of La Bajada lost their grazing lands, used for centuries prior to the arrival of the United States of North America, and now had to apply for a permit and pay to use them. They were proud, self-sustaining extended families that only needed a short-term financial boost and the return of the snowpacks and monsoons to ride out the Depression years. Some benefited more that others, but many became dependent on relief, causing them to move into dilapidated city neighborhoods with low rents. Many became landless workers who provided unskilled labor in the cities.
Enduring World War II, 1942-47
There are estimates that claim New Mexico had the highest per-capita enlistment rate of any state in the Union during World War II. Many young, rural Spanish-American men signed up because they were unable to find steady work. La Bajada Village no longer had a major highway passing through it, which had provided seasonal work, tourism, roadside sales of produce and fruit and road services. However, the Soil Conservation Service did assist the village with funding for a concrete/basalt headgate, flumes and sluices for the acequia, which dates to the early Spanish colonial period. In La Bajada, many young men decided to join the armed forces. That left the older men to try to continue to make a living without the strong backs of the younger generation. However, the young men did not forget their families and sent large portions of their pay home. Valentín Montoya, the sheepherder, was now 81 years old and lived with his wife, Amalia, and their 29-year-old daughter, Josie. During that decade, the village’s population dwindled to a few determined families who subsisted on a few stock and cash crops. Some of the young men returned in 1945-46 and settled at the village once again. Others never made it home and were buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.
La Bajada always dealt with being at the end of the line for its share of the Santa Fe River watershed water. During wet years residents were able to irrigate their fields throughout the summers and take home good yields. However, in 1952, a severe drought hit the Southwest and parts of the Midwest. It exceeded the drought of the 1930s, and in some areas of New Mexico it lasted eight years. At La Bajada, it lasted until 1957. The village remained vacant, except for periodic visits by some families who maintained their houses. (R.L. Nace & E.J. Pluhhowski Drought of the 1950s with Special Reference to the Midcontinent Geological Survey Water Supply Paper #1804, U.S. printing office, Washington: 1965, pp. 51-78). In 1957, Charles Lange documented the area with photographs while doing research for his book on the history of Cochiti Pueblo.
Revival of the Village, 1960-1980
By the early 1960s, several families had returned to the village and continued to renovate and plaster their houses, clean and repair the acequia, the water system from the spring, and till their fields. Slowly but surely, those families were able to breathe new life into La Bajada, and additional families, who were descendants of Spanish colonial families, began to return. In 1964, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation condemned 135 acres of the village to make way for Cochiti Dam, despite protests and a lawsuit by Cochiti Pueblo against the Army Corps of Engineers. Construction began in 1965, and the impoundment of water was initiated in 1973.
In the early 1970s, San Miguel Church, with its original base, walls and collapsed roof, was saved from ruin by Florinda Lucero Barreras, daughter of Cipriano and Guadalupe Lucero. She and her husband, Enrique Barreras, devoted their time, resources and artwork from her studio/gallery at the village. Barreras brought the village back to life and revived La Fiesta de San Miguel as “Country Day,” an annual fundraiser for the San Miguel church. Her final rosary was recited there, with the funeral mass at Guadalupe Church and burial at Guadalupe Cemetery in Peña Blanca on May 9, 1999.
In 1915 there was a mine just over one mile upriver from La Bajada Village in the Santa Fe River canyon where copper and silver were extracted for a short time. Uranium was mined at that site in 1956 and again from 1962 to 1966, when the Bureau of Land Management leased the mine to Lone Star Mining and Development. La Bajada residents were concerned about contamination. The company promised jobs. By 1979, the BLM suspended action on renewal of Lone Star’s lease of the abandoned mine due to the potential environmental impact. In 1985, due to contamination concerns, some reclamation work on the mine was done. In 1995, Tim Whitworth, with the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources, studied the area, wrote and reported that if Santa Fe River floodwaters were to flush large amounts of mine waste into Cochiti Lake, water quality would be degraded, and recreational uses such as swimming and fishing could be adversely impacted. He concluded, however, that it was unlikely that acid mine drainage would significantly impact the lake because of the slightly alkaline Santa Fe River water.
In 2007, the Department of Natural Sciences at New Mexico Highlands University did a biota study on the site after the New Mexico Environment Department concluded that the lower portion below the village of La Bajada met EPA water quality standards for radionuclides. Biota had not been included in the EPA’s study. NMHU graduate students, advised by professors, collected samples of contaminants and macroinverterbrates. It is surprising that, with La Bajada being the closest residential area, the village was not mentioned in either study.
In 1971, Miguel Leyva, Valentín Montoya and Ignacio Romero, commissioners of La Bajada Community Acequia, filed a declaration with the New Mexico State Engineer’s office reflecting an 1827 priority date. (Arnold Valdez, “La Bajada Community Ditch and Water System” Chronicles of the Trail, Summer/Fall 2011, p. 20) The acequia actually dated to Spanish colonial times. By 1975, the District Court for Santa Fe County issued an order to the State Engineer to conduct a hydrographic survey for claims on the use of water from the Santa Fe Stream System. (Hydrographic Survey of 1976, NM State Engineer’s Office)
From the 1960s to the present, the village’s primary crop has been alfalfa, for feeding livestock and for sales. Water was plentiful and available in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to snowmelt and the monsoons through most of the summers. Corn, beans, squash and chile had always been the preferred crops for centuries, but during this period the villagers also produced tomatoes, carrots, spring onions and asparagus. Peaches, plums, cherries and apricots were planted to replace the orchards that were lost in the droughts of the 1930s and 1950s. (Valdez, p. 20)
In May of 1974, with the decline of the steam-powered locomotives (beginning in the 1950s), Atchitson Topeka Santa Fe Railroad officials drafted a termination agreement with the Village of La Bajada and returned all water rights used by the railroad, along with the pipeline and water tanks to La Bajada Community Ditch, Inc. (Valdez, p.26)
Struggle to Remain a Village, 1980-2016
Throughout much of the 1980s, snow levels were above average, there were regular summer monsoons, and the village prospered. Tourists began arriving to hike the switchbacks. Interest in the area seemed to be mostly focused on a tiny segment of history, from 1922 to 1932, when the switchbacks and Route 66 ran through La Bajada to Santa Fe and the climb to La Bajada mesa, Cieneguilla and Santa Fe. The village once again attracted families connected to La Bajada from Peña Blanca and La Ciénega.
In 2004, La Bajada village was identified as a “High-Potential Historic Site” by the National Park Service and the BLM State Office in the Final Impact Statement for El Camino Real Historic Trail Comprehensive Management Plan. In 2005, National Old Trails Road Historic District at La Bajada and Route 66 were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The district includes six miles of roadway, associated structures, the 1926 timber bridge across the Río Santa Fe and the Walden Tourist Camp.
The village’s leaders have engaged in diplomacy with their neighbors, Cochiti Pueblo to the north and west, Kiwa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) to the south, BLM and USDA Forest Service to the northeast. From the time of the approval of La Majada Land Grant in 1908 at 54,404 acres, to today’s acreage of 70 acres, it’s a wonder that La Bajada Village survives. The future of the village will depend upon the flow of water in the Santa Fe River and the relationships of those that live alongside.
As eloquently written in a letter to the Santa Fe River Traditional Communities Collaborative (SFRTCC) meeting in October 2015, Darrin Muenzberg Tinjero de Barreras y Lucero, great-grandson of Florinda Lucero Barreras, eighth-generation resident of La Bajada Village, commissioner/parciente of the community acequia and chairman of La Bajada Traditional Village Committee said, “We need cooperative and consistent management of the Santa Fe River, as it runs through the jurisdictions of multiple agencies and communities. We need assessment of cultural and historical impact to be conducted hand-in-hand with environmental impact. The key here is clearly recognizing that Traditional Communities of the Santa Fe River have managed to sustain it symbiotically by stewardship over four centuries, until myopic political agendas began manifesting themselves as ostensibly harmless ‘tree planting’ and ‘river restoration’ projects in the 1990s.” He went on to urge elected officials to continue attendance and participation in the SFRTCC meetings and encouraged a plan for the uninterrupted flow of the Santa Fe River through the village of La Bajada. (Letter from Capitán Darrin N. Muenzberg to the SFRTCC meeting from his ship on the Arabian Sea, U.S. Merchant Marine, Oct. 9, 2015)
Historian Hilario E. Romero
Author of La Bajada Village History Series
Hilario E. Romero is a New Mexican mestizo (Spanish/Basque/Jicarilla Apache/Ute). He is a former New Mexico state historian and archivist. From 1973 to 2015, he was a professor of history, Spanish and education at Northern New Mexico College, and he directed NNMC’s New Mexico Educational Opportunity Center from 1983 to 2013.
Prior to and during his tenure at NNMC, Romero also taught at the University of Colorado-Denver, University of Wisconsin–Madison, University of New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands University. His Ph.D. studies as a National Bilingual Fellow were at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in Educational Policy and Multilingual/Cultural Curriculum & Instruction, and in International Education.
Romero became an activist during the Civil Rights movement. Soon thereafter, be was involved in the Chicano and the American Indian movements.
He is also an accomplished musician and performed as part of the norteño group, Los Folkloristas de Nuevo Mejico, with Cipriano Vigil (1983–2013).
On May 17, 2017, at an awards ceremony at the San Miguel Mission, Romero received the Community Service Award from the Old Santa Fe Association, founded in 1926 to promote preservation of Santa Fe’s history and historic buildings and homes.