Green Fire Times

OP-ED: The World Upside Down

The unique culture of Northern New Mexico is economically precarious and under threat

By Alejandro López

Due to centuries of rural isolation and as an independent region prior to European arrival, and then as part of Spain and Mexico for twoandahalf centuries, Native Americans and Indo-Hispanos coexisted. After the conquest of New Mexico by the United States of North America in 1848, those cultural groups had little inclination to embrace the new institutions that followed, due to spiritual, philosophical, religious, cultural and linguistic differences. This included their unwillingness to participate in a wage economy and educational system that did not afford them relevant training to participate in the dominant society.

– Hilario E. Romero, former New Mexico State Historian

It is no secret that New Mexico and Mississippi vie neck and neck for the distinction of being the poorest of the United States, the world’s wealthiest country. Nor is it a secret that the singularly beautiful and historically significant northern New Mexican counties of Mora, San Miguel, Taos and Río Arriba, together with parts of Santa Fe County, are among the region’s poorest and the most ethnically populated.

Within this ancient land, the original residents who are not Native Americans, whose lands are not protected by the federal government—i.e. the Indo-Hispano people—are experiencing an enormous loss of land rivaled only by their loss of nearly 30 million acres from their original 33 million between 1891 and 1904, primarily in the form of land grants, to U.S. courts. Formerly secure in their homeland for more than 400 years, they are currently in danger of being displaced by a wave of affluent transplants from across the country, propelled by decades of tourist literature and advertising campaigns. This has already happened in east Santa Fe and the village of Tesuque, where most original founding families sold their properties in the 20th century and ended up in the nondescript outskirts of Santa Fe or elsewhere.

The dramatic rush in recent decades by wealthy transplants to purchase land and homesteads in nearly all of the traditional Indo-Hispano villages of northern New Mexico is an indication that the ailing local economy, which barely sustains the majority of its people, is not able to withstand the onslaught of those fleeing urban blight, high crime and strained racial relations for second homes (or simply homes) in seemingly idyllic historical settings steeped in nature and the romantic aura of “the Spanish (read Mexican) and Indian Southwest.” Upon their arrival to northern New Mexico, although they may adopt the artistic cannon of brown structures, in everything else—from the amount of acreage they purchase, to the placement of their homes atop hills, to the amount of water they consume to irrigate exotic trees and gardens—they provide a marked contrast to the generally frugal native dweller.  

The current marked contrast between northern New Mexico’s feeble economy and that of powerful economic centers such as New York, Houston and Los Angeles, where many of the transplants come from, in some ways mirrors the first wave of Americans who came for the explicit purpose of exploiting the land’s natural resources and its peoples’ labor to establish new markets for products being manufactured in the Midwest and along the Atlantic Seaboard. In such a relationship the native people always lost out, while the foreigner always seemed to benefit.  

In all fairness, there are transplants who are sensitive to local Indo-Hispano culture who do not build pompous mansions or surround themselves with high walls, and who instead interact with the local populace and participate in community events without dictating to the people who have been here the longest, who may have opened wide their doors to welcome them. Indeed, many come with valuable skills and knowledge and add immeasurably to the richness of the communities. Going a step further, many strong, inter-ethnic and intercultural friendships have been created and are sustained in the villages.

However, in general, spite of the establishment of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Albuquerque’s military bases, state universities, schools, colleges, state and county agencies and numerous businesses, New Mexico, especially northern New Mexico, does not generate enough economic strength for its native Indo-Hispano people to be able to hold onto their lands across many generations if they want to. Much like an internal colony of the United States, its economy is driven, to a great extent, by large corporate interests headquartered in other states where most of the money usually ends up.

Today, major industries continue to extract coal, uranium, oil, gas, lumber and other resources, while others harness labor to provide support services in government, education, medicine and the ubiquitous tourist and service industries that tend to offer few benefits to the grassroots Indo-Hispano community. Another resource actively being mined are the picturesque, centuries-old mountain villages of northern New Mexico, as a source of real estate, recreation and the arts for the well-heeled, since the Indo-Hispano is hard pressed to hold onto his land or have sufficient capital to start a business.  

The source of the widespread abandonment of the rural and semi-rural way of life and the transfer of village properties into the hands of people for whom money is generally no object is not just the result of unceasing external pressure but also because of forces operating within these historic communities. These internal pressures include a breakdown of the extended family and community spirit that once infused the villages and made possible a highly cooperative if spartan way of life.

Without such support structures it has become increasingly difficult for aging parents and grandparents to maintain their farms and homesteads. Many end up selling, only to buy a modern house or mobile home somewhere in the anonymous suburbs of Albuquerque, Phoenix or southern California, near where their children have gone to live, due to work. Their only dream is to live happily ever after and not have to worry about paying something as trivial as a light bill, given that many are on a fixed income.  In Río Arriba County average Social Security benefits are around $750 per monthhardly a sum that can sustain anyone.

With the breakdown in family, community and the agrarian way of life, many of the old villagers find themselves facing long-term debilitating diseases whose treatment costs far outstrip their earning power or savings. Selling land is a quick way to generate cash for medical attention or to cover stiff funeral expenses for loved ones. Some families feel forced to sell off land or homes in order to generate money to procure the services of lawyers to defend their children or grandchildren who have gotten into trouble with the law. That also may have something to do with the erosion or dissolution of our communities’ traditions by a dominant culture that has not taken into account our values, history and culture. Many of the younger generation who may have inherited old homesteads are eager to “live in the fast lane” and conform to the dictates of the consumer society. They readily sell their land, buy a new car and head off for the bright lights of Las Vegas or some such place, leaving behind their homeland forevermore.

Be this as it may, there are yet a great many Indo-Hispano families throughout the region who, when offered a million or more dollars for their properties, are able to resist, knowing that once la tierra is sold, there is no getting it back and that el dinero, unlike land, easily slips through the fingers of one’s hands. They are also aware that it is not only home and land that they would relinquish, but also water, a connection to the natural environment, a way of life, ancestral memory, identity, community and a sense of belonging, not just for oneself but for coming generations.

If tourist literature lauds northern New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano culture, from its massive adobe village churches to its persisting acequia irrigation systems and picturesque Yuletide farolitos, something within the larger American media/psyche is intent on denigrating, distorting or simply omitting much of Indo-Hispano/Mexicano life. A more informed media and different set of policies relative to housing, education, employment and medical care that takes into account the language, culture and history of this community that predates the United States, could go far in helping it form a healthier view of itself and defend its interests—not to mention contribute some important things to a country that seems to be losing its way more and more each day.

Much of the true history of the Indo-Hispano people has been ignored to the degree that many Indo-Hispano people themselves unthinkingly devalue what rightfully belongs to them, including the villages built by their hard-working ancestors when they lived close to the land and were farmers, herders, blacksmiths, carpenters, millers and weavers.

These villages, oftentimes of breathtaking beauty, heart-rending humbleness and simplicity, are eminently worth keeping within the families that built and breathed soul into them. Certainly, if the Indo-Hispano people let go of them, they will find nothing comparable on the asphalt-gray streets of Albuquerque or any other large city. Indeed, in the batting of an eye, they could find themselves homeless, as many Indo-Hispano people already are. Por eso, no hay que vender la tierra, cuanto menos la casa. For that reason, one should not sell the land, let alone one’s home (land).

Alejandro López is a native northern New Mexican writer, photographer, and educator.