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NM Hispanic ranchers, once ignore, showing clout

Russell Contreras

Once shunned and largely ignored, Hispanic ranchers and other descendants of people who received Spanish land grants are flexing their political muscles in New Mexico.

In recent years, the activists have persuaded state lawmakers to approve the creation of new towns based on the boundaries of the 200-year-old grants. They have held forums around the state and raised money for a major lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over long-standing land-use disputes.

In addition, the new political groups regularly challenge federal officials with letters, petitions and protests on issues ranging from grazing to timber.

It's a dramatic change from 45 years ago, when a group of frustrated, armed Mexican-American ranchers raided a courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, N.M., after authorities arrested activists for meeting over land grants issues.

"I think people used to see them as a bunch of freeloaders and whiners who wanted something for nothing," said Mike Scarborough, a retired Santa Fe lawyer and author of "Trespassers on Our Own Land," a recently published book on the land grant movement. "Not anymore. And their issues are coming back to the forefront."

David Sanchez, a 52-year-old rancher in Chama Valley, said ranchers and land grant descendants know their rights and have become better organized to battle what they view as continuing discrimination since the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexico War.

"These are guys who are educated," Sanchez said. "We're beyond knee-jerk reactions."

For years, land-grant activists have claimed the U.S. government stole millions of acres from Latinos following the U.S.-Mexico War. The United States pledged in the treaty to respect private land holdings, including land grants made under the Spanish and Mexican governments.

However, the U.S. government didn't recognize many of those grants in New Mexico, and courts have routinely turned away complaints made by displaced Hispanic families.

It wasn't until 1967 that the issue gained international attention, when Chicano Movement leader Reies Lopez Tijerina and a band of armed followers raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. The group was attempting a citizen's arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez after eight members of Tijerina's group were arrested a few days earlier.

Sanchez wasn't at the courthouse at the time. But during the raid, the group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage. They later escaped.

With the help of the National Guard, Tijerina was arrested and eventually spent about three years in prison. Activists credit that episode for beginning to bring to light the issues surrounding land grants.

Moises Morales, 65, a rancher in Rio Arriba County, was a teenager when he participated in the courthouse raid. Today, he said, the movement has shifted from guns to legal briefs.

"We're armed with knowledge and education," he said. "We didn't have that before."

In January, Morales and a group of northern New Mexico ranchers sued the U.S. Forest Service over its decision to limit grazing on historic land grant areas.

The lawsuit, which ranchers say took two years to plan, centers on a 2010 decision by El Rito District Ranger Diana Trujillo to cut grazing by nearly one-fifth on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa grazing allotments that are part of an area recognized by the federal government for special treatment aimed at benefiting land grant heirs.

They point to a 1972 Forest Service policy that emerged after the courthouse raid over unresolved land grant issues. The policy noted the relationship that Hispanic residents of northern New Mexico had with the land, and declared their culture a resource that must be recognized when setting agency objectives and policies.

The Forest Service declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Felipe Martinez, a commissioner in Rio Arriba County who joined the lawsuit, said the issues around land grants go beyond access and grazing.

"It's about culture and tradition," he said.

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The Associated Press