ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Republican Congressman Steve Pearce of New Mexico has introduced a bill aimed at giving Hispanic families stronger measures to review claims of lost lands under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — the treaty that ended the U.S.-Mexican War.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced this week he is seeking to void a 2003 land transfer from a historic Hispanic land grant in New Mexico to a Colorado group on grounds it was illegal. The land grant is also protected by the treaty.
Here’s why the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo remains a hot topic in the American Southwest more than 160 years after the war ended:
THE WARAfter the end of the U.S.-Mexican War, the United States pledged in the treaty to respect private land holdings, including land grants made under the Spanish and Mexican governments. The land grants were made to families who would automatically be granted U.S. citizenship in new territories gained by the U.S.
However, the U.S. government didn’t protect many of those grants in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California and courts have routinely turned away complaints made by displaced Hispanic families. Judicial proceedings were conducted in English, making it hard for Spanish-speaking Hispanic families to fight court battles.
White settlers began to encroach on Hispanic lands and local and federal authorities did little to protect Hispanic residents from land seizures.
THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLEDuring the Depression, Mexican-American scholar George I. Sanchez toured northern New Mexico to document how descendants of the original Hispanic families were faring. He found that the families had been displaced from political life and struggled with poverty after decades of land seizures. Sanchez wrote his findings in the 1940 book “Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans,” which has been credited for help launching the ethnic studies movement on college campuses.
More than 20 years later, Texas-born activist Reies Lopez Tijerina began organizing heirs to Spanish and Mexico land grants to demand the return of stolen land. On June 5, 1967, he and a group of armed men raided a courthouse, shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy, and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage.
The men then escaped to the Kit Carson National Forest, generating excitement among supporters and fear throughout others, while the New Mexico National Guard chased them in the remote mountain hamlet of Tierra Amarilla.
Tijerina was arrested but ultimately acquitted of charges directly related to the raid. He eventually spent about two years in prison for federal destruction of property.
NEW POLITICAL FORCESince the 1967 raid, newly energized land grant heirs have sued the federal government and private companies to recapture holding illegal taken over the years. Heirs in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado also have formed nonprofits to help oversee land grants so ranching families could raise beef on the same lands as their families did for centuries prior.
Ranchers have especially clashed with the U.S Forest Service over grazing rights and private landowners over water access. The tensions were portrayed in the 1988 film “The Milagro Beanfield War” directed by Robert Redford.
Today, heirs organize around their historic land grants and put pressure on elected officials to pass measures to reinforce protects outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.