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New airing for old grievances about Southwest land

The US is studying whether to pay reparations to Mexican descendants for 'stolen' tracts of property.

On the dingy main road through Tierra Amarilla, a minuscule town in the mountains of northern New Mexico, is a collapsed adobe house. Nearby is a pile of rubble that was once the foundation of a second house. A defunct stucco service station is at one corner, with graffiti spray-painted on its peeling white walls.

On the surface, Tierra Amarilla looks abandoned, unwanted. But underneath, the nearly 800 people who live here hold strong emotions about this land.

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Over the decades, violence has occasionally erupted over the issue of who really owns tracts of land here - and in other parts of the Southwest that had once belonged to Mexico. Those who trace their ancestry to the Mexicans who settled these parts say their property was, in effect, stolen from them - and that the US government was a primary culprit.

Now, for the first time in recent memory, Moises Morales Jr. has reason to believe he may get land back and perhaps some monetary reparations. Last fall, several auditors from the US General Accounting Office interviewed him at the M&M Auto Repair, his shop just off the highway on the edge of town. Not long after the meeting, he shook a copy of the 1832 land grant establishing Tierra Amarilla at a visitor and said, "How are they going to hide this?"

The issue in Tierra Amarilla and across New Mexico, and the subject of the GAO's study, goes back to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. Almost half of Mexico's territory was ceded to the US. The treaty guaranteed the property rights of the Mexican settlers who remained on the land in a hundred towns and villages, each with tracts of land granted to them first by Spain and then by Mexico.

But that's not how things stayed. Through a combination of taxation rules, legal maneuvering, and even a US Supreme Court decision, the settlers eventually lost much of the land. A good portion ended up in federal hands.

All of the former Mexican territory - which includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California - has land in dispute. But in New Mexico the record is notable. In the letter requesting the GAO study, signed by both of New Mexico's senators, the agency is asked to find out why only 24 percent of land claims were honored in New Mexico, compared with 73 percent in California. The senators also ask the GAO to propose remedies, if any are needed.

"The lingering controversy over the ... land grant claims has created a sense of distrust and bitterness ... in New Mexico," says the 1999 letter.

Claims on a national level

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The study is part of a larger movement in America to redress old grievances, says Laura Gomez, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies race and justice. She cites as examples the payments to victims of race riots in Florida and to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Another example involves the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Okla., considered one of the worst mob attacks on blacks in US history. Last week a state commission recommended reparations to about 120 survivors, although Oklahoma's Legislature is split over whether to approve payments.

"It is an idea in the air," says Joseph Sanchez, the head of the Spanish Colonial Research Center in Albuquerque, a joint operation run by the National Park Service and the University of New Mexico. "Perhaps the political climate is right.... The increasing percentage of the Hispanic vote [in New Mexico] has played a large role."

It is too early to say what will come of the GAO study, Mr. Sanchez notes. The study is still in the fact-finding stage and not slated for completion until December 2002. But still, for the first time there is significant national interest in the issue of land grants. "Politicians have clearly turned their ear. It's not something that can be ignored anymore," he says.

In another sense, he adds, the consideration of the claims is an acknowledgment of the long Spanish and Mexican roles in the Southwest.

Today, most of the land in sight of Mr. Morales's shop is federally owned, the Kit Carson National Forest. It was once held in common by the town of Tierra Amarilla.

"We want our land back," he says, echoing a billboard near town hand-painted with the words, "Tierra o Muerto" - Land or Death.

Boiling over into violence

In years past, conflicts over access to Forest Service land erupted into fighting. In 1968, a group of armed activists, Morales included, marched on the Rio Arriba County courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to free several colleagues who had been arrested on weapons charges. Several deputies were wounded in the ensuing gunfight. The activists fled into the mountains, sparking the largest manhunt in New Mexico history. In the end, Morales served six months in jail.

But times have changed. In November, Morales was reelected to a seat as a county commissioner in Rio Arriba. Yet he says violence will remain an option as long as the land claims are not recognized.

He points toward the mountains. "The land is being bought up and fenced off. Our people can't go hunting and fishing. Without land, what hope is there?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society