Coronado's Country and Its Peopleby RUTH LAUGHLIN
The sixteenth century marked the world expansion of mighty Spanish empire. Coronado's hazardous expedition claimed for Spain the province of New Mexico, a region then bounded by the Mississippi and the Pacific, Mexico and the unknown north. Through trade down the Santa Fe Trail and the Mexican War, the United States annexed Coronado's Country in 1846, enriching the nation with Hispanic culture, adding one third to the total general area and extending it from ocean to ocean.
This year the interweaving of three peoples, each contributing its own fiber to the national fabric, is celebrated the 400th anniversary of Coronado's entrada. Throughout this summer, Spanish fiestas and Indian dances, Coronado pageantry and international conferences, will dramatize the result of four centuries of European contact with this continent. The spotlight will play on the two oldest minority groups in the United States, the Indians and the Spanish-Americans.
These minority groups have a different status from recent alien immigrants. Indians have a thousand-year priority claim on this country and have now become sufficiently articulate to demand self-preservation. Spanish-Americans smile indulgently at the claims of Colonial Dames and point to Spanish ancestors who built the first permanent capital on the Rio Grande in 1598, two decades before English Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. In fact the American finds that he is merely an "Anglo" (Anglo-American) in New Mexico.
The Indians, the Spanish, the Anglos
EACH CONQUERING WAVE THAT HAS SWEPT OVER NEW MEXICO in the past four centuries has been composed of small but powerful minorities. Indians outnumbered Spaniards in 1540, Spanish-Americans still outnumber Anglo-Americans in 1940. The state's population of 483,000 is divided now into 51 percent Spanish-American, 47 percent Anglo-American, 3.5 percent Indian and .5 percent others. There has been a greater Anglo increase since New Mexico became a state thirty-two years ago and more intermarriage has mixed the cultural streams. But it is a remarkable fact that, even after 400 years of Spanish occupancy and 90 years of aggressive American domination, three peoples still live side-by-side as distinct units.
Indians continue their communal ownership and pagan ceremonies in their pueblos, Spanish-Americans cherish the customs and language of medieval Spain, Anglos plan irrigation schemes and listen to the radio. Each contributes cultural riches, variety and a liberal racial viewpoint which gives New Mexico a unique complexion in the standardized American federation.
The Spanish-Americans insist upon their hyphenated name to differentiate themselves from Mexicans who have crossed into the border states in recent years; yet they vie with the Indians in claiming that they are, first of all, Americans. At this time, when there is such widespread interest in our Latin-American neighbors, it is well to understand this old Spanish minority group whose taproot vitality has kept them alive and distinct through the centuries. They suggest two important points in the present world situation: first, they are a sympathetic link within our own country to strengthen the bonds with Latin America; and second, these two minority groups show how minorities may survive without losing their self-determination, integrity or racial value.
Their successful survival was largely due to two factorshate and space. Spanish conquistadors subdued the Indians in name only. Each resented the other, held themselves apart. Captured Indian slaves bore children to their Spanish masters, but formal marriage was not sanctioned. Indians sought to keep their race pure by marrying within the tribe. Even today some tribes prohibit a stranger from remaining in the pueblo overnight. The more tolerant pueblos disintegrated as Indian city-states and became mixed Spanish villages. Each minority group still regards itself superior.
With the hatred and war between Spaniards and Indians in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the only chance of survival was plenty of elbow room. The wilderness was so vast that people could escape from their human foes if they could withstand that greater enemynature.
Men Must Have Water
LAND WAS NEVER IMPORTANT IN NEW MEXICO There was too much of it. But water was always critically important. There was never enough water. If we could hear the composite voices of four centuries, fighting, praying, singing, they would mingle into one wordwater. In 1940 the question of land use is still predicated on water rights. Commercial competition, which has brought a drastic threat to the present transition era, is based on irrigation.
With a continent to choose from, Indians naturally had selected home sites beside running streams. The Spanish conquerors doled out to them land and range surrounding their villages. The powerful dons soon owned vast tracts, granted by a distant King in Spain. These were feudal holdings, sometimes larger than the state of Delaware, with boundaries vaguely marked by the distance a horse could travel in any direction in three days. The value of the land grant lay not so much in area as in prestige and water sources. A man might own only a square league of land surrounding ever flowing springs, yet he controlled thousands of dry leagues. Sheep and cattle on the range, men and horses had to have water.
Power and policy were vested in the handful of landed patróns who used the range and cultivated their fields with debt-bound peon labor. When the patrón died, his land grant was divided among his many children, each receiving a strip of land with a water right. Some of these were only half a mile wide on a mountain stream but ran back in long narrow ribbons fifteen to twenty miles across the sagebrush mesa. These original holdings were undivided over three hundred years, each tract cut up the present small subsistence farms with population crowded on the irrigated land. When peonage ceased, peons continued to live and farm on the patrón's land grant. Now, after almost a century of living on the same few acres, native families are bewildered to find that they have no title and must get out to make room for commercial interests.
The small property was seldom mortgaged or sold and subsistence tracts became the basis of life from generation to generation. The land had to produce the essentials for sustaining life on a frontier that was isolated from any source of supplies by months of travel. With simple irrigation the native people raised two staple foodslarge red chile peppers and brown speckled beans. Extra crops were squash and melons, root vegetables, peaches, apples and plums. Sheep grazed on the mountains and cattle In on the open plains. When an occasional sheep, goat or cow was butchered, every vestige of the carcass was utilized: wool was spun for blankets and clothing, hide was tanned for shoes and harness, bones were cracked for marrow, and strips of meat were dried in the sun. Wood from the hills was packed home on shaggy, drought-resistant burros.
These people lived on and in the earth, for earth and water also made their homes. Indians had puddled mud between forms made of animal skins to build their terraced communal houses. Spaniards introduced adobesmolding earth, water and wheat straw into large bricks and baking them in the dry sunshine. One-story adobe houses with thick walls and dirt-topped roofs are weatherproof and cost little but labor. They are low red-brown mounds of earth, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding country on the outside and yet clean and shining with native whitewash on the inside. They are the most economical, suitable and comfortable construction for New Mexico. They contribute to an intimate relation with the soil, especially when mud leaks through the roof or sand trickles down the neck.
A century ago there were no county poor farms, hospitals or orphan asylums in New Mexico. No matter how meager the family resources, there was always room on the hard dirt door for another pallet and a few more beans in the pot for the aged, the unfortunate, the motherless. Fiestas scattered throughout the year brought lonely communities together for long anticipated masses, visiting, miracle plays, games, songs, and dancing. Fiestas cost nothing but time and time was tomorrow. Material wealth was spread thin but life had drama, dignity and simple faith.
The Old Pattern Changes
The influx of aggressive people, the American Government and modern civilization were bound to change this ancient pattern. Westward expansion reaching New Mexico in the past ninety years shows one surprising result. Cultivated land has decreased instead of increased. In 1800 there were 100,000 acres under cultivation in the Rio Grande Valley. When the railroads climbed over the Mountains in 1830, the cultivated area increased to 125,000 acres. By 1925 this peak had slipped to 40,000 acres.
The size of New Mexico has also decreased since Coronado's day. His country is now called the Southwest, chopped into many states. But in the sisterhood of forty-eight states New Mexico still ranks fourth from the top in area, though fourth from the bottom in population. For the total area the ratio is four people per square mile. On irrigated land in the Rio Grande Valley this ratio leaps alarmingly to 500 people per square mile, making it one of the most densely populated rural areas in the United States. Water again rears its silver head.
American ingenuity was faced with the puzzle of a vast expanse of land and no water; of people crowded onto a few acres while the great desert stretches were uninhabited; of soil that would produce good crops with irrigation; and with enough water running off in floods to irrigate the whole country. Storage reservoirs seemed to be a simple answer until man discovered that nature could not be wooed and won overnight.
In this semi-arid land of golden deserts, purple mesas and snow-capped mountains, seasonal rainfall is never sufficient to insure crops. During dry months there must be irrigation. Indians had developed irrigation systems long before Coronado came. Spanish colonists were familiar with acequias in Spain. Their first work in the new land was to dig acequias to guide precious water from the streams to their herds. Today when Juan Rodriguez says, We will get water on Wednesday, there is a deep note of fulfillment in his voice. As the water gurgles through the acequia, turning, the banked beds of dry earth into foamy chocolate mud a long cycle has been completed between man, land and water.
Since the day in 1540 when Coronado stepped on the banks of the Rio Grande, this major western watershed has been of primary importance as the principal source of irrigation. Spaniards fought Indians to control this valley, Americans fought Mexicans. Today Texas, Colorado and New Mexico squabble over Rio Grande water rights. The United States and Mexico attempt to settle water distribution and the long international boundary dispute caused by the shifting bed of the river. Between its source in Colorado and the Mexican border, the Rio Grande rushes down the middle of New Mexico and cradles the majority of the state's population and farm acreage. It is the key to state prosperity.
The federal government built the Elephant Butte dam in 1916 to fulfill its treaty obligation to deliver Rio Grande water to Mexico and to impound irrigation water for the lower valley. Magic water has now turned the dry desert into green cotton fields and truck gardens.
The Rio Grande is "silvery" only in song; actually it is a muddy stream, heavy with silt and sand. After the Elephant Butte dam was in operation, the water level in the upper valley rose twelve feet, the river lands became waterlogged and rheumy with alkali. Sand buried the ditches and the entire village of San Marcial. Something had to be done to repair the new damage. In 1927 Albuquerque citizens proposed the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, with drainage canals, storage reservoirs, and flood control dams at the source of the river.
Commercial interests agreed to a bond issue of $9,500,000 but forgot to figure how this was to be repaid. The small subsistence farmers most vitally affected were not consulted. This rural population was 76 percent Spanish-American, 14 percent Anglo and 10 percent Indian. After ten years 70 percent of all assessments on this project were delinquent. A real calamity developed when 8000 people lost title to their long held land. They were not allowed to pay regular taxes until the exorbitant district assessments had been paid and consequently their land title passed to the state through unpaid taxes. With a total cash income per subsistence family averaging $150 per year, neither land nor people earned enough surplus to pay taxes and assessments.
The Indian Bureau protected The loss of pueblo land by persuading Congress to contribute $1,259,800 for the Indian settlement. But 4500 subsistence tracts, mostly owned by Spanish-Americans, have become state property. Actual eviction has not taken place so far, but unless federal aid is given promptly it will be impossible to pay back taxes and the land will be permanently lost to the original owners.
The Reconstruction Finance Corporation has successfully refinanced smaller irrigation projects such as the Santa Cruz dam where assessments were reduced to an amount within the earning capacity of subsistence farmers. Santa Cruz Valley is now a thriving, self-supporting district with a sure water supply for orchards, fields and truck gardens on a non-commercial basis.
The federal government is interested in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, if only to protect its own heavy investments. Approximately half the land in New Mexico is owned and controlled by the government in national forests, parks, Indian land and the public domain. Besides the land area, the government is the largest investor in improvements, buildings, irrigation projects and highways. Federal Emergency Relief for the rural population amounts to large sums that may increase unless subsistence farmers are helped toward reestablishing themselves on a self-supporting basis.
The Interdepartmental Rio Grande Committee has made intensive studies of this situation and the Soil Conservation Service is doing constructive work toward restoring basic resources. The government has provided some immediate remedy by buying Spanish grants and offering range and wood to rural communities in most drastic need.
With the promise of water storage projects, commercial interests have bought enormous tracts of land, even though the range is depleted by overgrazing. They have long time plans for small dams, fences, soil conservation, limited grazing and restoration of cover crops. This increases the productivity of the state but also squeezes out the small subsistence farms. In one northern county 500 people will be forced to move out of their homes when a large company develops the 92,000-acre grant they have just purchased.
New Problems Come to Coronado's Country
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN COMPETITION FORCES THE SPANISH-AMERICANS off of their hereditary farms and range? Up to 1930 they had seasonal work as migratory wage laboreres in beet and potato fields, mines, smelters, railroads and sheep camps in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. The depression halted industry and forced states to exclude out-of-state labor in favor of their own unemployed. Even in normal times migratory labor tends to reduce wages. While seasonal work is important, it does not solve the native economic problem.
Migratory work ceased and 1934 added the despair of the red drought. The usually light clear air was heavy with red soil blown hundreds of miles from the Dust Bowl. No rain came to wash the sky or soak the soil.
Families moved to town to seek cash wages, only to swell the unemployment lists. For the first time in their lives they had to pay rent and buy wood, water, chile and beans. The relief rolls are now 90 percent Spanish-American, largely increased by former subsistence farmers.
Federal Emergency Relief is the first national program that has affected isolated New Mexico and consequently has pointed up the changes already brought about by a transition era. Penetrating even the most remote hamlets, as in other states relief has good and bad effects. In New Mexico some are proud to be on relief, feeling that such income is their right as American citizens. Their memory retains the feudal pattern, seeing Uncle Sam as the rich patrón who provided food, shelter, a little work and cared for the sick and aged.
Even these types have not lost entirely the remarkable Spanish-American habit of sharing. Villages are called Los Chavez, Los Griegos. Los Vigiles. meaning that practically everyone belongs to the Chavez, Griego or Vigil family. This results in inbreeding but also good breeding. A big family loves and hates, shares fortune and misfortune. Now relief money dribbles through thin fingers, divided with those in greater need. Roofs are still wide enough to shelter the old, the sick and the orphans. If the government adds funds for this good-neighborliness so much the better. There is a Spanish shrug, a quiet smile and a murmur of "As God wills."
Most of the rural people on relief lists are anxious to get work or make a living on their farms. Spanish pride burns with loss of self-respect. The problem of adjusting the social transition and increasing economic resources has reached a critical stage.
This minority group, forgotten until the first World War focused attention on our domestic minorities, is at last receiving help from health and educational agencies. A recent health survey indicates that the healthiest community in the state is a Spanish-American village living almost entirely on subsistence crops. Chile and beans prove to be a surprisingly well-balanced diet with high vitamin content. Malnutrition is most apparent among the native people who have given up growing their own food. Lack of sanitation and very high infant mortality are still black marks which can only be eradicated by health and increased resources.
Vocational training stands out as a practical and successful experiment. By inheritance and centuries of learning to be self-sufficient in a barren wilderness, the Spanish-Americans are essentially a handcraft people. Every village had its own woodcarvers, spinners, dyers and weavers, tin, iron and goldsmiths. Crafts were handed down from father to son. It is only necessary to add modern use and markets to give these craft groups the incentive of earning a living with work in which they have pride, ability and joy.
They are spasmodic workers, speeding up under seasonal rush hut lacking interest in a steady daily output. They are temperamentally bored with the infinite repetitions of a factory. For 100 years they worked hard to irrigate fields and gather crops before a fiesta. Then they played. They did not need lessons for the use of leisure time.
Perhaps the sharp up and down in their design for living has something to offer the steady, satiated American curve. Certainly our urban centers have lost touch with the zest and basic drama of man's struggle for land and water.
In New York, subway signs read, "The city is faced with a serious water shortage. Repair all leaks and don't waste water." But few New Yorkers realize the delicate and dangerous balance between the water supply and a teeming metropolis.
Since prehistoric times rain has been the symbol of divine beneficence in the Southwest. This spring Indians danced in gorgeous pagan ceremonials which are dramatized pleas for rain. Spanish-Americans in fringed black shawls toured their parched fields, chanting in high, minor litanies their prayers for rain. Khaki-clad engineers listened for the voice of the Rio Grande, broadcast through a gauge indicating rising floods from spring rain. In Coronado's Country water has traced the pattern of life.