Kristofer Rios et al., ABC News, September 30, 2020
In some ways, what happened to Mexican Americans in the Southwest happened time and again throughout American history. Promises were made to the community, but many were never kept.
“I just don’t think people get the passion that’s attached to this,” said Rita Padilla-Gutierrez, whose community has lost tens of thousands of acres of ancestral land over generations. “It’s the history, for God’s sake. Plain and simple. Your language, your customs, your food, your traditions. But for us, it’s being a land-based people.”
What we now consider the Southwest wasn’t part of the United States at all 172 years ago — it was the northernmost part of Mexico. In 1845, the U.S. annexed Texas, which Mexico considered part of its territory. This spurred a long and bloody war with Mexico and, ultimately, Mexico ceded half its country to the U.S.
The agreement between the two countries was immortalized in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave around 100,000 Mexican nationals living in those territories citizenship if they decided to stay. More importantly, the agreement protected the rights of any Mexican whose land was now a part of the U.S.
“When Mexico negotiates the treaty in good faith, assuming that all of its citizens’ rights will be respected, what it doesn’t understand is that for the United States, only whites have the rights to full citizenship,” said María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, author of “Indian Given: Racial Geographies Across Mexico and the United States.” “[Shortly after the treaty,] territorial governments systematically go about disenfranchising all Mexican citizens who they deem to not be white.”
“There’s a huge disparity here in terms of poverty and [in] terms of education,” Arturo Archuleta, a land grant heir in New Mexico, told “Nightline.” “These communities have been left behind.”
Heirs like Archuleta are working to get reparations for the land that was taken from their communities, which existed long before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was even created, according to Jacobo Baca, a historian with the University of New Mexico’s Land Grant Studies Program.
“It’s beyond [a] sense of place,” Baca said. “Our identity is tied to place, but we don’t see that place having an identity without us, either. So it defines us just as much as we define it.”
“We come from Spanish communities that came over, [and from] Native American communities as well,” Archuleta said. “So we really are sort of mestizo. We’re mixed… We’re a land-based people. Half of our soul was here before Columbus ever hit the sand.”
“It’s not just surviving, but thriving. Our cultural connections are still in place,” he said. “The land grant and the treaty issues is probably what you consider the first Latino issue in this country, and it’s still unresolved.”
“We have very deep, deep native roots here,” Andrea Padilla, Padilla-Gutierrez’s sister, told “Nightline.”
“America owes us the opportunity to take care of our own communities,” Padilla-Gutierrez said.
“I think regaining some of our land back would be justice,” her sister added.
Mexican American culture has been maligned for generations, and the racism born out of that continues to be espoused at the highest levels of government today.
Saldaña-Portillo says this bigotry results from Mexican natives’ land being given to white settlers.
“[It helped create] the representation of Mexicans as these barbarous Indians,” she said. “That’s annunciated every day when we hear Mexicans described as rapists, murderers and thieves.”
Juan Sanchez, a sixth-generation native of the Chililí Land Grant in New Mexico, remembers activist Reies Lopez Tijerina of the 1960s.
“We are called the forgotten people,” Sanchez said. “He came to New Mexico preaching the treaty and preaching and telling the people that they were gonna lose their land.” Tijerina was a major figure in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to reclaim Mexican Americans’ indigenous heritage and original territories.
Tijerina’s story culminates in June 1967, when he led an armed raid on a courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, to free imprisoned activists and place a citizen’s arrest on the district attorney who ordered a police crackdown on them.
“They were gonna go make a citizen’s arrest and so it just got outta hand from there. The frustration of not being heard just exploded,” Sanchez said. “They [had] put all the heirs of different land grants that were the followers of Tijerina in a corral like sheep.”
In the ensuing shootout, two police officers were wounded and two hostages were taken as the activists fled Tierra Amarilla. After a week-long manhunt, Tijerina surrendered. He was found guilty of assault on a federal officer and sentenced to two years in prison.
“He opened our eyes. He taught us,” Sanchez said. “He always said, ‘Change the law,’ and we’ve always tried that.”
Archuleta says it took generations for these communities to fall into poverty and other socioeconomic issues, and that it’ll take a long time to solve their problems as well.
“We’re in a marathon. We’re not in a race,” he said.
For Sanchez, “the dream of reparation would be that we’d get our land back. But we know that’s impossible; times have changed.”
“Short of that, I also think our communities are due some type of reparations in terms of monetary compensation for all the hardships that they’ve endured,” Archuleta said. “What that figure looks like to us, if we did a calculation, probably about $2.7 billion. Not to pay out individuals but to pay our communities for community development and to buy back land.”