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.
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
"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
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. …