La Tierra y La Gente

La Tierra y La Gente: How Place Supports the Struggle for Peace and Justice in New Mexico

Speech delivered by Arturo Sandoval

April 19, 2018

At the Humans of New Mexico Exhibit

National Hispanic Cultural Center

Photo Credits: Jim Holbrook

Arturo Sandoval NHCC April 2018

New Mexico is our homeland. Whether by birth or by choice, we have made New Mexico our place.

I was born and raised in the Española Valley, which is myTierra Sagrada. I did not realize it then, except perhaps intuitively, but looking back over more than six decades, I realize now that I was raised as much by “place” as I was by family and by community.

Our toys were “palitos de leña” that we turned into horses that we raced across the llano. In winter, we built our own sleds out of wood, and covered the runners with thin strips of tin before propelling ourselves down the nearby hills.  More than anything else, we used our imaginations and the place in which we lived to entertain and educate ourselves.

My home was located a few hundred yards from the boundary with Santa Clara Pueblo. The greatest part of neighboring Pueblo land was that it was open and undeveloped. I had a playground bigger than as far as I could walk in 8 hours or even 10 hours. This playground was filled with piñon and cedar, crisscrossed with arroyos, singing with breezes that dried the sweat from my brow as I played with my brothers and my friends over the hills and in the arroyos.

Every day, I saw rabbits, lizards, coyotes, rattlesnakes, owls, bluebirds, sparrows, worms. I saw and heard birds I still don’t know the names of, but whose songs echo in my dreams each night.

I learned to swim in the Rio Grande, where we built our own crude diving board above a quiet pool. There, we kept from drowning by dog-paddling our way furiously from one end of the pool to the other. We played Tarzan in the Bosque, where it was eternally cool and dark throughout the hot summer days.

I was raised by my parents, by my older siblings, by my tios y tias, by my teachers, by my vecinos. But I was raised as well by my “place”—my Tierra Sagrada. I was hugged each night by the huge red-faced sun—embarrassed because he tired before I did–setting over my playground in the West. I was greeted each morning by the cu-cu-ru-cu-coofrom the gallinero. Western breezes tickled me. Birds talked to me. Trees danced with me. Brujosprowled through my neighborhood at night, disguised as snakes and owls. “Place” dirtied my clothes, wrung sweat out of my boy’s body, made me late for supper, waited up all night for me, and made me whole.

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We know that Native-Americans worshiped “place” in everything they did. For them, “Place” is not only about food and shelter. It is even more about soul and spirit.

In his book titled “God is Red,” Vine Deloria, Jr writes: “American Indians hold their lands—places—as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind.”

Many Native-Americans still worship the land, water, forests and sky. For them in particular, the land is alive. What does “alive” mean in this context? Perhaps it means that the land is more than just breathing. It means that the land, the water, the forests and the sky are conscious and aware. Where these natural elements are still worshiped, they are still alive.

The Greek philosopher Archytas said, “Place is the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.”

In his book on the Western Apache, titled “Wisdom Sits in Places,” anthropologist Keith Basso writes: “What do people make of places? The question is as old as people and places themselves, as old as human attachments to portions of the earth…As normally experienced, sense of place quite simply IS, as natural and straightforward as our fondness for certain colors and culinary tastes, and the thought that it might be complicated, or even very interesting, seldom crosses our minds. Until, as sometimes happens, we are deprived of these attachments and find ourselves adrift, literally dislocated, in unfamiliar surroundings we do not comprehend and care for even less…It is then we come to see that attachments to places may be nothing less than profound, and that when these attachments are threatened we may feel threatened as well. Places, we realize, are as much a part of us as we are a part of them, and senses of places—yours, mine and everyone else’s—partake complexly of both.

That is why New Mexico has a spiritual power emanating from the landscape—its rios, mesas, llanos, sierras—that inform our traditional cultures.

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But where Native-Americans have ceased worshiping places in New Mexico, place is dead. The Rio Puerco, for example, is a dead watershed. Once a vibrant river, nurturing both Native-American and Nuevo Mexicano villagers, the Rio Puerco died because Native-Americans were driven out of the area and no one was left to worship that particular rio. More mundane explanations tell us that the watershed was heavily overgrazed in the late 1880s by huge herds of cattle shipped in from Texas for fattening before shipping them to markets in Chicago and elsewhere.

I believe both explanations are true. Even more, I believe overgrazing that destroyed the watershed was caused by the reality that no one was worshipping the place called Rio Puerco and it was thus vulnerable to dying.

So how does place influence current events? It’s one thing to talk about place as a living, conscious, aware concept, but how can we even begin to think that this type of belief and practice can change what we see happening around us today?

For example, the current American regime has built and solidified its political base by xenophobic attacks on Mexicans. The current regime is sending National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border in New Mexico and continues to insist it will build a massive wall to keep Mexicans and other so-called undesirables out of the US.

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Here in New Mexico, we know these efforts are futile and will never succeed.


Simply put, there has existed in the Southwestern United States a deep imprint of knowledge and trade and human interaction that has tied us to the peoples and cultures of Mexico and Latin America since time immemorial along a north-south axis.

For thousands of years, Native-Americans took to the trails in the name of their spirituality, or of the harvest, the hunt, trade and celebration. They may have helped forge trails at least as far back as eight or nine millennia ago. They forged thousands of miles of trails from central México to Ohkay Owingeh, in the Española Valley. All of these trails were along a north-south axis and all of these trails linked Central America, Mexico and North America together.

At least three well documented major north-to-south arteries or connected segments of trails began in the central valley of México and ended in what we now know as the United States.

With the emergence of settled villages of Native-American farmers, traders likely became the primary authors of the trails of the Southwest.

In his book, “Traders of the Western Morning,” John Upton Terrell itemized nearly 250 trade items which fueled the commerce of the first Native-American trails and markets of the Southwest.

After Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Spaniards used existing Native-American trails as the basis of the Caminos Reales—the Royal Roads—that emanated from Mexico City throughout Mexico and what is now the southwestern United States.

This deeply-rooted human connection—these ancient trails—are still in use today. Building a wall and placing border guards will never stop this human interaction—all tied to place.

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Climate change and global warming are real and we are suffering greatly here in New Mexico from its effects. We are now in an extended drought, with little hope of relief anytime soon.

We are entering what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency.” Basically, he argues that world oil production is peaking and that the remaining oil left to be exploited is geometrically more difficult to find and extract. Another negative impact of modernity is that the excesses of capitalism are creating the conditions leading to global warming and serious climate change.

He argues that this long emergency into an oil-depleted economy will change forever everything about how we live.

Kunstler presents a bleak future for all of us. He does, however, offer one ray of hope:

“The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope—that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom…”

There are many ways in which the worship of place by Native Americans and the concept of querencia by Nuevo Mexicanos is having many positive impacts on current events and offering hope for a sustainable future here in New Mexico.

Here in Albuquerque, the city has pretty much run out of places to continue its historical practice of sprawl development. The only sprawl development areas still in play are Mesa del Sol and Santolina. Developers have already sprawled as far as they can to the West and East, north and south. On the west, the city cannot sprawl any further, because both Laguna Pueblo and Zia Pueblo lands block their way. Nor is there any indication that these Pueblo people will sell or lease their lands for any more sprawl development.

To the south and southeast, sprawl is blocked by Isleta Pueblo lands, and to the north, Sandia Pueblo lands hinder sprawl development in that direction. This is good news for those of us worried about long-term sustainability in the face of water shortages, gas shortages and the implosion of capitalism as we currently know it. The Pueblos are acting as an overall planning department for the City of Albuquerque and doing a mighty fine job of it.

If both modernity and capitalism come crashing down sooner than we thought because of the high impact of global warming and climate change, then humans face severe survival challenges.

What will need to happen to give us a chance at survival?

Well, for one thing, let’s talk about food. We will no longer be able to purchase cheap foods at Walmart or Smith’s because there will not be a way to transport them from China or Mexico or Latin America. We will have to grow our own food locally.

Fortunately, land-based Nuevo Mexicano communities and Puebloans have mostly held on to their arable lands. They have always used water conservation models to grow food, even during droughts. We already have the land and limited water still available to us to feed ourselves when the crash hits.

There are other examples, but you get the idea, I’m sure.

We need to look to our pueblo communities for models for the best way to live in the future. We need to study our acequiasand our land grant communities to see how people find a livable future with the most effective power source available—local communal vision and hands-on work.

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Which is why at the Center of Southwest Culture, we are laser-focused on creating sustainable organic food coops in land-based Nuevo Mexicano and Puebloan communities. I invite you to visit our web site and send us any questions you many have about our work. But fundamentally, we see the severity of what the future may bring and we want our gente to be ready for it.

We are blessed to have living among us a native son, our Chicano poet laureate, Jimmy Santiago Baca.  For him, just like for so many others here in New Mexico, the Rio Grande is sacred.  I want to end with a piece from his work, entitled:

WinterPoems Along the Rio Grande”:

“Sometimes I stand on the river bank
and feel the water take my pain,
allow my nostalgic brooding
a reprieve.
The water flows south,
constantly redrafting its story
which is my story,
rising and lowering with glimmering meanings—
here nations drown their stupid babbling,
bragging senators are mere geese droppings in the mud,
radicals and conservatives are stands of island grass,
and the water flows on,
cleansing, baptizing Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

I yearn to move past these days of hate and racism.

That is why this Rio Grande,
these trees and sage bushes
the geese, horses, dogs and river stones
are so important to me—
with them
I go on altering my reptilian self,
reaching higher notes of being
on my trombone heart,
pulsing out into the universe, my music
according to the leaf’s music sheet,
working, with a vague indulgence toward a song
we the people.”


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