Rethinking New Mexico History

In 1967 author, historian, human rights activist and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was working on a Ph.D. in Latin American history at UCLA when a TV report drew her attention. Armed men of the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres had captured a small town’s courthouse in northern New Mexico. This is what happens in Latin America, she thought, not the U.S. Wait a minute, Dunbar-Oritiz continued, that was the historic name for a place in the U.S. She writes of this contradiction and others in a paperback version with a new chapter of her 1980 book Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico (University of Oklahoma Press, September, 2007). In it, she delivers a “socioeconomic interpretation” of New Mexico’s “historically dynamic peoples,” Pueblo Indian and Mexican, to the present.

Prior to Spanish colonialists’ arrival in the late 16th century, Pueblo Indians for three centuries lived and worked on land with “intensive irrigation farming” and “kinship associations and a religious superstructure intimately related to agricultural seasons.” Pueblos, reliant upon the Río Grande and the river tributaries, were part of a far-reaching network of producing and trading peoples in this area of North America. Such communal self-provisioning societies preceded the Pueblos’ by 20 centuries, writes Dunbar-Ortiz.

Eight decades of Spanish colonialism upended Pueblo life. The colonialists brought enslaved Africans and Indians from Mexico, cattle and horses. This intrusion wrecked the dirt irrigation ditches of the Pueblos. Meanwhile, Franciscans friars tried to Christianize them. Pueblo villages declined from 98 to 23 under the savage culture of Spanish military violence. Marx termed imperialists’ armed theft of land, labor and resources “primitive accumulation” in Vol. 1 of Capital. His theory of capitalism’s origin informs Roots of Resistance. In fact, Dunbar-Ortiz’ application of Marx’s work to colonialism and the resistance it spawned in New Mexico helps readers to better understand the relevance of his materialist framework.

In 1680, a Pueblo-led uprising, planned for generations, Dunbar-Ortiz writes, drove out the foreigners for 13 years. After a re-conquest, Spanish rulers, mindful of their previous ouster, chose a policy of community land grants to detribalized Indian, and mestizo and mulatto residents. Spaniard’s called this group of about 15,000 people genízaros. They were a low-income populace living on the colony frontiers under colonial Spain’s rigid theocracy. The genízaros bore some similarities to poor, rural whites like the Scots-Irish, “foot soldiers” of the British and American empires. Dunbar-Ortiz’ details the triumphs and tragedies of these soldiers in her poignant memoir Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997).

The Spanish caste system had 32 degrees, with Indians on the bottom then Africans, according to Dunbar-Ortiz. This system of racial oppression as a tool of social control helped to lay the groundwork for future conflicts between colonized people in New Mexico. Her point is that grasping race, or ethnicity, should dovetail with a critique of social class, is well taken. Emerging from the radical popular movements of the 1960s she shares in her second memoir Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975 (City Lights Publishers, 2002), Dunbar-Ortiz expands the role of class as an analytic framework for gender and racial oppressions. She writes in the radical tradition of U.S. historian David Roediger, who explores the material and ideological links between race and class formation in his work. Most recently, that includes Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (University of California Press, 2002) and Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (Basic Books, 2005).

The secular Republic of Mexico emerged in 1821. It expelled the Catholic Church and the Spanish caste system. The people of New Mexico became Mexican citizens. And the contradictions of capitalism intervening through colonialism festered. At one pole was an upper class organized around the American Party of Taos, which accumulated land-grant acreage. These elites did business with Kit Carson and other U.S. merchants. Together, they upset the markets of small farmers and traders. The U.S., the richest state in the Western Hemisphere then, turned village life in New Mexico upside down, Dunbar-Ortiz explains. Likewise, the NAFTA, begun New Year’s Day 1994 under Democratic President Bill Clinton, has devastated Mexico’s small corn farmers. The winners, U.S. corporate agriculture, is flooding Mexican communities, pushing people north to the U.S. labor market, where dreadful work conditions and political exploitation spawn a noxious witches’ brew.

Manifest Destiny, the ideology of U.S. empire based on the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, sparked war against Mexico in 1846. Though defeated by the American invaders, Mexico negotiated the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Crucially, it guarantees the property rights of Mexican citizens and their heirs to ownership of their land “equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States,” Dunbar-Ortiz explains. Spanish colonists had seized that from Pueblo peoples, which became the basis of Spain’s land-tenure policy. The absence of this clarification in standard history reveals its importance to the prevailing imperial ideology of “tragic” American military interventions, from Iraq’s March 2003 invasion and well before that.

Dunbar Ortiz places the land question in the New Mexico of the 19th century squarely within the colonial trends underway on other continents. In this way, she analyzes capitalist imperialism as a global system. While the Treaty also prevents the sale of public lands to private hands, Dunbar-Ortiz details how this promise of protected property rights was repeatedly broken, with the federal government failing to protect the original land grantees. Pueblo Indians and Mexican villagers suffered grievously. The U.S. legal profession played a decisive role in this land transfer. One example is American lawyers’ use of power of attorney agreements to deprive Mexican farmers from using the commons for sheep-grazing. Capitalist land speculators such as Thomas B. Catron, also a territorial politician in New Mexico, grabbed crucial grazing lands adjacent to the estimated 2 to 3 million acres he also acquired.

New Mexico, ruled as a U.S. territory until 1912, served as a place for Catron and other investors in the mining and railroad industries to grow their capital. Dunbar-Ortiz clarifies the process, driven to expand over space and time, clashed with older practices and views of subsistence land use. The central role of the state loomed large. For instance, in New Mexico, U.S. congressional policy denied the ownership of commons, or land for public use. Meanwhile, an elite class of Hispanic New Mexicans prospered. One group’s gain illustrates in part the region’s class and race divide. U.S. policy of creating dreadful agrarian conditions exacerbated the class divisions.

Throughout the book, her analysis shines clarity where fog lingers concerning native people’s relations to the land and one another in this part of the American Southwest. “The pervading racism bred by colonialism has tended to cloud the land issue in northern New Mexico, producing the view that it is a product of cultural differences rather than a product of basic economic processes within a capitalist society.”

Major government intervention into the reputed “free market” economy harms those in the lower social classes with grim regularity. Various U.S. agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service end up owning 40 percent of New Mexico’s communal land grants. Los Alamos is the site of the U.S. Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Crucially, this same area is Pueblos’ ancestral land, from which they are excluded from using now. This pattern is essential to capitalism’s “laws of motion” which deprive people of such self-sufficiency. This trend, which dates from the enclosure movements in pre-industrial Europe, propels farmers into selling their labor services for money, which investment capital requires for growth.

Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “During the twentieth century, economic development in northern New Mexico moved towards a capitalist economy within the economic system of the United States with an almost total proletarianization of agricultural producers. However, the persistence of the Mexican villages, the Pueblos’ winning of U.S. federal trust protection and securing of their lands, the existence of the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache reservations, and the resource-rich part of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico are factors that created a counterforce to unlimited monopoly capital development. Land, water, and mineral sources were still the essential capitalist commodities in the area.”

Her final chapter is new. In it she weaves the global indigenous people’s movement into her analysis and narrative of New Mexico. Two movements stand out: the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and the international indigenous opposition to the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. Both were inclusive of multiple struggles, from Latin and Central America to the African continent, exploding the ruling ideology that alternatives to the status quo of capital’s rule over society are a kind of fantasy. That momentum continues. Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “The issues activist Pueblos and their allies are raising in New Mexico, however harsh and conflictive those issues may be, have much to contribute toward a transformative discussion of struggles for economic, cultural, and social justice in the United States.”

Dunbar-Ortiz’ documentation is thorough. She references archival and published primary and secondary sources, articles, books, court cases, legislation, monographs, government reports and United Nations documents. Teens and adults, young and old, can gain from the insights and scholarship in her book. It deserves widespread attention.

SETH SANDRONSKY lives and writes in Sacramento





Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email