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Nuestra Historia - Ezequiel C de Baca fought to protect land grant

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After Felix Martinez left Las Vegas in 1900, La Voz del Pueblo continued under Ezequiel C de Baca and Antonio Lucero. The weekly newspaper had a circulation of about 3,000 throughout New Mexico, and was the Territory’s leading Spanish language periodical.

C de Baca and Lucero continued their Hispanic-oriented populist advocacy on the pages of La Voz, and between 1900 and 1912, the weekly became the alternative (Democratic) newspaper, fiercely critical of the established Republican order of the time.

C de Baca soon became chairman of the meager Democratic Party in San Miguel County, and despite his political insignificance, La Voz allowed Ezequiel to weigh-in on the critical debates of the day. One issue in particular would endear the future governor to the poor and dispossessed, and see him emerge as their courageous advocate — the Las Vegas Land Grant.

After the American occupation in 1846, Spanish and Mexican land grants in New Mexico were in peril. By the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States ostensibly obligated itself to recognize New Mexico’s land grants, and in 1854 the U.S. Surveyor General was charged with determining the location, extent and validity of each grant (merced in Spanish).

Six years later, on June 21, 1860, Congress confirmed the Las Vegas Land Grant, declaring it a lawful and established grant containing 496,446.96 acres. The Congressional confirmation was silent, however, on the administration of the Grant. Because no continuing entity existed to oversee and protect the enormous acreage, in the following years substantial private land acquisitions began to gradually erode the massive half-million acre merced.

Still, by 1902, much of the Las Vegas Land Grant was in-tact, and a great struggle arose as to how the merced would be administered. The strife was precipitated by a convoluted decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in January of that year, reaffirming the Grant, but leaving unanswered how it was to be administered. (See Maese v. Herman, 183 U.S. 572).

Immediately, Ezequiel and La Voz began an aggressive campaign proposing that the Las Vegas merced be governed by a board of trustees elected by the people. La Voz was incessant in its coverage of the issue, and sentiment became widespread in favor of Ezequiel’s plan, which he exhorted as a fundamental question of Hispanic land rights and heritage.

Ezequiel’s plan to protect the Grant — and the groundswell of public support engendered by La Voz — were anathema to the non-Hispanic land speculators who continued to amass great portions of the merced. Fearing Ezequiel’s plan would be implemented, and though greatly outnumbered locally, the Anglo business and land interests found a solution.     

For the second time in 20 years, the non-Hispanic minority in Las Vegas thwarted the majority rule of the Hispanic population, and sought intervention by the Territorial legislature. In 1903, the legislature enacted a special law which placed control of the Las Vegas Land Grant in the hands of the district judge, unlike any other merced in New Mexico. (For at least the two decades preceding statehood, non-Hispanic land speculators and businessmen controlled the Territorial legislature, and included the infamous Santa Fe Ring, led by Thomas B. Catron.)

The special 1903 statute vested in the district judge the power to “manage, control and administer” the Las Vegas Land Grant, and to appoint its board of trustees. At the time, William J. Mills, as chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, was the district judge for Las Vegas, and sympathetic to the land investors who desired to continue raiding the Grant. (Appointed by the President, Mills had neither an inclination nor obligation favorable to the native population seeking to protect their merced.)

Two decades earlier, on another paramount issue, majority rule by Las Vegas Hispanics had been similarly frustrated. Following the racially charged election of Don Eugenio Romero as mayor of the combined city of east and west Las Vegas in 1882, the Territorial legislature passed a special law allowing East Las Vegas to secede and establish itself as a separate municipality. (See Nuestra Historia, Aug. 12 and 19, 2011).

Judge Mills appointed an Anglo-dominated and land-acquisition oriented board of trustees, and the dismantling of the Las Vegas Land Grant continued unabated, notwithstanding Ezequiel C de Baca’s noble efforts to preserve the merced. (In later columns, Nuestra Historia intends a comprehensive review of the evolution and loss of the Las Vegas Land Grant.)

Despite the calamity of the 1903 law, Ezequiel’s valiant efforts to protect the Las Vegas Land Grant endeared him to the people, and as statehood neared, the courageous editor and his newspaper became well known and respected throughout New Mexico.

By Oct. 2, 1911, when the Democratic Party met in Santa Fe to nominate its candidates to become New Mexico’s first state officials, Ezequiel C de Baca was at the top of the list.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.