One of the first things I did when I came to Las Vegas was to read up on the area’s history. I boned up on the gloriously rowdy history of Las Vegas, from the conflicts that the Spaniards had with the local natives, to the assimilation of Jewish families who migrated in on the Santa Fe Trail, to the intrusion of those who came in on the railroad that landed about a mile east of the original settlement. I learned that this town has Spanish, Mexican, European and American roots that created both an embattled and a diverse people.
My “education” about the history and culture of northern New Mexico was furthered last Wednesday, when Reies López Tijerina and Dolores Huerta came to town.
Tijerina was a major figure in the Chicano Movement, having brought international attention to New Mexico’s land grants issue by taking over, in 1967, the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. Meanwhile, Huerta was one of the founders of United Farm Workers of America and a key organizer of the California grapes boycott, which took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s and brought about the first collective bargaining agreement in history for America’s farmworkers. But that’s just their bios — there was much more to see and learn from their visit last week in Las Vegas.
I attended the Wednesday morning forum that Tijerina, Huerta and several others participated in, regarding land and water issues in northern New Mexico. A couple hundred people were present for the event, and the enthusiasm expressed had the air of a people’s rebellion, though that rebellion has long since subsided in most people’s minds.
There were cries to take back the communal lands that were stolen from Hispanic’s land grants so many years ago. But the closest I think anyone could come to a redistribution of such lands would be to harness control of today’s public lands, which are owned and operated from the top down by state and federal government agencies, and place management of these lands in the hands of a local board of trustees. Maybe I’m missing something, but I fail to see how an actual return of land grant properties could be done any other way.
Still, the big here-and-now issue, it seems to me, is water rights — the “new gold,” Huerta said. And that’s an issue in which the lessons of history can be applied (though I’m not suggesting any sort of armed takeover of a water reservoir).
Also on Wednesday, I caught the tail end of the dedication of the new murals running along the fence line on University Avenue near Seventh Street (the murals, however, are facing Douglas Avenue). The murals tell a bold story of the area’s land and people. If you haven’t been there to look at them yet, you should.
I was impressed not only with the quality and craftsmanship of the murals but with the way in which they were produced. Under the sponsorship of Casa de Cultura and the direction of Rock Ulibarri and others, these murals were created by students at West Las Vegas High Schools — some of whom spoke at the dedication last week.
Not only did they do an artful job, but they represent an important part of our history. Plus, they add to the physical beauty of our historically rich town, in a way we can all appreciate.
I’ve got a shelf full of books about this region. None are as telling as the people themselves.
Tom McDonald is the Optic’s editor and publisher. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or firstname.lastname@example.org.