The Real Milagro BY DAVID SPERO Community control has been the central idea of militant programs from the Black Panthers to Saul Alinsky to the neighborhood organizers of today. But has any U.S. community ever really had control over their own resources, economy, and environment? Actually, there is such a place. You have to go a long way to get there, but the town of San Luis in rural Costilla County may provide a model that urban America needs to know. This southern Colorado Mexican land grant community has done the constant work and fought the endless battles necessary to manage themselves for 140 years. "Statistically, we're one of the poorest counties in the nation, but that's misleading," says Maclovio Martínez, who heads the Costilla County Conservancy District (CCCD). "We have no homeless. Our homes are humble, but they're paid for." Most of those homes go way back; many still have adobe walls or other original elements. San Luis was the first town in Colorado, settled in 1851 by recipients of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. These Hispanic settlers inherited an alpine valley the size of Connecticut. They're still there; 85 percent of residents are descendants of the original owners. At 8,000 feet, the San Luis Valley is high, dry, cold and isolated. The town of San Luis sits at the southern end, 20 miles from the New Mexico border. Only the nurturing body of the Sangre de Cristo mountains east of town make human society possible here. The snowpacks and aspen, pine and cedar forests of la sierra hold water and release it into Culebra Creek. The people take over from there, digging and maintaining a network of over 30 acequias, or irrigation ditches which water the wheat, alfalfa, bean, and vegetable crops of the nearly 200 subsistence farms at the center of San Luis' economy and culture. Cattle range on land held in common by the land grant families along the creek. It's a traditional way of life which has kept intact the original culture, language and religion. "This is the spiritual heart of the Southwest," says Bob Green, who works for the Conservancy District. "It's like Boston is to New England or the bayous to Louisiana." It's also a lot of work to maintain and protect. As any condominium association or union president will tell you, self-management isn't easy. Each acequia has a commission made up of the land owners living along it, who decide on water allotments. A major-domo maintains the ditches and gates and makes sure the water goes out as agreed. Another commission called the Vega Board controls the grazing areas. When disagreements arise, they're settled by the families involved or the commissions. "People lend each other water when needed," says Martínez. "It's sharing, really. We only go to court when outsiders make us go to court." WATER WARS The 62-year old Martínez organized the CCCD about 17 years ago when Houston Natural Gas wanted to run a coal slurry from Wyoming through the Valley and on to Houston. Meeting in the community center, residents agreed to tax themselves to support the CCCD and went to work pressuring Colorado government to stop the slurry. The legislature blocked the coal plan, but the State later tried to condemn half the County's water to redistribute themselves. So far CCCD has blocked these efforts. Then Battle Mountain Gold, Inc. (BMG) opened a cyanide- leach gold mine in the Rito Seco, one watershed over. Costillans united again; they knew about the notorious Summitville mine which had poisoned 40,000 acres of farmland on the west side of the valley. When BMG proved to be dumping far more cyanide and heavy metals than allowed, CCCD won the largest environmentally-related fine ever levied against a mining company. More importantly, BMG brought their operation into compliance with water safety. Now San Luis faces the biggest struggle of all, a battle for the life-giving sierra itself. In the Mexican land grants, only land actually under cultivation was given to individual farmers. The rest, like the Culebra mountain tract east of San Luis, was held and used by the people in common. These common lands or ejidos have never been respected by U.S. courts, even when Congress officially acknowledged them, as it did San Luis in 1860. Most have long since been appropriated by governments or Anglo settlers. The 77,000 acre Culebra tract was officially stolen in the 1860s, and in 1960 the Taylor family of North Carolina bought it for use as a private elk-hunting reserve. Now the Taylors want to sell, and the question is, who will own the lifeblood of San Luis? Timber companies would like to clearcut la sierra, which would destroy the watershed and San Luis agriculture. Mining companies hope to find gold there, which could lead to the same result through pollution. Some political leaders want the land for the Park system, which could also damage the land through overuse, while denying its resources to the residents. CCCD has set up the La Sierra Foundation to try to buy back the land for the people of San Luis, the original owners. They say only restoration of land grant rights with the ejidos will protect the environment and provide some economic equity, and that their time-tested ways of managing scarce resources provide lessons the rest of America will have to learn. Professor Devon PeĄa of Colorado College writes, "This struggle has the potential to redefine the political and cultural geography of the Southwest"; Chicano land ethics call for permanent use instead of short-term exploitation by the highest bidder. San Luis looks a lot like the village Robert Redford's film (based on John Nichols' excellent book) Milagro Beanfield War. But it's real. And the real miracle is the day-to-day effort people like Maclovio Martínez put into keeping their community running. CCCD has raised over $6 million, but the Taylors are asking much more. Send tax-deductible contributions to La Sierra Foundation de San Luis c/o Bob Green, Project Development Coordinator, Costilla County Conservancy District, 410 Church Place, Suite A, P.O. Box 42, San Luis, CO 81152, 719-672-3213. Send news, ideas, and questions about neighborhood organizing to David Spero at CrossRoads or email: email@example.com.