Knock on Every Door: The Real Milagro
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:
mrrogers@igc.apc.org.