Land as Healer—Land&People

Like the Chimay? farmers of a half-dozen generations before him, Modesto Vigil was a man of the earth. A lifelong resident who died a few years ago, Vigil tended his 17 acres of irrigated fields in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains for most of his adult years. Horses and cattle were pastured here, and the land sometimes yielded chile for posole (pork stew), apples for pies, and corn for tortillas. Vigil’s land–tilled by his ancestors as far back as the 1600s–still yields forage for livestock and supports native plants and animals, all now protected through a purchase negotiated in 2001 by the Trust for Public Land.

“Like other farmers around here, Modesto knew every inch of his potrero,” recalls Don Usner, using the Spanish word for “pasture.” It was Usner, a Chimay? photographer and distant cousin of Vigil, who first brought the parcel to TPL’s attention. An Espanola developer had made Modesto Vigil and his wife, Esperanza, a cash offer for the parcel with the apparent goal of subdividing it into a housing tract.

“Modesto didn’t want that to happen,” says Usner, “but the proposal was tempting.” The Vigils had been cash-poor and land-rich–a common situation in northern New Mexico, where the demand for rural real estate has driven prices so high that many impoverished owners are selling out, using the money to pay debts, send children to college, or retire.

“A lot of land is selling for outrageous prices,” Usner confirms. “Yet there are also families here who will never, ever sell their property for any amount of money. The situation has created a lot of tension.”

The old Modesto Vigil place is about 30 miles north and a world away from Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most popular tourist destination. In contrast to Santa Fe’s fancy boutiques and trendy art galleries, slow-paced Chimay?is a village with plenty of decaying adobe houses and rickety toolsheds, where crowing roosters and barking dogs serve as alarm clocks. Its rural flavor has been historically enlivened by the production of locally famous chile peppers, sweet fruit, and colorful weavings.

Founded in the 1700s by Spanish and Mexican colonists in a series of small valleys first occupied by Pueblo tribes, the village’s name is adapted from the Tewa words tsi mayoh. The phrase is believed to mean “the hill of the east,” a reference to the conical bluff that looms above the Santa Cruz River Valley and Modesto Vigil’s potrero. In 1821, Spain relinquished most of its New World claims, and Chimay?fell under Mexican rule until the United States took over in 1846. An old-fashioned dialect of Spanish is still widely used here, and some residents, including Esperanza Vigil, speak no English.

“Subsistence agriculture was the backbone of this community for two centuries,” notes Usner, Chimayo’s unofficial resident historian, and interpreter for Esperanza during negotiations with TPL in the sale of the property she inherited from Modesto. “But despite strong cultural values that support farming, many Chimayosos are having difficulty maintaining the traditional use of their lands.”

Sanctuary in the Fields

Although farms are being gobbled up in virtually every northern New Mexico village, the trend holds special significance in Chimay?, known to Roman Catholics as the Lourdes of America. The Santuario de Chimay? shelters a shrine believed to convey miraculous powers to the faithful. This humble Spanish colonial adobe chapel was built by regional religious leader Don Bernardo Abeyta between 1813 and 1816, reportedly to honor the inexplicable recovery of a lost crucifix at the site. During Easter Week each year, Chimayo’s roughly 800 residents are outnumbered by tens of thousands of pilgrims who come here to pray, attend services, and gather sandy soil from the floor of a tiny room adjacent to the chapel. The “holy dirt,” dug locally and blessed by a priest, is said to promote healing, even of terminal diseases and permanent disabilities.

“There’s definitely a powerful feeling of spirituality surrounding the chapel,” says Edward Archuleta, who grew up in Santa Fe and began visiting the Santuario as a small child. “When my family came here, after praying and blessing myself with holy dirt, I would always run around the back, climb over the fence to play in the river, and gaze into the beautiful meadows behind the church.”

During warm weather, mass is celebrated outdoors in that same area behind the church. The lush potreros form a pastoral backdrop, and grazing horses sometimes come to the fence and listen to the service. Beyond the meadows are scruffy brown hills, snow-capped mountains, and the enormous New Mexico sky. Because the fields are not reachable by road and lack access to utilities, they have never been built on. But at least one developer has proposed building a bridge across the river and a 30-unit mobile-home park.

Housing so close to the Santuario “wouldn’t look right,” declares Leona Medina-Tiede, who grew up nearby and sells tamales and other New Mexican delicacies at a food stand next to the church’s parking lot. The pasture where she helped harvest hay as a little girl, Medina-Tiede says, “is so natural, so beautiful” that it should remain as it is.

Ray Bal, who owns the Potrero Trading Post, agrees with his neighbor. “The land offers a sense of peace,” he says. “I would like to see it kept the way it is.” Bal’s grandfather, Jose Manuel Vigil, once owned much of the pasture, including a 21-acre tract handed down to Bal’s mother, Elma Vigil. Bal expects his mother to place her potrero, now leased to a local resident who grazes cattle on it, under a conservation easement that will protect the meadow from development.

“I’ve learned to care for this land,” says Bal, “as my father did before me.” The parcel once supported extensive gardens and fruit orchards, but most of those were removed to provide more pasture for livestock. Such stewardship is labor-intensive, Bal points out, requiring periodic flood-watering through diversions from an ingenious hand-built network of presas (dams) and acequias (irrigation ditches) that for generations has channeled precious snowmelt from nearby mountains via the R?o Santa Cruz and R?o Quemado.

“One of the biggest issues for caretakers of the land is the competition for their time,” says Bal, who works nearly every day in the shop his grandfather opened as a general store in 1948. “The person may have a full-time job already, so it leaves a lot of work undone, unfinished, or never started.”

In addition to the Vigil and Bal properties, landowners who control another 27 acres of adjacent pasture are in negotiation to sell their land to TPL as a protective measure. The owners of the only other potrero near the Santuario are reluctant to sell their six acres. As with the first parcel, purchased from Esperanza Vigil, TPL would sell any additional potreros it purchases to the county of Santa Fe through the latter’s open space acquisition program, established through a $12 million bond measure supported by TPL and approved by voters in 1998. A second, $8 million bond measure was approved in 2000. A county-wide gross receipts tax increase should add about $8 million to the open space budget through 2010. TPL expects to spend a total of about $900,000 acquiring the entire complement of potrero lands.

New Stewards for Old Pastures

“Our intention is to keep up the traditional agricultural use of these properties and their serene ambiance,” says Jenny Parks, TPL’s project manager. “These aspects are very important to the people of Chimay?and the thousands of people who come to the Santuario.” A registered National Historic Landmark, the chapel receives nearly 300,000 visitors each year–mainly around Easter, when thousands of penitentes walk from as far as Albuquerque, 90 miles south.

According to Shelly Johnson, the county of Santa Fe’s open space and trails program manager, there may be some educational and recreational uses of the potreros eventually, after a management plan and operating funds are in place. A picnic area and trail are being considered, along with interpretive displays describing the history of farming in the area. “The land also might serve as a corridor to existing trails on uninhabited BLM land that borders one side of the county-owned property,” says Johnson.

One potential strategy for long-term management of the Chimay? land involves youth groups working with local farmers directly on the potreros. Bal says he and other landowners like this idea because it would help cultivate interest in and knowledge of traditional agriculture among young people, whose future participation is essential to continuing the centuries-old stewardship of northern New Mexico farmland.

“Modesto Vigil’s management of his potrero required his constant attention,” says Bal. “We don’t have the benefit of his knowledge, because it died with him. With the land now owned by an outside group, that in itself is an impact on the land.” The exact nature of that impact remains to be seen, but Chimayosos are optimistic that it will be positive.

One of the most important aspects of protecting potreros is that it sets a local precedent for preservation that guarantees ongoing agricultural use. Edward Archuleta, who has played a key role in the project in his capacity as director of the Santa Fe office of 1000 Friends of New Mexico, believes open spaces like the Chimay? potreros “should not be protected simply because they are pretty.” There has to be a balance, he says, “between protecting nature and respecting the land, and allowing people to continue their traditional or even modern-day way of life.” The land along the banks of the R?o Santa Cruz, archaeologists believe, was cultivated by humans who had built houses at the site of the Santuario even before Europeans arrived in the 17th century.

An Intimate Husbandry

Archuleta, who is working with TPL to develop open space ballot measures in nearby R?o Arriba and Taos counties, points out that “the indigenous people of northern New Mexico were land-based and agricultural, as opposed to nomadic. The Pueblo Indians built what are now the oldest irrigation systems in the United States. Grazing and farming continued under Spanish and Mexican rule, becoming symbolic and almost a religion today.”

Throughout Chimay? , many families with even an acre or less of arable land are devoted to growing gardens, raising hay, or maintaining orchards. “If you put numbers to it, farming and raising livestock no longer makes sense here economically,” says Don Usner, who has written two books about the cultural history of his village. “People will admit that, but then say they’re going to keep on doing it because they love working the land and their families have always done it. Most of the stalwarts are from the older generation, however, and more and more young people want to get rid of their land now. In terms of husbanding it, the land needs a real presence, and a lot of younger folks aren’t willing or able to provide that.”

Although much of the available agricultural land in Chimay? has been developed for housing over the past 20 years, preservation of the Santuario potreros is viewed as having tremendous symbolic value for the community, which is dealing with a high crime rate and related substance-abuse problems as well as skyrocketing land prices. Many of the people who live here are poor, with average incomes well below the statewide median of about $22,000. The potrero purchases provide “an incredible opportunity for Chimay? to celebrate and to look forward with hope,” believes Deborah Frey Love, TPL’s New Mexico state director.

“The biggest question is how we continue to maintain what is being protected,” says Usner, a founding member of the grassroots Chimay? Cultural Preservation Association, which has made land preservation a top priority. “This is a pivotal moment in the tradition of these lands, because it could be that their future depends on public ownership and organizations like TPL,” Usner concludes. “An intimate husbandry has always been practiced here and we need to figure out how to continue that relationship.”

Richard Mahler is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe.