Op-Ed: Community Torn over Zoning and Code Changes

Colorado Public Radio Report on Costilla County

September 23, 2015 Comments (0) Views: 3629 Colorado, San Luis Valley

Blogger Misidentifies Property Rights Activists as ‘White Supremacists’

(Webmaster notes: This is another hit piece on the local multicultural off grid group, AGAIN mislabeling them as white supremacists based on primal fear of ALL outsiders. Many innocent residents have already been targeted.  There are many people that believe in their own freedom or sovereignty that are not aligned with any group whatsoever. Freedom is more of a philosophy and belief than political party.)


By Devon G. Peña

In this three-part series, I present a detailed report on a conflict brewing in Costilla County between the heirs and successors of the Colorado portion of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, who are standing with their county government, and the property rights demands accompanying the arrival of mostly working-class and dispossessed white settlers who refuse to abide by county land use and zoning regulations that we fought hard for in the 1990s because we wanted to protect our land and water and the integrity of acequia culture. Many of the newcomers appear to be working with groups, or at least embrace the ideology, of the white ‘sovereign citizens’ movement, which the FBI considers the most serious domestic terrorist threat to the U.S.

Part I provides the historical background on colonias, defined as subdivisions lacking access to water, electricity, and other utilities. I note that all the reporting on this conflict by the Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio have failed to provide this essential historical and cultural ecological context. I also present background on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and the acequia communities and their land and water ethics.

Part II focuses on the newcomers: who are they? Who are their leaders (as they are apparently well organized)? What are their ideological perspectives? What are their reasons for coming to settle in a high altitude cold desert that is, even under normal conditions, an environment that lacks sufficient water resources to sustain a burgeoning population? I also examine the impact they are having on the environment, school district, and county social services. Part III offers a set of policy recommendations for addressing the roots of this conflict, the ruthless subdivision of Costilla County by unscrupulous land speculators, who promised mountain homes to the unsuspecting and plopped them in the middle of a desert, some twenty miles from the mountains and even farther away from reliable sources of water.

¿Las colonias gringas?


When I think of colonias the first thing that comes to mind is the unregulated subdivision of vacant desert-like lands that began to appear in the 195o-60s along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the borderlands of Texas. I grew up and went to school with friends who hailed from colonias. Our own El Three Points— the barrio in Laredo, Texas where I grew up—did not have sewer service, storm drainage, paved streets, or any of the other amenities that most middle class city-dwellers in the USA were by then already accustomed to.

Like the borderlands colonias of today, El Three Points was an ‘internal colony’ – a place where mostly Mexican-origin and low-income families lived because it was the only place we could afford or the locale where working class and dispossessed families were allowed to reside in. I’ll never forget my grandfather having to call the plumber to service the septic tank; the persistent dust from the cotton gin and dirt roads; the loud metallic and shuddering noise issuing from the Texas-Mexican Railroad Co. line close by; or evacuating our home whenever the natural gas transfer station release valve a block away went off into emergency mode. Like I said, an internal colony filled with environmental risks.

The border colonias continue today as largely nonmetropolitan and unincorporated rural enclaves that lack basic infrastructure (water, sewage, electricity, paved roads) and are also largely destinations for displaced populations fleeing violence, repression, poverty, and hunger in Mexico and Central America. The largest concentration of colonias is in Texas along the border with more than 2,294 communities with a combined population in excess of 400,000; see Secretary of State-Texas (2015).

To this day a good portion of the borderlands colonias still lack basic infrastructure including adequate and reliable sources of potable water or sewage and a majority of the homes lack for proper indoor plumbing. The residents of these semi-rural settlements lack access to paved roads, storm drainage, and other basic utilities (electricity, phone, cable).

The borderland colonias lack their own schools and have little to no access to medical/health services or grocers for fresh produce and dry goods. The borderland colonias are isolated and deeply impoverished. We can understand these as communities born of the legacies of structural violence unleashed by decades of racist and neoliberal policies that promote corporate power and 1% wealth accumulation at the expense of humanity and the planet (Hanna 1995-96; Garcia 1995; Peña 2005).

The residents of the border colonias are resourceful and have worked hard over decades to cooperatively build their homes and engage in limited self-provisioning of services. They are doing the best they can under conditions my colleague Michelle Tellez describes as “the spaces of neoliberal neglect”.

There is one thing that to this very day bedevils most efforts at sustaining the health and wellbeing of these communities: Water. There usually is none, or at best very little, and certainly insufficient sources for sustainable health, sanitation, and general community wellbeing.

In the context of the desert Southwest this type of water crisis seems somewhat unsurprising and is perhaps best understood by recognizing first that the potable water crisis faced by colonias is a result of the unsustainable extension of subdivision sprawl promoted by legislators’ apparently unrestrained and demagogic regard for developers’ unscrupulous right to profit from the misery produced by neoliberal maldevelopment.

In this setting, border colonia residents were compelled to fulfill the demand for the private potable water services provided by piperos, self-employed persons, sometimes from the colonias themselves, who truck-in water bought from other sources (often municipal water districts) to sell to the residents at prices that would impress the worst of today’s corporate water privateers.

How did these Third World [sic] conditions of the colonias come about? The advent of the border colonias was ultimately rooted in the political power wielded by land developers who ruthlessly subdivided huge portions of the desert Southwest to make millions from fraudulent sales to people desperate for a place to build a home away from lives subject to endless violence and dispossession produced by, you guessed it, U.S, foreign and trade policies.

The greedy land speculators and developers took advantage of weak or nonexistent land use laws and the lack of subdivision regulations to create rural ‘slum’ areas while driving the newly arriving and desperate residents into ever more pernicious deprivation and indebtedness. We note that in many cases, the Texas borderland colonias are located in flood plains that were unscrupulously sold by agribusiness interests or cash-strapped farmers (see Jepson 2012) under the watchful eye of state legislators who tolerated or defended this as a matter of so-called property rights, a historic Texas Anglo tradition.

An important and widely cited federal government study completed in 1990 found that the colonias exist because local, state, and federal governments failed to protect homeowners from a massive land speculation mess (see General Accounting Office 1990) that was made possible by an anarchic market environment in which regulations to protect homeowners and property values were nonexistent or left unenforced.

The underlying problem of the borderlands colonias is rooted in the lack of rigorous subdivision regulations under state laws, and what little has been done, for e.g., under a 1989 Texas statute or NAFTA side agreements, is largely unenforced due to a lack of funding and staff at the county level.

So, the proliferation of borderlands colonias has continued as a consequence of policies that protect the interests of land speculators and especially the property rights of the developers to sell land that, ecologically speaking, should not be inhabited by people. Sometimes open space should remain just that, especially since it often also serves vital ecological functions for wildlife habitat and movement corridors.

What does this have to do with Costilla County?

There is now a new group of colonias rising up out of the desert prairies of Costilla County in Colorado. These are not populated by Mexican- or Central American-origin people and are located some 300 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in the heart of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Costilla County is located in south central Colorado’s San Luis Valley (SLV) and is considered the heartland of the Indo-Hispano culture area that is a focus of the cultural, historical, and environmental conservation work initiated four years ago under the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (SCNHA). The heritage area was created under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior and SLV native, Ken Salazar.

The mostly nontribal indigenous residents of the acequia villages along the Culebra River are widely celebrated as an example of a sustainable adaptation of human beings to the arid conditions of life in a high altitude cold desert environment.

The southeastern corner of Costilla County is within the historic boundaries of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, issued in 1844 when the area was still part of the Republic of Mexico. Many historians and pundits refer to the County Seat of San Luis as “The Oldest Town in Colorado” (1851), but it is actually the “Last Town in Mexico.”

Anyone that has spent any considerable time in this part of the SLV is immediately impressed by two things: First, the area’s native residents, and especially the multigenerational acequia farmers of the Culebra River villages, have an astoundingly intense attachment to their watershed.  One scientist, the ecologist and hydrologist Robert Curry (1995), once wrote that:

The farmers of the San Luis Valley depend upon the runoff to keep their alluvial basins full to subirrigate their meadows, and to supply the very long-standing system of irrigation ditches [acequias] that provide, in essence, the socio-political focus of their entire culture…community interest [in watershed protection] is high and the public is well informed. These farmers know their watersheds…

In an interview conducted in 1996 with Dr. Curry, he told me that the acequia farmers could be described as having a uniquely deep “watershed consciousness”. He believed this is due to the multiple generations of living and working in a high altitude cold desert environment. I am not an environmental determinist so I believe that the indigenous and mestizo/o culture of this region chose to exercise established and proven patterns of inhabitation based on respect for the ecology of place and this is the source of our watershed consciousness.

Regardless, Curry and many other scholars and advocates of acequia farming and ranching cultures appreciate the strong land and water conservation ethics sustaining our communities. Anyone concerned with environmental sustainability should be able to appreciate that the acequias as a living example of what I call  “the arid sensible way of life”.

Which brings me to a new and profoundly disturbing conflict that is brewing in Costilla County: The new ‘gringo’ colonias of Costilla County signal the arrival of a class of latecomers consisting of mostly white residents, many of whom seem eager to proclaim themselves “sovereign citizens”. Some even wrap themselves up in the presumably virtuous garb of the sustainable “off-the-grid” movement.

It is this identity location – comingling white sovereign citizen ideology with a professed commitment to off-the-grid presumably more sustainable lifestyles – that the new colonists are assuming in order to disingenuously accuse our local government of “violating their property rights” because county officers are seeking to enforce legitimate, long fought for, county land use and subdivision regulations that the acequia farmers and other local citizens enacted to prevent damage to our cultural and ecological landscapes and historic communities.

What is really happening in Costilla County? I’ll continue by noting that it is really more complicated and has a much deeper history than the arrival of so-called off-the-grid colonists and illegal marijuana grow operations.

The history of the enclosure of the 1844 Sangre de Cristo Land Grant is really at the root of this conflict. By enclosure I am referring to the theft and privatization for speculative gain of what was one of the last ejido community grants and common lands, established under the laws of the Republic of Mexico, and confirmed (and patented) by the U.S. Congress some thirty years later. (I will discuss this point further in Part 3).

The Sangre de Cristo Land Grant included all of what is today’s Costilla County, including the desert prairies sprawled across the western half of the county. It is worthwhile noting that, under land grant law, it was never intended that the dryland prairies should be used as sites to build homes or to pursue farming. Some local ranchers used the dryland pastures as fall and winter grazing range for sheep and later cattle for more than 100 years.

However, as the late Estevan Arellano often reminded us: The establishment of Indo-Hispano villages and farms was confined to places with ready access to water and the first task of the villagers was to build their acequia irrigation systems. The desert prairies lack access to water as there are no creeks or lakes and the groundwater aquifer is many hundreds of feet below the surface.

Fast forward to the 1970s: It was during this decade that the State of Colorado adopted laws that allowed for the type of rampant subdividing of land into small five-acre lots and this is what has happened to Costilla County. Because of the effects of the enclosure of the land grant common lands (1960), our county now has the most number of subdivision lots of any county in the state – more than 40,000. Most of these remain vacant, but a few clusters of ramshackle homes are being built by the newcomers along the edge of the Rio Grande and in the open prairies between the Rio Grande and the acequia communities on the eastside of the county.

Local people are concerned for many reasons not the least of which is the refusal by the newcomers to abide by county land use regulations (permits for construction, septic tanks, etc.). The conflict started when county code enforcement officers started visiting the newcomers’ lots to issue fines for their failure to obtain the required building permits. A disgruntled settler called one of our enforcement officers, “a dirty Mexican,” revealing the racial biases that many of the newcomers have obviously internalized. This set in motion a series of events that led to another confrontation in front of the County Commissioners building on Main Street in San Luis last week after a meeting with the commissioners to discuss the conflict.

Local acequia and land grant community residents are angry because the newcomers are literally, factually, stealing scarce water resources from us. They have been seen and confronted by locals while using water pumps to fill 400-500 gallon tanks resting in the back of their pick-up trucks. This theft of water has happened on Culebra Creek and its tributaries; right out of the acequias themselves (during irrigation season); and even from the Rio Grande (as shown in the photograph below).

Two men pump water from the Rio Grande into a 400-gallon tank
at a site by the Lobato Bridge. Photo by Devon G. Peña.
For the local people it is the theft of water – for whatever purpose including unauthorized marijuana grow operations – that is the most serious source of the conflict. From our vantage point, this shows a great deal of cultural and historical ignorance about the area and a profoundly disturbing disrespect for the local environment and the historical cultures and Native citizens of the county.

One of the greatest ironies underlying this conflict is that many of the newcomers proclaim themselves to be part of the off-the-grid movement and yet exploit and appropriate our adjudicated water rights without regard for the impact this has on the historic acequia farm and ranch communities. They proclaim themselves to be seeking a sustainable way of life free of government interference but are the first to seek public assistance from the very same local government they seek to abolish, applying for food stamps, health care, and placing their children in the public schools, as well they should, but then in what sense are you really a ‘sovereign citizen’?

In Part II of this series, I will explain who the new ‘sovereign citizens’ of Costilla County are. This is also a complicated issue and it would be unjust to characterize all of the newcomers as white and racist; many are to be sure. There is a profound structural violence problem underlying this conflict: Many of the newcomers are displaced people themselves; they are cash poor and desperate to find some form of freedom from governmental oppressors. But the fact is that they are here because the policies of the federal and state governments have created the greatest wealth inequality the nation has seen since before the days of the Great Depression.

I am tempted to say that the newcomer colonists are economic refugees of the “Great Recession” and we therefore have a formidable challenge: How to reach out to and support the newcomers while refusing to cede ground on the environmental and cultural protection ethics we have fought for since the 1960s. I can envision a cooperative relationship but it requires that the settler colonists “Go Native” and recognize the environmental limits of their circumstances and develop some respect for the deep-rooted acequia culture of the Valley.  That is a necessary condition to open up the possibility of cohabiting our precious, water scarce, landscape.


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