Taking Steps and Moving Mountains

On August 10, I drove down to the San Luis Valley with Ben, Angie, and my puppy Ernie. We were heading down the night before the 10-mile walk which would take place in the morning. My first time in San Luis had been a week prior, when I went on the Lobatos Bridge Rio Grande walk, led by the same Caminos del Valle walking leaders that would lead the next day’s San Luis, Culebra Basin and Mission Churches Camino. 

The leaders of these two walks are young, active community members who are involved in the Move Mountains Project. Samuel, Wendy , and Brian did such an amazing job sharing the culture and history of the Rio Grande and the surrounding towns that I felt a need to come back and learn more from them. But being only my second time in the valley, and my first driving to the home of Jose and Junita Martinez in San Francisco, led to the four of us getting lost in the middle of a beautiful landscape framing an unforgettable setting sunAlthough I couldn’t capture the ever changing purple, red, yellow, orange, and blue hues of the sky that seemed to last longer than the drive in a photo, trust me when I say nothing beats a San Luis sunset.When we arrived to Jose and Junita’s home at the end of the night, I immediately felt the warm comfortable energy that permeates through their home and surrounding land. This energy is such a powerful embrace that truly invites any city girl into the sacred environment, and Junita and Jose are the personification of this energy. They embody the passion and activism that has accumulated for centuries in this historical and culturally profound hub. Being invited into their home and this space is an honor unlike any other. Jose and Junita live on a beautiful compound with chickens, apple trees, and an acequia running through the middle. The acequia is central to the environmental activism that Junita and Jose are involved in as active members of the land rights council. Junita specifically represented her county’s acequias, which are ditch-like irrigation systems. Their home is where the dinner would be hosted following the 10-mile walk, which is when more information surrounding the upcoming court case was shared by Junita, Jose, and Shirley Otero Romero, a leader of the Move Mountains Youth Leadership Program who really broke down the timeline of the case.

In the morning, we head out to begin our journey. The walk would go on all day with breaks at local churches to learn more about the town’s significant religious history. Jose rigs a portable toilet to his truck and drives those who can’t complete the walk back to home base, throughout the trek. This truly was a walk comparable to pilgrimages in the sense of the acceptance and convergence of suffering into something as beautiful and bonding as a 10 mile walk with over 30 people from different cities, states, and countries. When I use the term suffering, I’m exaggerating my sweating, panting, and intolerance to the heat of the beating, burning sun. This does not equate to the suffering and battling for rights to land and culture that has occurred for centuries on the land I walk on today. Samuel strums his guitar and sings tunes for the group at rest stops which is entertaining, uplifting, and motivating, among so many other things. Samuel is a natural talent with an amazing charisma to him that really draws people in. At other times, people walk alone in silence, to really absorb the moment and reflect in solitude. Throughout the walk, town dogs would join and follow, we would pass galloping horses, tractors would drive by, and the magic of farm land illuminated the presence of life all around us. Jose would provide information about this farm or that crop and the whole group would circle around him with eager ears.

On the Rio Grande walk there was an aura of innocence and discovery. Being in the water meant there were infinite frogs, snakes, and crayfish to catch. The children had so much fun finding the animals while still having immense respect for them. Samuel, Wendy, and Brian taught us how the river has gradually gotten smaller and smaller, made apparent by how high the rock walls around us were when we went into the water. They showed us petroglyphs, which are prehistoric rock carvings. They shared sensational stories of skin walkers, aliens, and brujas, as this area is a hotspot for these occurrences. It is interesting how much their captivating, spooky folklore parallel the stories shared by the elders the following week of the sinister Taylor, and how the negative impacts of his greed coincide with the ongoing drought. The only real difference is the evil that lurks around Taylor’s Ranch is not as questionable as the others told. No one asked, do you think Taylor is real?

Taylor is the antagonist in a “controversy” surrounding property rights that had been established before Colorado was even a state. In 1844, the governor of New Mexico granted two Mexican nationals a one-million-acre land grant, one of them being the Sangre de Cristo grant. These were intended for ranchers, farmers, and families to settle after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, which marked the end of the war between Mexico and the United States. Carlos Beaubien recruited farm families to settle the land. He established deeds for the vara strips which he granted to settlers and there was an understanding of rights to the common areas for grazing, timber, firewood, fishing and game, as long as one did not harm the other. Many years later, when Taylor, bought the mountain, he fenced the areas used as common lands for decades and decades before his arrival, therefore cutting communities off from their resources. The case began in 1981 when local landowners filed Suit in Costilla County District Court as a way to assert their land rights. However, the case isn’t over and on September 5 in Denver, the landowners’ fight to protect their land, resources, and livelihood will continue.

To hear a detailed breakdown of the history of the land, the legal case which went all the way to the US Supreme Court, the real violence and oppression caused by one son of a billionaire, and the constant resistance led by the brave, powerful community leaders like Jose, Junita, and Shirley opened up my eyes to a world of social justice I had always wanted to be a part of. To learn about environmental activism and the fight to preserve land, culture, and history from all forms of erasure that come with colonialism is such a blessing as often times, we don’t even get a chance to read about it in textbooks, let alone experience it and become involved in real time. Which is why I want to continue to study the case and do my research in preparation for the upcoming court case with the hopes of writing on it and amplifying the voices of the community members of the San Luis Valley.

Both walks taught me a great deal about San Luis’s history, culture, natural resources, and communities. The first walk gave me a taste of what it might be like to grow up in and explore a beautiful natural terrain like the San Luis Valley. The second walk educated me on the land and water rights and the upcoming court case on September 5 at 9:30 on 14th and Broadway in Denver, which I encourage anyone reading this to attend as it is open to the public. Your presence would be a sign of solidarity and a chance to learn more about and support those who are actively challenging and opposing the cycles of oppression that come as a result of war and colonialism. Then, if you are ever lucky enough to spend some time in the alluring, sacred San Luis Valley, do yourself a favor and go for a walk!