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The Invasion of Aztlšn and Struggles for Land

March 12, 1999 by Administrator in March/April 1999

by Teresa CÜrdova

The historical memory and contemporary reality of Chicanos from Aztlšn are of people taking our space.

In Aztlšn (the part of the Southwest that the U.S. took through its war with Mexico), there is evidence of the historical struggle to hold on to the land. Battles are still being waged over land grants, the preservation of agriculture, real estate development, and corporate welfare. People who are tied to several generations in the region are aware that the “invader” views land very differently than we do. In the discourse of invasion, land is a commodity to be bought and sold. The people who occupy that land are viewed as inferior – and dispensable. Many of our battles are over space, and our right to defend that space.

Manifest Destiny was the ideology used to justify the United States’ war with Mexico. Newspapers of the day and history books today portray the theft of the land as justifiable. U.S. politicians and land grabbers believed that it was their “destiny” to acquire the land from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and from Canada to the Rio Grande River (if not Panama). Invoking the Bible, they deemed the land as “open” and treated its occupants as either invisible or subhuman. The notion that God entitled Anglo-Saxon Americans to whatever land they sought was the prevailing ideological justification for the brutal and unscrupulous takeover of land. It is precisely this memory of invasion that permeates the perspective of the Chicano in Aztlšn and the indigenous people from a multitude of countries.

Developers and Prejudice

In New Mexico developers are quickly turning fertile land into resorts for the rich, displacing locals from their land-based economy and then telling them they should be grateful for jobs cleaning toilets. They say we stand in the way of progress, that we are backward for wanting to hold on to times long gone. But our memory is always being freshened with new examples of invasion.

How we are viewed impacts how people view the space that we occupy. A 1996 Chicago Tribune column by Mike Royko on Pat Buchanan’s views about Mexico, outraged the Latino population. Royko rants that Mexico is not sincere about wanting to “improve itself.” If Mexico were serious, “it would invite us to invade and seize the entire country and turn it into the world’s greatest golf resortˆ There is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans, who have clearly established that they don’t know what the heck they are doingˆ. We should grab [Mexico], privatize the whole country, and turn a neat profit by giving Club Med the franchise.”

If we are viewed as “not knowing what the heck we are doing,” then it is easier to justify taking our land. The view that defines us as inferior also defines our space as “there for the taking.” Redefining taxation and land use law has been one of the most effective means of land grabbing. Destroying locally-based economies increases the likelihood that someone will sell their land, even when they would rather not.

What is in people’s minds when they think it is okay to move somebody over and take their space? I recall the words of a transplanted “easterner” who has a strategic position in Albuquerque City Hall. In response to a question on the cultural implications of infill development, he responded, “This is how we do it on the east coast and people in New Mexico are just going to have to get used to it.” Another example is the newly arrived West Side resident of Albuquerque who says, “build the damn road through the Petroglyphs” – a sacred site – so he can get to downtown as quickly as possible.

These newcomers refuse to understand what it is like for the traditional New Mexican who lives with the memory of invasion and the reminders of its continued existence. Even many who have lived here more than twenty years display a visible discomfort when the traditional New Mexican raises the issue of how a particular development plan might affect native communities. Our insistence that there may be a problem here is often met with impatience or downright scorn. Resisting the Invasion

So not only do they invade the territory, but then they attempt to define what our reaction should be to that invasion. We are supposed to “behave” and quietly allow their unjust behavior so they will not call us heathens that God did not mean to bless with the gift of land. Many seek the approval of the invaders and collude in the loss of their own people’s land and culture. But there are far more who remain deeply committed to the survival of their selves, their resources, and their culture.

New Mexicans (and others like them throughout the world) have a long history of resistance. Communities throughout the state are employing a number of strategies in their struggles to maintain the land and their cultural identities. Community-driven economic development strategies build on local resources; legal struggles abound over jurisdictional use and ownership of land; land grant communities have organized as a network; urban and rural CDCs have formed; associations have grown stronger and more motivated; grassroots organizations are aggressively challenging corporate welfare; state government agencies are being made accountable, and so on.

We must remember the history of resistance in New Mexico along with the history of invasion.


Teresa CÜrdova is Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico.

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