King of the Road - April 2009
Embrace Tierra Amarilla's independent spirit
Story and Photography
By Lesley S. King
A billboard on the outskirts of the northern New Mexico village of Tierra Amarilla reads “Tierra o Muerte”—land or death—and is adorned with a tough, dark-eyed pistolero. It’s an apt image for an area whose settlement required such tenacity. Even today, burly men and independent women predominate, most driving four-by-four trucks. This is New Mexico’s Alaska, its fearless rebel.
And yet, as I drive into the village of around 750 residents along N.M. 573, 100 miles north of Santa Fe, Tierra Amarilla appears peaceful. Its centerpiece, among a number of pitched-roof adobe houses, is the elegant Río Arriba County Courthouse, built in 1910. On June 5, 1967, Reies López Tijerina, a land-rights activist and former Episcopalian priest, led a small, armed militia to this courthouse to reclaim lost land grants. When the ensuing manhunt included the deployment of helicopters and tanks, the event hit the national news. In the end Tijerina was captured, tried, and acquitted—and land grants remain a controversial topic today.
Now, as I tour the courthouse, with its stamped-tin ceiling and pine jury box, it occurs to me that the cause of the raid, deeply rooted in the region’s history, still resonates today. “From 1832 to the early 1900s, this was a community land grant,” explains Henry Ulibarri. Owner of the local Henry’s True Value, he’s been called the region’s godfather because of the generous public service he’s contributed. “People grazed their sheep wherever they wanted to,” he says. “You plowed a patch of land and built a home, usually along the rivers.”
Ulibarri’s ancestors helped settle this area. He grew up along Chavez Creek, where his family farmed and raised dairy cows. The loss of the land grant and the open range, he explains, is a complicated issue involving government and taxation, hungry land speculators, and a tough climate. Ulibarri has great respect for the first Spanish settlers, who faced extreme conditions here. “They were smart, and good managers of their farms. But there were harsh times. My uncle woke up one morning and found four feet of snow outside and no sheep anywhere. They were under the snow.”
Though open-range grazing is gone in this region, many relics of those times survive in the form of small villages. In fact, back when the Spanish first began to settle here, the entire region was called Tierra Amarilla (yellow earth) for its distinctive yellow clay, which the Río Grande Pueblo Indians used for pottery and ceremonies.
Leaving Tierra Amarilla, I head for the other villages surrounding it. I first cruise through Ensenada, also on N.M. 573, where a number of old northern New Mexico homes cluster around San Joaquín church, built in 1916. Beyond it, a penitente morada (a place of worship for the ancient Roman Catholic lay brotherhood) stands near the local camposanto (cemetery); in the background are the brilliant, 10,700-foot-high Brazos Cliffs. “It’s the neatest and cleanest little town,” Henry Ulibarri had said before we parted. “A new generation coming up is building pretty houses there.”
The next village I visit, Plaza Blanca, just off N.M. 95 west of Tierra Amarilla, also has views of the Brazos Cliffs; the settlement descends a hill near the Río Chama and is surrounded by meadows where cattle graze. Just across the river, its sister village, La Puente, off N.M. 531, sits amid more meadows, a rocky prominence rising beyond. Here, the simple San Miguel Church (1914) is topped by a graceful bell tower with cross. Seeing portal after portal in both of these remote villages stacked high with firewood in preparation for the frigid winters, I’m not surprised that this area’s residents have a reputation for toughness.
The most popular attractions in the region are the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, in Chama, and Heron and El Vado lakes, which in warmer months draw sail and pleasure boaters as well as water-skiers. But the village of Los Ojos has its own special charm and has become a popular destination. This town, my last stop, sits at the heart of all the others, presided over by La Gruta (The Grotto). The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, built in 1919, houses a statue of Our Lady, and artifacts and rosary beads hang from the rough cliffs.
Heading down the hill into Los Ojos, I find renovated houses with detailing painted in russet, lavender, and yellow. At Tierra Wools weaving cooperative, handwoven rugs, shawls, and table coverings hang on racks; women weave at the back of the shop. There I meet Sophia DeYapp, a member of the cooperative, which came together 25 years ago with the bold mission of creating a sustainable business using local resources.
“We buy local wool, spin it, dye it, and weave it in the Río Grande tradition,” she says as she slides a shuttle between two ranks of threads. On April 25, from 1 to 4 p.m., the co-op hosts the Tierra Wools Spring Festival, with demonstrations of sheep shearing, spinning, and weaving, as well as live music.
There’s more art across the street, at Yellow Earth Studio, the workspace of Paul Trachtman, whom I first met many years ago; I always stop in to see his progress. His eyes light up as he tells me about his latest project. “I started using local reeds to paint,” he says, holding up the pale yellow straws. The results are delightful scenes of pastoral villages just like the ones I’ve been visiting all day, sketched on white paper with reeds dipped in black ink.
Always the risk-taker, Paul, left a career as an editor in Washington, D.C., to come to Los Ojos and be an artist. It’s the same spirit that reminds me of the “Tierra o Muerte” billboard outside Tierra Amarilla, Reies López Tijerina’s stand, and that rebel part in of each of us dedicated to its highest cause.
"King of the Road" columnist Lesley S. King visits another little-known community in New Mexico each month.