New Mexico wildfire tears apart Hispanic stronghold

LAS VEGAS, NM — As flames rushed near the remote mountains where his family had lived for generations, Miguel Martinez knew he had to move quickly and flee with only the clothes on his back.

“I left behind 25 goats, 50 rabbits, 10 chickens and two dogs,” said Mr Martinez, 71, who escaped from his home in the village of El Oro this week for a shelter for evacuated. “I don’t know if my house is standing or if my animals are alive. I have to prepare myself for the possibility of everything being wiped out.

More than a dozen wildfires are raging across the Southwest this month, as the fire season extends into spring earlier than ever. But the nation’s largest active fire, a megafire that erupted over more than 160,000 acres in northern New Mexico, has evolved with such ferocity that it threatens a multi-generational culture that has endured for centuries.

Like Mr. Martinez, many of those who fled the mega-blaze, known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, are descendants of Hispanic settlers who arrived in New Mexico long before the United States was established. They intermarried with Native Americans, perfected farming methods in parched lands, and preserved an archaic-influenced form of Spanish that can still be heard in the aisles of the local Walmart.

Speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English, Mr Martinez, a retired musician, said his ancestors had settled so long ago in the village of Mañuelitas, where he grew up in a house built by his ancestors, whom he did not know exactly when they had arrived. His wife is from the Aragón family, which has long called El Oro home, he said.

“It was a bit of a shock to move to El Oro, but I’ve adjusted now,” Mr. Martinez said, reflecting on how the bloodlines remain closely tied to the land in these isolated settlements surrounded by pine trees and trout. streams. “I just hope I have a village to go back to.”

Shaped by challenges ranging from conquering armies to protracted economic crises, these remote Hispanic villages have withstood one test after another. But the worst drought in at least 1,200 years, marked by intense and unwieldy fire activity, is something new.

“These fires are burning a way of life that has lasted for hundreds of years,” said Rob Martinez, a New Mexico state historian and Albuquerque native whose parents were from Mora and Chacon, two outposts. in the fire area. (He is not related to the retired El Oro musician.)

Las Vegas, NM, a city of about 13,000 that has long served as a hub for surrounding villages and ranches, has become the nerve center for firefighting. Crews rushed to the lines of fire this week as ash fell from skies that sometimes changed from bright blue to a surreal orange hue.

As the fire continues to spread, it already ranks third highest on record in New Mexico, eclipsing the area lost to fires statewide in 2021. Although no lives were lost, the fire has destroyed at least 172 homes, forced many families to evacuate and remains contained to just 20%. As the dry weather persists, authorities warn the fire could spread in various directions in the coming days.

At least six other wildfires are currently burning other parts of New Mexico, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and this week President Biden approved a disaster declaration for five counties. State fires include the Cooks Peak Fire, which has reached 59,000 acres in Mora County, and the Cerro Pelado Fire, a 25,000-acre blaze within 5.5 miles of the National Laboratory of Los Alamos, which helps design and maintain the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. .

As flames from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire could be seen on the Las Vegas ridges in recent days, authorities evacuated the nearby United World College, a boarding school founded by industrialist Armand Hammer, and emptied the county jail, releasing some inmates and transferring others.

Some who were forced to flee gathered in a shelter at a former college. Others slept in their vehicle or decamped with relatives or friends; some who had previously evacuated to Las Vegas had to evacuate again when smoke filled the sky above the city.

Diana Trujillo, 63, was raised in a three-room adobe house with her seven siblings in Monte Aplanado, near Mora. She said the ancestral structure survived the blaze, but the double-wide trailer next door, where she had lived with her daughter and granddaughter, burned to the ground.

“It’s a loss that I can’t even express in words,” said Ms. Trujillo, assistant director of a center for the elderly. “The beautiful mountain around us, all those trees, everything is charred now.”

Paula Garcia fled Mora, with a population of around 800, first for Las Vegas and then Santa Fe. She said she helped her 82-year-old father pack his tools before escaping as the he fire was approaching their tight-knit community.

“It’s a place where people call each other primos and parientes” – cousins ​​and relatives – said Ms Garcia, 50. Some of his ancestors set foot in the area in the 1860s, coming from other parts of northern New Mexico.

Ms. Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a nonprofit that works to protect the state’s roughly 700 acequias, or irrigation ditches, said she attributes her community’s persistence to the “pure grain”.

“We’ve lived there for so long because of our querencia,” Ms. Garcia said, a term she defined as “a cultural desire, an attraction, that keeps us there.”

These ties to the land have their origins in the Spanish colonization of New Mexico, which began in 1598, years before the English first settled the Virginia colony of Jamestown. The colonists and their descendants persisted in relative isolation on the northern fringe of the Spanish Empire.

New Mexico remains the most Hispanic state in the country, with nearly 48% of the population claiming Hispanic or Latino heritage. Small towns, villages and ranching outposts in fire-affected counties, where Hispanics make up about 80% of the population, still defy easy classification.

So many families had previously left the area, largely for economic reasons, that they regard it as a kind of homeland or old country. Unlike other rural areas in the United States that leaned heavily towards Republicans in recent elections, Mr. Biden won Las Vegas-headquartered San Miguel County with 68% of the vote.

Until the fire arrived in late April, one of the main sources of tension in Las Vegas was a recent dispute over a proposed museum exhibit about 19th-century Hispanic vigilantes who had targeted Anglo-American squatters. Saxons after the United States took control of New Mexico.

Relations between ethnic groups have evolved since then. But unlike other parts of the United States where Hispanics are seen as newcomers and Anglos seek to defend their culture against changing demographics, in northern New Mexico the roles are often reversed.

“We bought our land in 1993, but we’re still considered outsiders compared to a lot of our neighbors,” said Sonya Berg, 79, a retired teacher from Texas whose home in Rociada, a town in several hundred inhabitants, was destroyed by fire.

Still, Ms Berg said she understands why some families have remained in the area for generations, explaining that their land had been so important to her husband, who died in 2019, that his grave is on their burned property.

“I’m sure we will rebuild,” she said.

Given the erratic behavior of the fire, it is unclear when evacuees will be allowed to return. Wendy Mason, a New Mexico wildfire prevention official, said it was the first time, at least in recent memory, that so many large fires raged simultaneously in the state. Ms Mason also warned that more fires could break out in the coming weeks.

“We don’t usually expect a lot of humidity before the monsoons come, and it’s usually not until July or August,” Ms Mason said. Even if rain does fall, as it did in parts of the state over the weekend, it could be accompanied by lightning strikes that ignite other fires, she warned.

“Our climate is changing, which makes the fire season much longer and more intense,” Ms Mason said.

Still, Mr. Martinez, the state historian, pointed out that such challenges are part of the region’s history. Mora was burned down, he noted, by invading American forces in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. After this episode, the community picked up the pieces and started again.

“This is not the first fire our families have faced,” he said.

Edward K. Thompson