Reviewed by: Eric Perramond, Colorado College
David Correia, Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico, Athens (GA): University of Georgia Press, 2013, 220 pages, $69.96 hardcover/$24.95 (paper or e-book version).
David Correia, in his book Properties of Violence, focuses on the old Tierra Amarilla land grant and themes of social and environmental justice in NM that will be familiar to readers of La Jicarita, which Correia now edits. However, even long-time readers will find new material in Correia’s first book. The book is about a land grant, yes, but it’s more than a book solely about the land grants issue.
The land grants literature is well-plowed ground in New Mexican intellectual circles. But it’s ground well worth turning over, since the cultural memory of the loss of land grants still cuts deeply in New Mexico. When I take students to New Mexico, for example, we meet people in villages and cities across the state and the students always say something like “history seems alive to New Mexicans, not just something that happened in the past.” In more than one way, Correia’s book reflects this history as lived experience in the colonial present. First, it honors the land grants scholars and literature in a detailed, and meticulous, way. Second, it challenges that literature by providing a richer and more nuanced treatment of how land grant activists acted and reacted almost continuously since the 19th century. Finally, and perhaps most notably, it fills in a wide variety of misconceptions and scholarly gaps on New Mexican land grants and the often implicit links between the notions of property and of law.
The early contents of Properties of Violence, an introduction and, unconventionally, a prologue that follows, track the arc of both what’s been done on land grants and the early Spanish period during which early modern notions of property and violence first synchronize. Some eyebrows will undoubtedly go up as readers encounter the challenging, but well-founded, arguments in the early portions of the book. For example, this region of northern New Mexico was once Ute territory and the Spanish and Mexican regimes knew it, as did lay settlers who attempted to lay property claims here. But settlement was dangerous and ephemeral, well into the early 19th century because of indigenous territorial claims.
The following chapters then narrate the story of property colonization in Tierra Amarilla, after Ute removal, and how the ambivalent granting mechanisms under Spanish and Mexican regimes resulted in much confusion later under Anglo-American juridical lenses. Along the way, in addition to the expected stories of property alienation, we are treated to a variety of unexpected surprises and characters. J. Edgar Hoover, the Ku Klux Klan, and early 20th century Spanish anarchists are all part of the storylines explored by Correia. Much more central to his interests, however, is providing these not as “fillers” for the void of land grants literature and research, but to inform the notion that the contests over property were continuous through space and time. The dispossession of land grants wasn’t and isn’t just a story of 19th century land speculation, with a long pause, and a moment of violence in the 1960s when Tijerina and La Alianza raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. Property, instead, is given vitality – it’s a long story, a thrum of property relations punctuated quite often with overt resistance and moments of violence. Property in Correia’s view is about relationships, not objects, not static boundaries in space that include or exclude.
Correia follows developments after the famous 1960s events into the 1980s, and to the present, by illustrating the recurring irruptive pattern of property contests and displays. Shadowy fence-cutters, heroic Mexican figures from their Revolutionary War, and FBI informants work the boundaries of the story and of the land grant itself, all hoping to leave an imprint of property.
In the end, Correia’s remarkable book is not just about New Mexico, not just about land grants. Properties of Violence presents a way of conceiving of property as a mobile, fungible, plastic set of social relations. It offers a process legal geography, not one solely fixated on the “product” of land grants injustices. It rightly counter-poses land grants activists as active, rather than passive, participants in the on-going redefinition of land as property in northern New Mexico. Property, then, is not a fait accompli, but a contested term and arena for social action. Conceiving of property in an active, and creative, way is one pathway for keeping land grants conversations relevant and pressing in the 21st century. There are other examples that are relevant to the Tierra Amarilla and New Mexican context of course. Canada, for one, has recognized its violations of First Nations treaties. The U.S. has often entertained notions of reparations for African-American slavery. More relevant perhaps to this case, the community of San Luis in Colorado has won back significant access rights to what used to be the Sangre de Cristo land grant in southern Colorado. The San Luis case, in fact, supports this notion of property as always in motion, negotiable, and sensitive to its historic and spatial context. When will a serious effort on the New Mexican land grants issue pay material dividends? That’s impossible to predict, but for now, storytelling, familiar Nuevo Mexicano dichos, and work like Properties of Violence, should help keep the issue alive, active, and relevant for decades to come. And changes in understanding property depend upon on-going stories conscious of the past but relevant now. This book does both.