Lessons from Las Trampas: Heritage Preservation and Land Justice in Northern New Mexico


In 2006 Congress established the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA) to recognize New Mexico’s multicultural heritage and its place within the United States. National heritage areas are both places and administrative frameworks.  They cover nationally significant, living cultural landscapes and provide a way for local communities to partner with the federal government to promote historic preservation, cultural conservation, economic development, education, recreation, and environmental protection. The NRGNHA covers Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Taos Counties.

Unlike other federal interventions in northern New Mexico, the establishment of the NRGNHA does not affect land ownership or management. The designating legislation explicitly protects private property rights. Ernest Ortega, former state director of the National Park Service, used to say that the heritage area represents the helping hand, not the heavy hand, of government.The Park Service, which coordinates the national heritage area program, tries to distinguish itself from the U.S. Forest Service in northern New Mexico since many people associate the latter with governmental appropriation of land. The Park Service manages relatively little land in New Mexico.

National heritage areas exemplify new, community-based approaches to conservation.  They emphasize local control and decision making, nurture the relationship between people and nature, integrate conservation and community development, and require collaborative partnerships. Community-based conservation models partly emerged from a critique of colonial environmentalism.The Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area’s multicultural theme also suggests that its political orientation is anti-colonial. According to the designating legislation, the top two reasons for establishing the heritage area were that “northern New Mexico encompasses a mosaic of cultures and history, including 8 Pueblos and the descendants of Spanish ancestors who settled in the area in 1598” and that “the combination of cultures, languages, folk arts, customs, and architecture make northern New Mexico unique.” This multicultural affirmation is a far cry from earlier American attitudes toward New Mexico and its residents. The American colonization of New Mexico involved not just dispossessing Hispanics and Indians of their land but also attempting to eradicate their cultures. In 2006 the federal government’s recognition of New Mexico not despite of but because of its cultural distinctiveness illustrates how much attitudes toward cultural difference have changed in the United States.

Yet heritage preservation projects and celebrations of cultural diversity do not always challenge colonial power relations. Sometimes they inadvertently reinforce them. One way this can happen is when “culture” and “heritage” deflect attention away from political and economic issues. I call this the anti-politics of culture. Culture has become a depoliticized and depoliticizing concept.Talking about culture and celebrating cultural survival can be a way of not talking about colonial legacies or the need to redistribute wealth and resources.

The history of historic preservation in Las Trampas, a village along the High Road to Taos famous for its adobe church, provides an apt example of the anti-politics of culture. It may also offer some lessons for the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area.

The Anti-Politics of Culture in Las Trampas

Las Trampas witnessed devastating land loss and attracted enthusiastic cultural admirers throughout the twentieth century. The Las Trampas land grant, established in 1751, was originally 46,000 acres. In 1860 Congress confirmed the grant to the village.  But between 1900 and 1926, through a series of transactions involving individual grantees, lawyers/speculators, courts, private corporations, and the U.S. Forest Service, the grant was reduced to a mere 210 acres of cropland, plus grazing and timber allotments in the national forest, often of poor quality.

Village of Las Trampas, San José de Gracia Church. Photo by Willa Correia-Kuehn
Village of Las Trampas, San José de Gracia Church. Photo by Willa Correia-Kuehn

Historic preservation campaigns in Las Trampas, which began in the 1920s, subtly and inadvertently helped to justify the colonial status quo. Preservationists generally celebrated Nuevomexicanos’ religious devotion, artistic traditions, communitarian values, and pastoral way of life (in short, their culture) and had little personal involvement in the economic and political changes that undermined the viability of northern New Mexico villages. Neither their words nor their actions, then, explicitly advanced Anglo-American interests. Quite the contrary, these antimodernists often criticized the cultural foundation of their own society. Yet I argue that preservationist discourse brought together the cultural, economic, and political dimensions of American colonialism.

Click to enlarge. Thomas Guthrie photo.
Click to enlarge. Thomas Guthrie photo.

First, preservationists reinforced colonial power relations through representation. Outsiders have dominated the representation of Las Trampas, and their patronizing and primitivistic descriptions have influenced Anglo-American engagements with northern New Mexico. Trampaseños are rarely quoted in texts about the village, and seldom have they had the ability to represent themselves in a sustained way to a broad audience.Throughout the twentieth century, Anglos often represented Las Trampas as a timeless, traditional, and self-sufficient agricultural community.  For example, in a 1947 article in the Santa Fe Register Stanley Crocchiola described Trampas as “a timeless town untouched by the vandal called ‘Modern….’ The little plaza struggles along as if there had never been an Hidalgo treaty, a Kearney, a century of American occupation.1846 or 1946, it does not phase Trampas in the least.”  This image of the village as isolated and unchanging, while stunningly disconnected from reality, functions to reassure Anglos that an alternative to the modern world still exists and that, therefore, American colonization must not have been totally destructive. It averts feelings of colonial guilt through a process of denial and justifies policies that ensure underdevelopment and entrenched poverty in Nuevomexicano villages.

A second way in which preservationists (unintentionally) perpetuated colonial hierarchies was by shining a spotlight on “culture” while obscuring political economy. Anglos seldom acknowledged the relationship between mode of production and cultural survival and tended to treat culture and economics as if they were totally separate. It was always the cultural significance of agricultural village life (the social relationships, values, landscape patterns, religion, architecture) that mattered most, not the economics of farming or ranching. So separate were culture and economics in preservationist discourse that when Anglos did address the village’s material basis, they typically recommended modernizing agricultural practices in order to preserve art, architecture, folklife, and religious life. Talking about culture instead of land and natural resources helped to mystify colonial domination.

The Village and the Highway

The most intense efforts to preserve culture and architecture in Las Trampas came in the 1960s. In 1966 the state announced plans to pave and widen Highway 76 between Truchas and Peñasco. At that time the highway was a graded country road, precarious after storms and often impassable in the winter. It was the only road that passed through Las Trampas, and villagers were desperate for a safer school bus route and better access to the outside world.

San José de Gracia Church
San José de Gracia Church. Thomas Guthrie photo.

The state government acknowledged the villagers’ strong support for the road improvement, but preservationists feared it would damage the church of San José de Gracia and the character of the village. They ratcheted the debate up to the national level, where the issues became more abstract and the villagers themselves had little power. The New Mexico Arts Commission and the American Association of Architects stated in 1969 that buildings such as San José de Gracia “belong really not only to us, but to the entire United States.” This claim about the ownership of cultural heritage parallels the claim that New Mexico’s forests belong more to Americans elsewhere than to local New Mexicans.

Debates about the road systematically excluded Nuevomexicano voices. Outsiders assumed the right to speak for the villagers, represent their needs and desires, and intervene in village affairs. Architect Nathaniel Owings wrote in New Mexico magazine that preservationists “assumed that the villagers themselves would of course wish to preserve the church and churchyard in which their fathers, mothers and grandparents had been buried,” but “to our great surprise, we were in error.” So “those of us who were concerned decided to do what we could to ‘save the villagers from themselves,’ as one of us put it, ‘for they know not what they are doing.’ We did this with a sense of great uneasiness. Was this perhaps arrogance?”  Owings was a part-time resident of Pojoaque and a founding partner of the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, which has built some of the tallest buildings in the world.

Preservationists also ignored the relationship between cultural identity and land. Owings acknowledged that the village’s landholdings had been vastly reduced over the years and that “it is evident that pressures had long been exerted.” But he went on to remark that “the nature of these pressures and how the acreage came to be reduced to this pathetic figure I do not know; this is not part of our story. Undoubtedly it had to do with foreclosures for taxes and ignorance of true boundaries. But the village is surrounded by a national forest, so to a degree the villagers still have the benefit and use of the vast original acreage.” In fact, in the same essay he cites an article from the Santa Fe New Mexican that carefully summarized the plight of the village and the breakup of the Las Trampas land grant.

Architect John Conron wrote a proposal on behalf of the New Mexico Society of Architects that recommended purchasing the entire Las Trampas valley and turning it over to the National Park Service to manage as a living national monument. Conron thought it was important that Trampas remain an active agricultural community where Nuevomexicanos lived. But he was concerned about authenticity, not land rights. The “Spanish American residents” he sought to populate the monument were interchangeable.

Preservationists were unable to deal—conceptually or practically—with the relationship between culture and economics. Owings dreamed of enabling the villagers to return to a nineteenth-century economy, including sheep raising and wool production, but he made no mention of land politics. Conron, on the other hand, argued that cultural conservation depended upon economic change. He proposed regulating agricultural production, adopting new farming methods and marketing practices, and introducing higher-income crops. Subsistence farming was not part of the plan. Separating culture and economics, the architects never addressed the contradiction between preservation and modernization.

The National Park Service ultimately rejected this ambitious proposal. The road controversy ended in 1967 when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall designated Las Trampas a National Historic Landmark. This commemorative designation left the village in private hands but brought it under the protection of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. State and federal agencies and historic preservationists finally agreed upon a scaled-down, less intrusive highway through the village. Conron considered the resolution a 75 percent victory for preservationists, even though the long-term fate of the village remained uncertain.

Land Politics and the NRGNHA

Preservation efforts in Las Trampas foreshadowed the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area initiative in scope and spirit. A 1967 National Park Service report raised the possibility of “a consortium solution” to the village’s woes “that would unite the citizens of Las Trampas with Federal, State, and private agencies in voluntary association—an association whose goal would be renewal of village life, economically and socially, while attempting to preserve and interpret the outward forms that contribute so much to its distinctiveness.” The NRGNHA (which covers not just a single village but three counties) provides precisely such a collaborative framework. So what are the chances it will advance—or stand in the way of—land justice in northern New Mexico?

The designating legislation states that one purpose of the heritage area is to “assist local communities and residents in preserving… cultural, historical and natural resources.” Yet it maintains the status quo when it comes to land. The law protects private property rights but also prohibits modifying “any authority of Federal, State, or local governments to regulate land use.” This legislative mandate—promote cultural traditions without interfering with land management—suggests that the NRGNHA may perpetuate the anti-politics of culture.

However, many heritage area advocates I talked to insisted that historic and cultural preservation efforts must nurture people’s relationship to land and water. Ernest Ortega suggested to me in 2003 that the heritage area’s management entity could represent communities in their negotiations with state and federal governments. For instance, the heritage area board could ask the supervisors of Carson and Santa Fe National Forests to modify policies to accommodate culturally significant practices such as firewood collection, grazing, and clay extraction. The next step would be to seek the aid of New Mexico’s congressional delegates. To influence land management agencies in this way would be to practice politics with “a lower case p rather than an upper case P,” Ortega explained. The NRGNHA board has pledged to “advocate for people’s right to access [and use] public lands.” Forest Service representatives have expressed hope that the NRGNHA will help them collaborate with communities surrounding the forests.

What relationship will the heritage area have to the land grant movement? Most people I talked to hoped the heritage area would focus on historical research and education instead of legal involvement. The NRGNHA management plan (currently awaiting federal approval) thoroughly discusses the history of Spanish and Mexican land grants, their breakup after American colonization, and Nuevomexicano resistance since the early 1900s. It states that one of the heritage area’s goals is to nurture sustainable agriculture and traditional land use. In this context it notes the significance of land grants and acequias and recommends ongoing collaboration with county, state, federal, and tribal land management authorities as well as land grant organizations.

In the last few years the NRGNHA has given over $130,000 in small grants to support a range of community-based preservation, education, cultural revitalization, arts, and economic development projects. These include a number of land-based projects, including acequia education at La Tierra Montessori School, a history of Acequia Agua Fria, several projects at the Española farmers’ market, and agricultural revitalization in Abiquiú, Embudo, and San Ildefonso Pueblo. It commissioned a film (“Land Water People Time”) that explores people’s ongoing relationships to land and water in northern New Mexico, from farming and ranching to adobe making and skiing. Through personal narratives the film documents intergenerational experiences of both cultural continuity and painful social change.

The NRGNHA is in its early development, so its political impact remains to be seen. For the heritage area to support land justice in northern New Mexico it will have to diverge from previous heritage preservation projects and challenge assumptions about what recognizing heritage entails.


The anti-politics of culture is not inevitable. The performance of “traditional culture” has become a political tool for both Indians and Nuevomexicanos, and interweaving such performances with explicit political demands can be productive. For example, Hispano weavers, potters, woodworkers, and healers strategically displayed their wares in the rotunda of the New Mexico state capitol in 1996 as part of a protest against restrictive national forest policies. A banner stated their position: “Sin Tierra No Hay Justicia: Sin Justicia No Hay Paz” (Without Land There Is No Justice: Without Justice There Is No Peace). Maria Varela may be correct “that, in this continual struggle, artistic expression alone will not safeguard ancestral land and water rights,” but linking heritage and politics can be powerful. Nuevomexicanos often find they are more successful in regaining access to national forests when they emphasize their traditional cultural heritage than when they adopt more militant tactics or organize around class. Presenting themselves as indigenous land users with a rich but endangered culture is a way to win Anglo support.

Thomas Guthrie's book, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico, University of Nebraska Press
Thomas Guthrie’s book, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico, University of Nebraska Press

Culture, identity, and the past are shot through with power relations, and their interpretation can provide opportunities for political discourse and action. Museums, historic sites, public art, national parks, and preservation projects like the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area all have an important role to play in drawing attention to land and water rights, the social and environmental costs of development, and the unequal benefits of capitalism. Social justice in New Mexico requires rejecting the separation of culture and political economy and reintegrating the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution. When this happens, heritage preservation can make a major contribution to dismantling New Mexico’s double colonial legacy.

Tom Guthrie is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has been working in northern New Mexico since 2002.  This article draws from his book, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2013.



  1. In a way this is a very insightful article but then you get to a statement like this. ” Social justice in New Mexico requires rejecting the separation of culture and political economy and reintegrating the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution.” To me this looks like yet another agenda of outsiders to manage people as if they were pets or actors in some sort of historical reenactment.

    Why not let people decide for themselves the kind of community they desire and strive to meet their goals and aspirations?

    • Sigmund,
      I agree with your last sentence and I suspect Tom would as well. I don’t think he’s looking for a better way for outsiders to manage New Mexico, rather he’s interested in whether or not something called “heritage preservation” offers a path that could avoid the pitfalls of past top-down, social engineering projects like, for example, the Forest Service.

      • Thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree that New Mexicans can and should chart their own futures. Self-determination is vital to community health. I do think that outsiders like myself can contribute in a small way to decolonization. However, if I came across as authoritative in this article, I regret it. I am by no means an expert on New Mexico. In my book I deliberately reveal the limits of my knowledge about Las Trampas in order to expose my argument to critique. As writers, Owings, Conron, and I have much in common, so readers are wise to question my claims.

  2. Interesting article. I spent many of summers in this little village. My great grandmother is buried in the cemetery by the church. I remember when they started the new hiway. I thought they took forever to finish! My grandparents adobe made home has fallen due to lack of maintenance. I gave great memories there.

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