By KAY MATTHEWS
I first met Antonio “Ike” DeVargas—figuratively—in Danny Lyon’s film “Little Boy,” made in 1977 and named for the atomic bomb made in New Mexico and dropped on Hiroshima. The film is about much more than the bomb, however, and one of “beneath the sunbelt” things it looks at is New Mexico’s La Raza Unida Party. A founding member of the Party, DeVargas is interviewed in a house in Servilleta Plaza where you see him combing the hair of his young son, Antonio, while he talks about taking on police violence and stolen land grants in Rio Arriba County.
The first time I met him in person was in the early 1990s, in the same house in Servilleta (he was staying there waiting for his trailer to be hooked up to utilities) when I went to interview him for a book I planned to write on forest politics. A lot had happened to Ike in those intervening years, and a lot more would happen as we worked together the next 20 years as advocacates for norteño land and community rights.
DeVargas and other La Raza Unita Party members Moises Morales, Pedro Archuleta, and Andres Valdez took on Rio Arriba County’s longtime patrón, Emilio Naranjo, back in the 1970s when he served as county sheriff, wielding unlimited power and abuse with his corrupt patronage (he also served, over the course of 40 years, as state senator, U.S. Marshall, and chairman of the Democratic Party). As UNM Professor David Correia says in his book Property of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico, “When patronage failed to produce political results, Naranjo deployed an army of sheriff’s deputies as enforcers.” He quotes DeVargas: “When I got back from the military and I could see his machine and his thugs and all that stuff, I thought to myself, well, shit, they ship me off ten thousand miles away to fight the dictators [he served in Vietnam] and I come home and we have a freaking dictator right here.”
DeVargas also worked with a broad network of norteño activists who established community-based organizations to serve northern Rio Arriba County: La Cooperativa Agricola; La Oficina de Ley; and La Clínica del Pueblo de Río Arriba. Naranjo and his deputy enforcers targeted these community groups, along with La Raza Unida, seeing them as a challenge to his patronage and authority. According to Correia, “Between April 1974 and May 1976 eighteen reported beatings or shootings by sheriff’s deputies produced official complaints in the county. Dozens more, according to RUP [La Raza Unida] went unreported.” The Rio Grande Sun editorialized that the “unprovoked beatings, illegal property seizures, improper searches of private homes and downright terrorism are too numerous and well-documented to be ignored any longer.” (March 11, 1976.) DeVargas has testified how Naranjo’s deputies planted drugs at his house while Naranjo put out a contract on his life. In self-defense, he disarmed the off-duty sheriff’s deputy who challenged him to a fight and ended up in the state pen with a huge bond, where he was beaten by the guards. The charges against him were eventually dropped.
In the early 1980s DeVargas worked for La Clínica and also became more involved in forest politics as a member of the Vallecitos Association, a community advocacy group. In 1985, when the Carson National Forest Plan set the timber harvest levels in the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit at 8 million board feet, the Vallecitos Association negotiated a compromise that reduced the amount and set aside 1.1 million board feet for small loggers working in the Unit. Ironically, sustained yield units like the Vallecitos had been designated in several national forests across the country to benefit under served local communities, but the only contractor in the Vallecitos Unit for many years was an Albuquerque based corporate logger, Duke City. DeVargas also worked with Luís Torres, founder of Madera Forest Products Association that focused on wood products businesses to compliment sawtimber ones.
Frustrated by continued battles with the Forest Service and Duke City over timber contracts and the slow movement of La Madera, DeVargas decided to organize his own for-profit timber business, La Companía de Ocho (eight members invested $1,000 and guaranteed a loan with their combined possessions). Decades of struggle ensued. This is what DeVargas said in an interview in La Jicarita in 2002:
“What I want people to know is that we were a small company faced with enormous obstacles. People should know what we were up against. We had to take on the biggest timber company in New Mexico, Duke City Lumber, a multi-national, the most powerful government in the world, in the form of the Forest Service, well-heeled environmentalists like Forest Guardians, who have plenty of money for litigation [the group filed the 1995 Mexican spotted owl lawsuit that shut down US Forest Service Region 3 and lawsuits against timber sales in the Sustained Yield Unit], the devastating intervention of Bill Richardson—I think people need to know how badly he damaged us [Richardson prevented La Companía from getting the Vallecitos sawmill, which ended up never being used]—the fact that there was no Community Reinvestment Act money for small businesses in rural New Mexico, and then the final back-breaking shut down of the forest due to the Cerro Grande Fire. All of these things, if you stack them up together, crushed us in the end.”
When La Companía was shut out of the forest by the lawsuits, DeVargas went to work for Rio Arriba County, serving as Risk Manager, and actually ran for sheriff on a “no more jails” platform. He worked with activists across northern New Mexico to try to mediate the conflicts among the environmentalists, Forest Service, and local logging companies trying to sustain their small businesses to provide employment, wood products, and badly needed restoration work.
In 2002 DeVargas left La Companía, unable to make a living as a logger (the company soon folded) and he semi-retired. But activists never really retire, they’re just on hold until the next abuse rears its ugly head. Fast forward to 2018, when DeVargas and other residents of La Madera, where he was raised as a kid, just down the highway from Servilleta, watched as developers moved in to sell “riverfront” cabins and ranchettes in a resort called Rancho de Vallcitos. Concerned about the impact on the valley’s acequias and domestic wells, they formed a group called Acequia and Aquifer Water Watchers to monitor the developments and ensure a clean, safe, and adequate water supply that is distributed and used fairly and legally. They started an educational program with kids from Mesa Vista High School and with the help of filmmaker Doug Crawford produced a video that highlights water concerns and traditions in the valley.
In December of 2018 former Rio Arriba County Commissioner Alex Naranjo, Emilio Naranjo’s nephew, introduced a resolution to rename the Rio Arriba County Annex the Emilio Naranjo Building, stating in The New Mexican, “He was a public servant for 50 years. My uncle was a legend in Northern New Mexico. I’m very proud of him.” After the resolution became a reality, DeVargas, Carol Miller (who also served as director of La Clinica and experienced harassment from Naranjo), and other norteño activists went before the commission in August of 2019 to protest the renaming and ask the commission to rescind that decision. Rio Arriba County Commissioner Danny Garcia’s response to their testimony (paraphrased)—I feel your pain but as long as the patrón fixes my road, he’s got my vote—sums up the commission’s response: no action to rescind.
DeVargas is currently involved in a new battle with the county that he says is another testament to the lingering rot of governments and officials who aren’t held accountable. Years ago the county picked up people’s trash for free. This was allegedly in violation of the state’s anti-donation clause, so the county started charging for the pickup and eventually, under an ordinance, established the North Central Solid Waste Authority. DeVargas submitted a petition with over 500 names to a Santa Fe judge asking that he impanel a grant jury once the names are verified to determine if the ordinance is legal and to examine what DeVargas claims are the authority’s illegal activities: billing but not picking up trash; putting liens on people’s property when their bills are past due; billing for property that doesn’t have a residential dwelling; and corrupt accounting. The judge acted on DeVargas’s request and a jury will be impaneled in March of 2020.
Finally, Ike now has to take on a fight in which no parent ever wants to engage: justice for the death of a child. Amanda Martinez’s article in The New Mexican tells the tragic story, in excruciating detail, of how Ike’s daughter, Carmela, died of spinal meningitis after Santa Fe County jail guards failed to get her medical help. DeVargas and longtime civil rights attorney Richard Rosenstock plan to pursue legal action against the guards and the jail. Ike, and Carmela’s sister Elisa DeVargas, have organized a vigil at the jail on Sunday, December 15, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm to remember Carmela and bring to light the injustice of her treatment there. The jail is located at 28 Camino Justicia off State Highway 14. Many will be there to show solidarity with Ike, whose long life of activism is testimony to his integrity and grit.