To many in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, the United State’s enactment of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was nothing more than a fancy smoke and mirrors tactic that allowed the U.S. to steal huge pieces of land from its rightful owners.
One of those land owners was my great-grandfather, Jose Inez Quintana. He was born in Mexico. His daughter and my great-grandmother, Geñoveva Quintana, was born in the United States. Only, they were born in the same physical place: the San Ildefonso, NM. They didn’t own much land, maybe six and a half acres in total. But, when the Judge for the First Judicial District of the United States ruled that they hadn’t paid enough taxes in the landmark case U.S. Vs. Filimino Apodaca et al, they had to leave the only home they had ever known.
They were not alone. Across the entire Southwestern United States, hundreds of governmental bodies arose that challenged private land ownership claims in land that had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Mexican government (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California). The vast majority of cases of property loss involved those of Spanish-speaking descent. In California alone, approximately nine million acres of land was lost to the U.S. government in court cases similar to U.S. Vs. Apodaca. The same tactics were repeated over and over again across the region. Thousands of people became immigrants in their own land.
I’ve often wondered just how much the historical legacy of a displaced people impacts our current world. Research within the field of epigenetics suggests that environmental cues trigger various genes to come to life. It stands to reason that, if a group of people must survive through physical, cultural, and psychological displacement, then there’s a strong likelihood that the group of people would become traumatized and then pass the traumatized genetic profile onto their descendents.
Many times, I’ve tried to place myself into my great-grandfather’s shoes. I try to imaging waking up one day and having to move to a whole other town because I really don’t own my home. I wonder what I would do if I had to, overnight, try to negotiate day-to-day life in a whole other language and economic system. It’s tough to even imagine, yet, it happened to my ancestors.
I gave a talk one night and I said that my great-grandmother was a born immigrant. The audience laughed, as they thought I was joking. I wasn’t. In what amounted to a few years, the land under my family’s feet turned from Mexican to American. After the talk, a man with a New England accent asked me about the “born immigrant” comment. “What’s the big deal?” he asked.
I said, well, I think Northern New Mexico’s issues with suicide and substance abuse are a direct result of a whole group of people being born immigrants.
“Eh,” he said. “Maybe you should try to get over it.”
He left on that note. I was stunned. Maybe I should just get over it and move on. It’s not like anything can change. San Ildefonso, NM is now San Ildefonso Pueblo (thanks to the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924). English is the de facto standard language now (when Spanish used to be). But, I can’t ignore the facts. New Mexico is a poor state and it’s dying. To me, the genetic impact of New Mexico’s history has left this legacy of poverty, addiction, and mental illness. Though I was born in the U.S.; I cannot ignore the fact that I, like so many others, inherited the legacy of the born immigrant. I choose to understand that legacy so that I can do my part to heal the wounds that our traumatic history created.