In June 1942, with the United States six months into World War II, a long battle on the home front was finally nearing a historic end.
Northern New Mexico farmers and ranchers who had spent more than half a century fighting to regain rights to what they considered their traditional lands finally had a way to do so - legally. With backing from a U.S. senator and a loan from the Farm Service Administration, they bought back 80,000 acres of their former Sangre de Cristo Land Grant.
They were the Río Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association. On Saturday (July 15), they celebrated the 75th anniversary of the organization, a group that's survived infighting, financial trouble and threats from outside. Within the shared ranch is the 10,000-acre Río Costilla Park, one of the state's crown outdoor jewels.
"We have accomplished a lot in 75 years," said Ronald Martinez, former RCCLA president and board member, after the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the occasion in front of the organization's office in the tiny village of Costilla.
"When we think about history, we assume it is about a long time ago, a long time in the past," said Martinez to the crowd gathered for the event. "That's not always so. At the RCCLA, every decision we make every day becomes part of our future and our history at the same time."
Martinez added, "It is the responsibility of each person here today to direct and refine our legacy. What we do should help fulfill the dreams of our founding fathers."
The RCCLA grew out of a complex and convoluted history of settlement, Spanish land grants, legal wrangling and dealmaking. The heirs say the original Sangre de Cristo Land Grant dating to the mid-1800s was chopped up and lost through a series of deals. They worked to get the lands back.
The founders of RCCLA were from Costilla and Amalia, two villages nestled up against the western flank of the Sangre de Cristos and only a few miles from the Colorado border. It's always been a hard-scrabble place, many miles from any seat of power or any major town.
In the 1800s, the ancestors of some current RCCLA members were granted land by the Spanish. They thought they retained that land under subsequent Mexican and then United States governance.
But, as with many New Mexico land grants, the acres slipped out of their control through a complex series of land grabs, delinquent taxes and title disputes. Those fighting to retain rights to the land called themselves La Asociación Defensiva de las Pobladores de los Terrenos del Río Costilla, an association formed in 1902, according to New Mexico Office of the State Historian. For the next 20 years, members of the group fought to protect their land rights through several lawsuits; the courts ruled against the association time after time.
The group kept fighting for the land as World War I raged and as the Depression swept across the nation.
Eric Galvez was 15 when the descendants of members of La Asociación Defensiva de las Pobladores de los Terrenos del Río Costilla joined together as the Río Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association and finally obtained a federal grant to buy back the land.
Martinez read from a statement prepared by Galvez, who is nearly 90 and was unable to make the trip north from his home in Albuquerque.
His thoughts, Galvez wrote, turned to the forbears who had the "foresight and courage to fight for and establish the association."
Amalia and Costilla residents thought President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal plan would help revive the towns and get their lands back.
"Only to have hopes dashed with a quitclaim deed being issued in 1940," Galvez said. More than 400 people from the villages signed a petition sent to the state's top lawmakers and to Roosevelt, "noting their loyalty to the nation and carefully outlining the history of the land and requesting intervention," Galvez wrote.
They were finally able to obtain the federal loan to purchase the land, ending years of struggle with a victory.
"The importance of this moment cannot be overemphasized as one of the most unique endeavors and accomplishments in civil rights history in the United States particularly in New Mexico of struggles to recover land," Galvez wrote in his letter.
"This [foresight] has been a gift to us. Because of this gift, we've been able to sustain our families," wrote Galvez in his remarks for the celebration. "For 75 years, we have created nothing less than a community itself."
The RCCLA brought in revenue through elk hunts and permit fees for people to hike, camp and fish in the Río Costilla Park.
In the 1980s, RCCLA members decided to diversify their portfolio into the ski industry. They opened Ski Río in 1982, but ran into financial trouble with the resort a couple of years later. They worked out a sale with a private company, but the ski resort struggled for years and has not been open in recent years.
Their fights have not just been to protect land rights. They've also fought with the state government and Colorado over water rights on the Río Costilla, the river that starts in New Mexico, curves north into Colorado and dips back down across the border before joining the Río Grande.
Currently, the association has 182 members. Those gathered for the unveiling of a memorial to the group's founders celebrated the long-ago victory, a gift of good land for generations to come.