by Mike Smith
Past the mountain village of San Antonito, up the winding, half-paved La Madera Road, and hidden among tall grass along a private two-track, lie the ruins of Tejón—an old and mostly forgotten settlement with a strange and tragic end.
There, tilting across the slanted halo of verdant desert that rings the Sandias, reaching up from subtle hills of greening brown, protrude the broken walls of a former Mexican village. Lost among shocks of rabbitbrush and cholla, the rubble outlines homes and a church, a bristling of stony graves, and the blue of a life-giving spring.
Tejón (“badger” in Spanish) stood amid the Town of Tejón Grant, a 12,801-acre property granted to farmer Salvador Barreras and a group of others by the Mexican Government in 1840. According to one affidavit, in 1859 Tejón’s population was “about 130;” according to the 1870 census, Tejón’s women were housekeepers, and its men were farmers and farm laborers. The village’s first homes and corrals formed the walls of a plaza, for protection against Comanche and Apache raiders, and beyond the walls, men and women knelt before San Juan in a little church, while fields of wheat and beans swathed the hills and herds of shaggy goats rambled from scrub to scrub.
With the United States’ 1846 takeover of New Mexico, an area mining boom in the 1870s, and the railroad’s arrival in Albuquerque in 1880, Tejón’s inhabitants repeatedly saw their right to the land contested, although Congress confirmed the grant as theirs in 1860 and again in 1882.
Those findings were irrelevant, though, to Mariano Sabino Otero—a man still sometimes remembered as a founder of what is now the New Mexico State Fair, president of two Albuquerque banks, a prominent Hispanic politician, and the undeniable villain in the story of Tejón. A neckless, mustachioed man—a stockman, banker, speculator, sulphur manufacturer, and Republican Congressman from 1879 to 1881—Otero declined to run for re-election in 1880 to pursue business interests. In 1893 he used his political influence to seize for himself all of the grant surrounding Tejón.
As the nephew of a Congressman and railroad baron, the cousin of a Governor, and an experienced politician himself, Otero pressed New Mexico’s second district court to rule that, “There is not now nor ever has been any such corporation as The Inhabitants of the Town of Tejon,” and so those inhabitants had no right to the land on which they lived.
According to folk historian Lou Sage Batchen’s Las Placitas: Historical Facts and Legends, Otero declared that Tejón residents could no longer graze their goats on grant lands, then forbade cutting firewood, and finally declared the villagers could not plant their fields, a decree that effectively killed the town. Around that same time, when the Ellis family established a homestead near the Sandias’ northern end, they were warned by locals about “horsethieves,” “cutthroats,” “strange things,” and rico patrón “Mariano Otero.”
The strangest thing about the demise of Tejón is what nearly happened after Otero’s 1904 death, when Otero’s two sons decided to turn the town their father had emptied into a museum of traditional village life, exploiting the quaintness of the very lives their father had helped ruin. That plan they abandoned only after the town had been thoroughly ransacked.
Today, Tejón itself is in ruins, but the relevance of its final story—of a politician abusing his office, corporations favored over individuals, and a businessman’s total disregard for the lives uprooted by his greed—is unfortunately doing quite well.
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