A tradition of resistance

Sanctuary movement takes hold in Northern New Mexico in showing of solidarity with Mexico and culture that ties the two identities


LAS VEGAS, N.M. – On a recent afternoon in this small, mostly Hispanic town, San Miguel County Commissioner Rock Ulibarri gave a narrative of a 141-foot-long mural over nine panels, depicting the community’s history, from the violent Spanish conquest of Native Americans to battles during the Mexican-American War to more contemporary issues.

“A People’s History of El Norte” paints the region’s history of resistance, said Ulibarri, who sketched the mural. He completed the two-year project in 2010 with the help of 300 youth painters.

Among the images in the artwork are Spanish colonists chopping off the feet of Native Americans; a group led by three white-hooded brothers known as the Gorras Blancas, who fought against white American squatters in the 1880s and 1890s; and the town’s recent fight against oil companies.

The theme in each panel is people resisting injustices, Ulibarri said.

Continuing in the region’s tradition of resistance, the San Miguel County Commission, in a unanimous vote, recently approved an immigrant “sanctuary” policy – not necessarily because the area has a high immigrant population, but because the people of Las Vegas, the county seat, have cultural ties to Mexico.

The policy, prohibiting police from asking about a person’s immigration status, faced no public opposition.

The measure comes six months into Donald Trump’s presidency and is largely a rebuke to the presidential administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

San Miguel County, which is home to about 29,000 people, is just the latest community to adopt such a measure. Local governments across the nation, including several in New Mexico, have adopted similar resolutions, often declaring a municipality a sanctuary city, though the policies don’t offer protection from federal authorities seeking to deport residents without legal status.

The measures, more a show of solidarity with immigrants to ensure they feel welcomed in their communities, are part of a larger movement against Trump’s anti-immigrant stance – not just by local leaders, but also by immigrant students, U.S.-born children of immigrants and others.

In rural Northern New Mexico communities, especially those where the immigrant population is small compared to neighboring cities, such as Taos and Santa Fe, adopting policies welcoming to immigrants is meant to serve as a protest against what many people see as not just an anti-immigrant attitude by Trump and his supporters, but one that’s also anti-Hispanic.

“The people being targeted right now are actually people who are indigenous to the Americas,” Ulibarri said. “They’re not illegal, and they’re definitely not aliens.”

Many New Mexico Hispanics don’t necessarily identify as Mexican-American, but they recognize that their historical ties to the nation’s southern neighbor may put them in the crosshairs of people fearful of immigrants.

“Our identity here is complicated,” said Paula Garcia, chairwoman of the Mora County Commission, who said she is considering introducing a so-called sanctuary resolution in her county.

“We have deep ties with Mexico,” she said, “but you have families that try to distinguish themselves from Mexico by saying they’re Spanish or Hispanic. Personally, I grew up in a family that identifies as Mexicanos and identify our language as Mexicano, not as a nationality, but as an identity.”

Inside a restaurant in Mora, a village behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and about 30 miles north of Las Vegas, Michael Lujan showed up in his pickup. He was there to pick up his wife, a waitress, and his daughters, who were there with their mother.

Lujan said he grew up in the nearby community of Guadalupita speaking both English and Spanish.

“I’m part Indian and Spanish,” he said. “When I grew up, I spoke Spanglish. I didn’t speak full Spanish or full English.”

While he doesn’t identify as Mexican-American, he said, he recognizes the shared cultural ties between himself and those who recently arrived from across the border.

Ultimately, he said, he’s American, but he’s worried that Trump’s rhetoric against Mexican immigrants is also an attack on Northern New Mexico culture.

Organizers with the student-led immigrant rights group NM Dream Team, based in Albuquerque, have looked to Northern New Mexico political leaders to help them in their efforts to get immigrant-friendly resolutions passed across the state.

Karla Molinar, 23, a University of New Mexico student and Dream Team organizer, said the group’s efforts started earlier this year. The team lobbied local leaders in Taos, she said, and in April, county commissioners there passed a sanctuary resolution.

Molinar’s group then worked with students at the Las Vegas-based New Mexico Highlands University to start the same effort with the San Miguel County Commission.

Her group recognizes these communities don’t have a high Mexican immigrant population, she said, but they thought residents might sympathize with their cause because of the historical connections New Mexico has with their home country.

“I would say it’s more of cultural resolution,” Molinar said. “I also would say that this makes us feel that you’re safe here and that you belong here and that we share a history.”

Proponents of such policies say that they keep communities safe because undocumented immigrants won’t be afraid to report crimes to police. Those against sanctuary policies say they prevent police from turning over undocumented people to federal authorities, leaving those immigrants free to commit violent crimes.

The sanctuary movement is growing, even as the Trump administration is threatening to withhold federal funding from governments that refuse to cooperate with immigration officials and as the president is trying to move forward with construction of a massive wall between Mexico and the United States meant to keep out people Trump has described as criminals. The proposed wall was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Eric Romero, an assistant professor of Native American and Mexican-American studies at Highlands, said Trump has moved marginalized communities to stand in solidarity with one other because they see a common threat in the president’s policies.

“For us, it’s part of being symbolic,” he said. “To show that there’s help and that we’re willing to work with our immigrant community.”

Contact Uriel Garcia at (505) 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg. This story was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.