Reading Synthesis

"Environmental History of Mega-Mexico, El Norte" by Devon G. Pena

Synthesis by Sharon Cornet

Spring 2007, Dr. G.G. Nunez – Urban Anthropology


El Norte: “… of the Republic of Mexico that, after 1848 became the states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.”


Two ecological revolutions:
1) Nortena/o ecological revolution (1598-1848).

2) Anglo-American Industrial-capitalist ecological revolution (1848-1950).


The Three Worldviews of Nature:



Time Periods




Ecological Revolutions



Earth = home, wild, familiar


Tewa (Anasazi descendants)

Northern Pueblo culture

Animal and plant spirits associated with ecologically meaningful place-names.

Coyote stories tell rules of living (to avoid greed and selfish tendencies). p.69


Mexican or Norteno/a


Earth = dangerous wilderness, needs taming, exploitation


First Spanish-Mexican settlements (in NM).  Conquistadores search for gold

Indians barbaric and need saving (religious).

Eventual co-existence and sharing of bioregions.

Sustainable and renewable resource of water via acequias (irrigation ditches – from Spanish, Arabic, Pueblos). p.69-70

Mexican origin people adapted to arid regions – an often overlooked hallmark of the time.

Egalitarian land tenure

“Traditional use areas” – followed rules and social obligations.

Cooperative labor

Local rules applied

p. 70



Earth = wasteland needing to be conquered and developed


“Frontier attitude of Anglo-American expansionism”

Labor and nature as expendable resources/ commodities.

Manifest Destiny ideology – dominate backward peoples and enlighten them.

p. 70

Economic and ecological exploitation.

Privatization of property rights

Acaquia farmers displaced – set future trends for “racially stratified labor market” and subsequent resistant social movements.  p. 71


Environmental Change in the Norteno/a ecological revolution: 

Landscape was “mountain isles and desert seas.”  Biomes for flora and fauna, ecological lifezones, and the riparian life zone (along water courses) were dominate.  Fire and irrigation ditches (acequias) were used to manage the land.  There are 4 bioregions between south Texas and California. 

The 4 types of Mercedes (land grants) were:

1)      Pueblo (native land rights),

2)      Individual (soldiers),

3)      Impresario (foreigners), and

4)      Community (5+ families to settle watersheds). 

The community land grants, mostly given in northern NM and CO, provided suertes (Riparian long lot) acequia farmlands.  The people of this time were adamant seed savers, raised livestock, manufactured artisan products, musical instruments, and tools – all without deforestation.

1774 – There were only handfuls of animals in settlement areas.

1827 – The landscape was “one continual pasture,” and cattle ranch growth began.

1835-1848Mexican war ended and Mexico lost 2/3rds of its territory due to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  p. 72-90


Environmental Change in the Industrial-capitalist ecological revolution: 

1848 – The railroad and mass markets begun.  Land grants were overridden (lost to those whom they were promised to).   This began a massive displacement of natives, and industrialization, urbanization, and racially stratified labor were the result as people moved toward urban centers. 

1869-1884Land theft was perpetrated by the Office of Surveyor General.  Lawyers and others also took lands from rightful owners and their heirs.  The Gold Rush brought in white squatters, and consequently taxes went up.  Nortenas/os were again displaced, and extinction of many species were the result of overtaken lands.  Polycultures (growing many crops) went toward a Monoculture (growing a single crop).  Logging and overgrazing devastated the landscape.

1910-1920 – After the Mexican Revolution the Mexican population rose.  Cities resulted, as did greater numbers of barrios.   Industrialization and agriculture both brought an increased need for labor.  Mexican workers were seen as inferior half-breeds, and were preferred as temporary workers (not permanent).

1942-1964 – The Bracero Program pushed for the importation of temporary Mexican workers.

1982 – The EMJ (Environmental Justice Movement) was kicked off by African Americans fighting against toxic waste dumps. 

The ROOTS of the EMJ, however, began with the original struggles between 1877-1970’s.   These included:

El Paso Salt War

Las Gorras Blancas (NM Chicanos “resisted encroachment on communal land grants)

Cananea Strike for Mexican social justice issues

Fighting against Gentrification (redevelopment of low-income areas)

Alianza Federal de Mercedes Libres (land grant movement)

            Anti-pesticide campaigns

            Indian Camp Dams near Taos   p. 90-104



Alteration of the environment by Nortenas/os were mostly sustainable and sometimes beneficial (e.g. acequias).  Vast degradation of the environment occurred due to the industrial-capitalist ecological revolution.