Manuel García y Griego, director of the Land Grant Studies Program in the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute (SHRI) at the University of New Mexico, traveled with students from his New Mexico history class up to the site of the San Joaquín del Río de Chama Land Grant to work with land grant families and the U.S. Forest Service to finish constructing a trail to an ancient cemetery next to a wilderness boundary within the historic boundaries of the merced, or land grant.

Before picking up shovels to widen the trail to the top of a hill, heirs to the original 46 land grant petitioners needed to resolve an issue with the site of the old cemetery. “The heirs contacted Congressman Ben Ray Luján because the cemetery had been placed in a federally established wilderness area. They wanted to push legislation to remove the property from the wilderness listing,” García y Griego said.

As it turned out, the U.S. Forest Service looked at its maps and determined that the site had never been formally surveyed, he said.

García y Griego looked at the survey field notes from the 1800s and looked for boundary markers on site. He was able to identify markers around the cemetery where the boundaries should be. Because the formal survey had not been done, it was fairly straightforward to get the boundaries changed to take the cemetery off the Forest Service’s wilderness area, he said.

More than 30 people, including congressional staff and a wilderness organization, volunteered their time so that the cemetery now has handicapped access.  

“We had the Hermanos come out,” Leonard Martínez, president of the San Joaquín del Río de Chama Land Grant, said, referring to the Penitentes. In future years, they will celebrate Día de los Muertos at the campo santo, or cemetery.

Getting access means that the elderly of the merced will be able to access the cemetery where their ancestors were buried a century ago, Martínez said.

Congressman Ben Ray Luján spoke at the concluding ceremony and observed that anyone familiar with the history of the land grant and the Forest Service would know that this effort could have turned out differently. He praised the Land Grant holders and the Forest Service for working cooperatively in this effort. 

Martínez thanked those who assisted with the work. “It’s a historic day in the history of the land grant, which was founded in 1806,” he said. 

The Land Grant Studies Program (LGSP) is an interdisciplinary program created in 2008 by the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute (SHRI) at the University of New Mexico, with support from the state of New Mexico. LGSP seeks to advance the study of mercedes and to provide students an opportunity to work with community land grant boards of trustees and on land grant issues. The program conducts research and public outreach on New Mexico land grant issues. It also offers internship and fellowship opportunities for students.