“A Hundred And Fifty Dollars For A Section!”
by Sylvestre Sisneros
Shawn Kelley is an anthropologist and oral historian who has talked with all kinds of people throughout the Southwest. As part of the Abo Canyon Second Track Project, Shawn has interviewed over 60 people about their communities and life experiences along the Belen Cutoff.
Many Hispano families like the Sisneroses and Padillas moved into new areas and established communities during the nineteenth century in New Mexico. Some villages petitioned for, and were granted, land from the Mexican government, while others settled without clear title to their property. After New Mexico became a territory of the United States, Hispanos often moved to patent land under the new system that included the Homestead Act of 1862. The Sisneros family was among the first Hispano families to resettle the Salinas area in the 1800s. Below, Sylvestre Sisneros, who grew up with his grandmother next to the ruins of the mission pueblo at Abo, remembers the homesteaders who moved into the area, the changes that happened, and the poverty experienced during the Depression.
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Okay, “Gus Mahan Family,” Unknown (Photographer) there was about five sections south of Abo near Chupadero Mesa that they couldn’t dispose of it under the original Homestead Act (which only allowed 160 acres), because the land didn’t have any water. It was good grazing, but it was far out of water. And Juan Jose Contreras, which was my dad’s cousin, had a piece of land where he had drilled a well down in the canyon. He had the only water available for about five, ten miles there in the area. And Joe Brazil had another piece of land adjacent to Contreras. These two men were sheepherders; at that time there was sheep all over the country. Well, what these two men did, they would go and lease all of that land—it was just common then—to the sheepherders. Because they had the only water available and Brazil and Contreras would divide the profits.
So by 1932, these two gentlemen had an out. Brazil, he went and told my dad, my Uncle Fred, my Uncle Martin, Canuto, and my tío (uncle) Ramon that there was five sections available there, to just apply for them. As soon as they proved them—the requirement was to put up, I think, a corral and a little house or shack, and fence it—then the government would approve the claim. My dad got a deed from President Roosevelt at the time in 1933.
We lived there one summer. My dad built a two-room shack we had to move into and my dad had us fence the whole thing—four miles around. I was just dragging along, I think, with maybe the hammer and the staples or somethin’. The rest of the kids were too young.
Well, the section south of my dad, his name was Cocanougher. My family worked with him, they had a bean field. He was a single man, he had tuberculosis and eventually got too sick to be there, and he wanted to go back to Texas. And he went and offered my dad his section—real estate wasn’t movin’ very fast—for $150. We were fencing up there between Cocanougher and my dad and Cocanougher came up and said, “If you can raise $50 and give me $50, then you can pay me the rest, ’cause I gotta go back to Texas with the family.” Of course during the Depression, $50, he might as well say $500,000, because nobody had it. I said to my dad, “Buy it! Buy it! Why don’t you buy it?” I figured my dad could probably borrow $50 someplace, but he finally got fed up and kicked me on the bottom and said, “You guys don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” Well, years went by, I went to California, and when I came back my dad told me to take care of that place there for him—he was getting pretty old. And I said, “Sure, I’ll help you out.” So we went along that place where we had put the fence and I remembered he had kicked me in the bottom. As we were going by the fence, I said, “You remember when you kicked my butt here?” Of course my dad remembered, and he said, “Turn around so you can kick me in the butt.” A hundred and fifty dollars for a section!