Thursday, February 22, 2007
And the Beat Goes On ...
Bad feelings remain from 60-year grievance
ROGER SNODGRASS, Los Alamos Monitor Assistant Editor, Thursday, February 22, 2007
More than 60 years after they lost their lands to the U.S. government for a secret project in the mountains of New Mexico, heirs of Hispanic homesteaders who claimed their property was taken improperly are beginning to receive compensation. Sen. Pete Domenici's office announced Tuesday that a down payment of $4.7 million would be dispersed immediately to 394 claimants, to be followed by another 97 payments on Friday. The payments range upwards from a few hundred dollars to $100,000, the result of efforts by three generations of aggrieved property-owners, Hispanic activists and determined individuals who battled the U.S. government for recognition of what they considered in many cases, the theft of their land. Domenici's announcement said the payments are being distributed through the NNSA Oak Ridge Payment Center from the Pajarito Plateau fund, a $10 million account the senator arranged to be added to the Department of Energy's Budget two years ago. A spokesman in Domenici's office said the disbursement was further delayed in "working out who got what." "It was quite an intricate formula," said Matt Letourneau, the senator's deputy press secretary. "They had to factor in not just land, but livestock."
The funds are intended to settle the claims of Hispanic homesteaders who were removed or whose property interest was purchased by the Corps of Engineers to make way for the facility, known first as Project Y, that became Los Alamos National Laboratory. Charges of forced removal, underhanded and heavy-handed tactics and discriminatory treatment toward the Hispanic farmers have embittered some of the participants of the controversial land seizures that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the U.S. into World War II.
Although the list of claimants and the amounts that were paid were not disclosed by the Department of Energy, it seems likely that few of the original claimants survived to see their settlement payments. Jose Gonzalez, a World War II veteran, one of the last surviving named plaintiffs who lived in El Rancho, died last week, said Joe Gutierrez, a program leader in renewable energy at the laboratory. He also mentioned the Gomez brothers, who were born and raised and resided on the Pajarito Plateau all of their lives until they were evicted. "Unfortunately, they passed away before they saw justice," Gutierrez said. Gutierrez was the guiding force of the Homesteader Association that began a concerted push for justice while current N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson was Secretary of Energy. Richardson, and all the politicians rebuffed their efforts, Gutierrez said.
Chuck Montano, a former head of the Hispanic Round Table, said he became involved in the dispute as an outgrowth of laboratory lay-offs in 1995 that were seen as discriminatory toward Hispanics and ultimately settled in court. Of the homesteader settlement, he said, "It's long overdue." He agreed that little came from Richardson's promises to help at the time, and that "forced the homesteaders to take the congressional route."
Gutierrez said and news reports in 2000 confirmed that then-Sec. Richardson offered the homesteaders a parcel of laboratory land for a monument to the Hispanic settlers and other assistance. "I looked at it," said Gutierrez. "It was unusable - wetlands, the skating rink - a place where the sun doesn't shine." It was the land through which the bypass road is now planned. Guitierrez said he has the whole history documented and plans to write a book. "We got shortchanged in 1942. We got shortchanged again with this settlement," he said.