The fight over 38 fertile acres of land next to the Rio Grande River and the Guatemalan families caught in the middle
When Francisco Lucas first planted his crops on a plot of land next to the Rio Grande River in Alamosa three years ago, he wasn’t sure what would grow best. So, he and around 16 other Guatemalan families tried just about everything- onions, corn, radishes, squash, fava beans, chard, cilantro.
“The first year Pedro said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if we can grow here.’ But it all grew, and he had to work even harder the next year,” Lucas joked and pointed to Pedro Lucas, who also grows on the nearly two acre plot.
In 2012, the Guatemalans’ main employer, the Rakhra Mushroom Farm, went bankrupt and laid off nearly 400 people- mostly Mayan immigrants from Guatemala. Many of the workers had come during the 1980s as refugees from Guatemala to escape a civil war.
Francisco Lucas has been in Alamosa for 28 years and has become a leader of sorts to the Guatemalan community. So, when the his people, who have never been on any type of government assistance before the farm closure, started running out of ways to provide for their families, he knew something had to be done for them.
In 2008, the Alamosa School Board planned to move Polston Elementary to a new location, which meant that it would be torn down leaving a playground and a 38-acres of land. An arrangement was made and the Guatemalans were able to plant crops on a portion of the land owned by the school district.
The land ended up being some of the most fertile in the San Luis Valley. It’s very similar to the soil Lucia Gaspar said she remembers in Guatemala.
Gaspar is shy and quietly weaves through the corn rows checking on her work. Between each stock of corn is either a squash plant or a fava bean plant. “It grows better that way,” she said. Though, she’s not sure why. It’s just the way she learned it.
The method can be traced back to Mesoamerican culture. The corn provides a growing pole for the beans, which fertilize the soil with nitrogen, and the shallow roots from the squash act as a mulch for the corn. It’s considered a sophisticated method because each plant compliments the nutrition of another, but Gaspar is just happy that it’s efficient. She can grow more in her ten or so rows.
Last year, the Guatemalan families were in danger of losing access to the farm- a feeling they knew too well.
A lawsuit over the future of the land quickly divided the town and left Lucas and the Guatemalan families wondering whether or not they’d have a place to to grow.
When Polston was demolished the school board began taking bids for the land, and it was fairly certain, from the outside at least, that the land would be used as an outdoor community center.
The land had been farmed before. A small garden grew for the Polston students and the community, and Luette Frost intended to keep it that way. Frost moved to Alamosa in 2002 and soon began volunteering at the Polston garden. Her and a group of people started talking about extending trails from Cole Park, across the river, to the land, adding a botanical garden and all-weather amphitheater and using some of the land for community gardens.
Nothing like their idea has been done anywhere in the state. The project started to sound real and even gained a name, the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park.
The land was appraised at $755,000, and a partnership with the Trust for Public Land, a national organization that works to protect lands like the HLP, made the price doable. The two groups would split the cost.
It all seemed like a done deal until May 2, 2013, when Frost received a call from a local reporter with information of another bid that had surfaced that morning at the school board meeting.
The county land surveyor, Dan Russell, put in a bid and presented a plan for a high-end RV park. He offered one-third less than what the HLP group and PLT were planning to pay, and the school board voted 6-1 to give it to Russell.
“It was very shocking, and that’s the truth,” said Renee Mackey, who ended up being the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to get the land back. Nobody had known about the bid. In a town of 10,000 people absolutely nobody has communicated Russell’s plan to Frost or the rest of the HLP group.
The HLP was just about to become reality, and suddenly the dream was being threatened. For Frost there would be no HLP, and for Lucas and his people there would be no garden.
A group of people challenged the sale and took it to court, and adopted the group-name Keep Poston Public. But even if they won, Lucas knew the lawsuit could take months, and it could prevent the Guatemalan families from using the land.
Fortunately, a deal was made and the families could continue to grow during the lawsuit.
The lawsuit triggered division among Alamosa. Some believed the RV park would bring in tourists and create real economic development for the city. In court, Russell claimed the 200 RV spots would provide the city with $50,000 per year in property taxes. Others believed the HLP would best benefit the community, and had a right to it because the bid was higher.
In the end, the KPP group got the land but not without a price. To buy the land, Russell was asking for $900,000 by June 27, 2014. In about four months, the group was able to raise the extra $400,000 needed to complete the purchase.
For two summers Lucas was worried that it would be his last on the land. This year, on September 20, the families have planned a harvest celebration, and they no longer worry that it’s their last summer, Lucas said.
For Mackey, the harvest is more than just the produce. The Guatemalan families have been a good source of encouragement for the project.
“It’s a good example of what can be done with this land and what inspires us.”
The current goal for the HLP is paying off the debt that has accumulated in the purchasing process. The $700,000 loan that was acquired for purchasing and operating costs will hopefully be paid off in two years, Mackey said, and there’s been a lot of cleaning the land up- cutting weeds, mostly.
Lucas is happy. And there’s talk of the mushroom farm reopening. The Guatemalans seem to have mastered uncertainty, especially in the past three years. But Lucas, Gaspar and Pedro Lucas face it with grace. Things are looking up.
Mackey and the KPP group would agree.