Mexican Americans are still fighting for land they were promised generations ago

The Southwest was once part of Mexico. When the U.S. took over, families there were promised citizenship and protection of their land. Their descendants are still fighting to reclaim what’s theirs.
12:58 | 10/01/20

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Transcript for Mexican Americans are still fighting for land they were promised generations ago
Many people think of the dividing line between the U.S. And Mexico as fixed, as something that's always been there, but 172 years ago, what we now consider the southwest wasn't part of the U.S. At all. It was actually the north-most part of Mexico. But the U.S. Was not content with what it had, pushing west ward to seize the land that many presidents believed was America's destiny. To reach that goal, president James Polk provoked war with Mexico, after a long and bloody battle. The U.S. Occupied much of Mexico. The two countries decided to work up an agreement, and mex ceded half their country to the United States. This part was important. There was an agreement called the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The agreement protected the rights of any Mexican whose land was now part of the U.S. But, when the treaty got sent to congress, the senate removed the part that protected the land claims of Mexicans who now lived in America. This would forever change the fate of generations of mexican-americans to come. My body tells me when to stop. My family has settled this area for literally centuries. So we have very deep, deep, native roots here. We're at the top in New Mexico, established in 1739. Our eastern boundary was the top of the crest. The crest of the mountain. So that was the original boundary. We've lost some land through the years. At one point, several years ago, we were on a land grant and had 123,000 acres of land. Today it has approximately 400 acres. My name is Andrea Padilla. America owes us the opportunity to take care of our own communities. My name is Rita Padilla ortay gas. I think gaining some of our land back would be justice. This is kind of our land grant here we have the patent, signed by Ulysses grant. This is the patent that was granted after the war with Mexico and the treaty to honor our land grant, and it's signed by Ulysses grant. Later they stole our mountain, so. I'm a land grant heir. Half of our soul was here before Columbus ever hit the sand. We come from some of the Spanish communities that came over as well as native-american communities, so we're sort of mestizo, we're mixed. This was my grandfather's plot. So this is a traditional house. On this side you can see they used adobe. My dad grew up here and left in the '70s. Didn't have opportunities. That's the stuff that's hard to swallow, when you're like, man, this is something that was in our family and belonged to us, because of circumstances beyond our control, this drives the work that I do, working with land grant communities and trying to get justice for our communities. There's a huge disparity here in terms of poverty, in terms of education. These communities have been left behind. The land grant and the treaty issues is probably what you consider the first Latino issue in this country, and it's still unresolved. What happened with mexican-americans in some ways is a quintessential American story. We like to tell ourselves that we are a country of great values and that we follow through on the promises that we make, but, again and again we saw that the federal government would make promises to groups and then would just turn its back on those promises. When Mexico negotiates the treaty in good faith, what it doesn't understand is that for the United States, only whites have the right to full citizenship, and so the territorial government systematically go about disenfranchising all Mexican citizens whom they deem to not be white. So this is a collection of documents that spans all the way from the late Spanish colonial period, all the way through the 20 years into the U.S. Territorial period. This grant goes from over 400,000 acre grants to a 1422 acre grant. They've reduced this down to about 4500 acres. You know, the longevity that we have in this place, you know, that these communities existed 100, 150 years before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, our identity is tied to place, but we don't see that place as having an identity without us, either. It defines us just as much as we define it. It hurt my father deeply. Because he fought till the very end, you know, telling people, you can't do this, you can't do this. Once you sell your land, you're nothing, you lose your culture, everything. This land should never have been sold, it should still be ours, so people who didn't have a lot of acreage other than that lost their way of life. I just don't think people get the passion that's attached to this. It's the history, for god's sake. Plain and simple. Your language, your customs. Your food, your traditions. But for us, it's being a land-based people. Today there's a lot of rhetoric about the Mexicans and anti-mexican. It does hit me in the heart. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. What happens when the vast majority of those people are dispossessed when that land is given to white settlers? The representation of these Mexicans as barberous. We always worked hard. And we made a living, and we did the right thing. So when they talk about lazy Mexicans or these Mexicans are all drug dealers and murders, I'm like, where? I haven't seen that, I'm not, you know. Some of these questions of racism that are surfacing, for communities like us, we know it's ever gone away. We've always felt it, we've always known it. We've been on the receiving end of it either through institutions, bureaucracies or the individual level. Back in the '60s, there was an individual by the name of Reyes Lopez. 50 million Americans have a He came to New Mexico preaching the treaty and telling the people that they were going to lose their land. That kind of culminates in a courthouse, a raid, ends up in a shootout. Like, hey, there's a civil war in New Mexico and these people are fed up, and they send in the National Guard. They put all the heirs of land grants in a corral like sheep. So the move to chicano is precisely a move to reclaim our own indigenous heritage, our own original belonging to these that's why the movement is a huge part of the chicano movement, because they were articulating it completely saying we have these land grants, and we want these land grants honored. He opened our eyes. He taught us, and we've always tried that. I'm here on behalf of the new Mexico land grant council. So what the current legislation does is it would create a federal definition of traditional uses on federal lands for land grant communities, access to fuel wood to heat your home, access to pasture to graze your livestock, and it would require the federal government to consult with them. The dream would be that we'd get our land back. I also think our communities are due some type of reparations in terms of monetary compensation. What that figure looks like, probably $2.7 billion. Not to pay individuals but communities. We are going to have a museum where we think kids will spend one night, the idea is to keep the legacy alive, not destroy and forget the history. We don't want handouts, we want to provide for ourselves. Justice would be giving us that opportunity to do that. I know that the hard work of my dad and my grandfather and great grandfather, that their blood, sweat and tears, that that's something that I have to make sure that none of that was for vain and that their hopes and dreams survive on and survive on in their kids and my kids. We've always been here, and we're not going anywhere. This is who we are. This is where we come from, this is our land, and we're going to protect it, and we're going to continue to be here as long as we possibly can.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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