Lower Rio Grande, New Mexico

Diverse Peoples, Arid Landscapes, and the Built Environment

Ane González Lara

Southern New Mexico is a land of harsh contrasts, sublime landscapes, and silenced stories. The region selected for this work, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, encompasses the counties of Socorro, Doña Ana, Sierra, Otero, and Luna. Since 1598, this land has experienced multiple waves of colonization, resulting in a multicultural community where Indigenous tribes, Spanish descendants, Mexican immigrants, and many others cohabitate. Today, around 336,000 New Mexicans call these five counties home, over a stretch of land that covers 24,212 square miles. 

Southern New Mexico is defined by its people and landscapes. By analyzing the connection between the two, one can start to understand the issues the area faces today.  

Rio Grande Valley in Las Cruces, NM. Credit: Video by John Acosta

Maps of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Credit: Ane González Lara

New Mexicans

The cultural makeup of New Mexico is best understood through its history. Before New Mexico was colonized by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, the region was home to a diverse group of Native American tribes, including the Pueblo people who lived in small towns along the Rio Grande valley, as well as the nomadic Navajo and Apache. Over the next 300 years, following the first permanent Spanish settlement of 1598, the Camino Real made its way along the Rio Grande, connecting Mexico City to Santa Fe and turning the region into a heavily trafficked commercial route.

The arrival of the conquistadors in today’s New Mexico was marked by the violent subjugation of the Pueblo people to Spanish rule, the forced conversion to Christianity, and the abandonment of ancient cultural practices, including religious dances and prayer rituals. Though the Spanish population grew slowly in New Mexico, oppressive rule and cultural conflict, as well as failing crops and subsequent famine, led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which successfully pushed the Spanish to the south. However, Spanish rule returned to New Mexico 12 years later and continued for generations. It is estimated that 40,000 Puebloans lived in the region before Spanish colonization. By 1800, only about 10,000 were left.

In 1821, New Mexico achieved its independence from Spain, becoming a province of Mexico. In 1848, through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, New Mexico became a territory of the United States, achieving statehood in 1912. Through these years, the presence of Native Americans in the region was further diminished by American occupation and the raids and battles of its “Indian Wars.”

The latest census data on the five counties analyzed in this report reflect the enduring effects of colonization in the region. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, “American Indians” constitute only 4.2% of the total population, those identified as Hispanic or Latino represent a majority at 59.3%, and “non-Hispanic” whites make 32.4% of the population. The area struggles economically; with a median income of $48,059, New Mexico is one of the five poorest states in the country.

The region’s dire economic situation is partly caused and exacerbated by the intergenerational trauma created by this long history of cultural subjugation. The continued violence that the US–Mexico border and its infrastructure imposes on the land divides a region—and people—that belong together. Today, the theatrical and hegemonic presence of this infrastructure is found even miles away from the border, impeding the growth and healing this region so desperately needs.

This reality is evident to Lucia Carmona, an activist whose stoic work in the New Mexican colonias—rural communities along the border that lack adequate infrastructure—is described in one of the interviews included in this report.

Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, NM. Credit: Video by John Acosta

For the Indigenous peoples of southern New Mexico, the systemic historical erasure of their cultures and practices has been compounded by the lack of institutional support to document and promote the ancient knowledge of their ancestors. This is beginning to change. Today, more public schools and universities are including this knowledge in their curricula, such as at a public school Carmona cofounded in Las Cruces that teaches Indigenous languages, traditions, songs, and even recipes to local children. At the higher education level, Ted Jojola leads the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute at the University of New Mexico, where he works with communities in the design and planning of public spaces by deploying culturally responsive practices. In their essay, Jojola and Saray Argumedo, a doctoral student exploring and implementing decolonizing-participatory methodologies, explain how they have utilized the PUEBLO analysis technique—a translation of planning tools and methodologies into Indigenous concepts and frameworks—in the Ysleta del Sur community.

Arid landscapes near Elephant Butte, New Mexico. Credit: John Acosta

Arid Landscapes

Rather than using the word desert, New Mexicans refer to their landscapes as arid. Water scarcity has determined land use and settlement patterns for generations, and it continues to be one of the many challenges that the region faces today.

The arid landscapes of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the low human density they can support has provided seclusion for people seeking alternative lifestylesas well as secrecy for those wishing to test new projects. This was the case for the Trinity Site, the location of the 1945 test of the first atomic bomb, an event that caused significant harm to the region’s ecosystem and inhabitants. This site was selected for its isolated location, dry climate, and cheap land. Due to the required military secrecy, those living in the area were neither told of the test nor evacuated by the government. The Manhattan Project, the code name of the overall US-led plan to develop an atomic weapon, was kept secret from the public, and even to some of the scientists who worked on it.  

When the first bomb was detonated over the Trinity Site in 1945, people from the surrounding communities felt a heat similar to “standing directly in front of a roaring fireplace” and experienced a blast that “created a flash [of] light brighter than [a] dozen suns,” according to the Community Summary of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) Project. However, instrument malfunction and secrecy resulted in scarce documentation of the effects of radioactive materials on the people living near the site.

In an interview, Tina Cordova narrates the experiences of a community that has suffered from legacies of environmental racism and shares her fight to get this group, known as the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) amendment.

The government’s failure to recognize and address the challenges local populations have faced in the wake of the bomb are not unique to this region. As Princeton University professor Rob Nixon wrote in his 2013 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor:  

In the long arc between the emergence of slow violence and its delayed effects, both the causes and the memory of catastrophe easily fade from the view as the casualties incurred typically pass untallied and unremembered. Such discounting in turn makes it far more difficult to secure effective legal measures for prevention, restitution, and redress. 

Indigenous communities have also suffered in the aftermath of the Manhattan Project due to contamination of water and cattle by radioactive materials that have remained in the area for decades. Despite this, from 1991 to 1996, the Mescalero Apache Reservation evaluated the option to host a monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility to store nuclear waste in its Otero County land. The facility would have stored over 20,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel for up to 40 years in exchange for money and jobs. 

Oliver Enjady, an elder of the Mescalero Apache tribe, and Lyla June Johnston, an environmental scientist, activist, and songwriter, delve into the Mescalero Apache tribe’s connection to water and the environment in their song and poem Water Is Life (Oliver’s Song).

As evidenced in Oliver and Lyla’s song, water—a scarce resource in New Mexico—is a sacred element to many Indigenous peoples of the region. Over the last 100 years, the average annual rainfall in the five analyzed counties was 11.3 inches, compared to an average national mean of 29.94 inches during the same period. An elaborate system of community irrigation ditches, or acequias, is still utilized in New Mexico to distribute surface water to distant fields, allowing the irrigation of crops that otherwise wouldn’t survive in the arid climate. A complex set of national and local laws establish who, how, and where water is utilized in the state.

The Rio Grande, also known as the Rio Bravo, starts in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, passing through New Mexico and Texas before ending in the Gulf of Mexico. It is estimated that the river provides drinking water for over 13 million people. Elephant Butte Reservoir in Sierra County marks the division of the river’s upper and lower basins. The reservoir is the largest body of water in the state. As described by Staci Matlock in local newspaper The New Mexican, “Elephant Butte Reservoir is the Rio Grande bank account for Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Every year, it’s the place where their water debits and credits are counted.”1Learn more here. 

In her article, Kathleen Kambic utilizes a set of maps and graphics to explain the complex system of boundaries and laws that govern the management of the Rio Grande’s water as it makes its way through Elephant Butte reservoir.

In New Mexico, 75% of the statewide total water is utilized for agriculture. The main crops found in the Lower Rio Grande region are chiles, pecans, onions, pears, and apples. At current water consumption and population growth rates, the water supply for many of the state’s border communities is expected to be depleted in 20 to 30 years.

Responding to this reality, New Mexicans are seeking alternative food production practices that manage water more efficiently. One business that has found its perfect ecosystem in New Mexico is the booming algae industry. As Miguel Calatayud, the CEO of algae company Qualitas Health, says in an interview featured in this report, the company’s Columbus, New Mexico, algae farm “produces 300 times the amino acids and essential nutrients per acre, compared to traditionally farmed crops such as peas.” The farm sits on non-arable land; its production system utilizes a closed loop of brackish water, offering a promising alternative to traditional agriculture.

Rio Grande Valley in Las Cruces, New Mexico, by John Acosta

The complex challenges described in this report aren’t new to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In fact, it is their perennial nature and cumulative impacts that have led to so much harm. In the following report, eight features from diverse voices capture the challenges and potential of the region. These features include personal narratives and stories that historically haven’t been included in the main narrative of this area. Far from aiming to have all the answers, the report highlights the voices of people who collectively form this larger community. Together, they are writing the next chapter of southern New Mexico’s history.  

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a region largely overlooked by the rest of the United States, one finds many of the issues facing the country today: legacies of environmental racism, water scarcity, border security, indigenous rights, agricultural distress, diversity and multiculturalism. Rather than just a place with awe-inspiring skies and landscapes, it is also a place that focuses us all on these questions and dilemmas, and thus becomes a unique learning opportunity for those seeking to understand. 

As J.B. Jackson notes at the beginning of his essay Looking at New Mexico, “We learn about history by reading it in school; we learn to see it when we travel, and for Americans the place where we see most clearly the impact of time on a landscape is New Mexico.” 

Collage. Credit: Ane González Lara


Ane González Lara

is an assistant professor at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture and the co-founder of Idyll Projects. González Lara previously taught at the University of New Mexico for three years and continues to split her time between Santa Fe and Brooklyn. Her professional work with Idyll Projects balances social and cultural concerns with extensive formal and material research. González Lara’s research interests include pedagogy as well as social and climate justice as they relate to the built environment. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Architectural Pedagogies of the Global South, forthcoming in summer 2021.  

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


“70 Years after Atomic Bomb Test, N.M. Residents Still Affected.” CBS News, July 16, 2015, accessed February 17, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/70-years-after-atomic-bomb-test-new-mexico-residents-still-affected/. 

Ball, Martin. “Sacred Mountains, Religious Paradigms, and Identity among the Mescalero Apache.” Worldviews 4, no. 3 (2000): 264–82. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43809174

Bird, Michael Yellow. “What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples’ Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Identity Labels.” American Indian Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1999): 1. https://doi.org/10.2307/1185964. 

Cash, Marie Romero. “The Colonization of New Mexico.” In Santos: Enduring Images of Northern New Mexican Village Churches, 5-8. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1999. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nw41.5.

“Current Map | United States Drought Monitor.” Accessed February 6, 2020. https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap.aspx. 

Douglass, John G., and William M. Graves. “New Mexico and the Pimería Alta: A Brief Introduction to the Colonial Period in the American Southwest.” In New Mexico and the Pimería Alta: The Colonial Period in the American Southwest, edited by John G. Douglass and William M. Graves, 3-46. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1mmftg6.

Edgington, Ryan H. “Atomic Attractions.” In Range Wars: The Environmental Contest for White Sands Missile Range, 53-82. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1d9nn28.7. 

Gutzler, David S. “New Mexico’s Changing Climate.” Natural Resources Journal 45, no. 2 (2005): 277–82. https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nrj/vol45/iss2/2.

Henderson, Martha L. “Settlement Patterns on the Mescalero Apache Reservation since 1883.” Geographical Review 80, no. 3 (1990): 226–38. https://doi.org/10.2307/215301. 

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz, and John Brinckerhoff Jackson. “J. B. Jackson and the Discovery of the American Landscape.” In Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, ix-xxxi. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997.  

Hurd, Brian H., and Julie Coonrod. “Climate Change Risks New Mexico’s Waterways: Its Byways and Its Flyways.” Water Resources IMPACT 10, no. 4 (2008): 5–9. 

Jackson, Hal. Following the Royal Road: A Guide to the Historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. 

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. “An Engineered Environment.” In Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, 225–35. Yale University Press, 1997.  

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. “Looking at New Mexico.” In Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, 55–67. Yale University Press, 1997.  

Jojola, Ted. “Indigenous Planning—An Emerging Context.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 17, no. 1 (2008): 37–47. 

Jojola, Ted, and Paul Ong. “Indian Gaming as Community Economic Development.” In Jobs and Economic Development in Minority Communities, edited by Paul Ong and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, 213–32. Temple University Press, 2006.  

LAHDRA Community Summary of CDC’s Los Alamos Historical Document Tretrieval and Assessment (LAHRDA) Project. Accessed August 15, 2020. https://wwwn.cdc.gov/LAHDRA/Content/pubs/ 

Las Cruces Sun-News. “Locking down Revenue: Small NM Towns Profit from Incarcerating Migrants.” June 24, 2019, accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/local/new-mexico/2019/06/24/new-mexico-towns-profit-migrant-detention/1531764001/. 

Li, Yongmei, Stephen D. Arnold, Charles Kozel, and Sue Forster-Cox. “Water Availability and Usage on the New Mexico/Mexico Border.” Journal of Environmental Health 68, no. 3 (2005): 10-17. Accessed September 15, 2020.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16312251/

Lippard, Lucy R. Undermining : A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West. New York, New York: The New Press, 2013.

Lower Rio Grande, Interstate Stream Commission. Accessed, August 15, 2020 https://www.ose.state.nm.us/Basins/RioGrande/lowerRioGrande.php.

Masco, Joseph. “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico.” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 4 (2004): 517–50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3651590.

Meyer, Lorenzo. “El Primer Tramo Del Camino.” In Historia General de México, edited by Daniel Cosío Villegas, 4th, reimpresión ed., 1183–1272. Volumen II. Colegio de Mexico, 1994. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv47wf8q.8. 

“NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information – Climate at Glance data.” Accessed August 15, 2020 https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/national/time-series/110/pcp/ann/12/1895-2020?base_prd=true&begbaseyear=1901&endbaseyear=2000 

Sachs, Noah. “The Mescalero Apache Indians and Monitored Retrievable Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Study in Environmental Ethics.” Natural Resources Journal 36, no. 4 (1996): 881-912. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24885769.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011. 

Perramond, Eric. “Atomic Borderlands: Teaching the (End of the) Earth.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 21, no. 1 (2010): 99–111. 

Robyn, Linda M. “Environmental Racism: Contaminated Water in Indigenous and Minority Communities.” In Indigenous Environmental Justice, edited by Karen Jarratt-Snider and Marianne O. Nielsen, 92-114. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2020.

Sachs, Noah. “The Mescalero Apache Indians and Monitored Retrievable Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Study in Environmental Ethics.” Natural Resources Journal 36, no. 4 (1996): 881-912 

Staski, Edward. “Ephemeral Sites and Inertia along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: Evidence from Nearly Two Decades of Archaeological Research.” In Contemporary Archaeologies of the Southwest, edited by William H. Walker and Kathryn R. Venzor, 245–60. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2011.  

Thorpe, Grace. “Our Homes Are Not Dumps: Creating Nuclear-Free Zones.” Natural Resources Journal 36, no. 4 (1996): 955-63. https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nrj/vol36/iss4/12 

Tidwell, Vincent C., Ari M. Michelsen, Javier Aparicio, and Howard D. Passell. “The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo – A River of Change.” Water Resources IMPACT 6, no. 3 (2004): 14-17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/wateresoimpa.6.3.0014.

Union of Concerned Scientists. “Confronting Climate Change in New Mexico: Action Needed Today to Prepare the State for a Hotter, Drier Future.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016. 

Williams, Paul. “Race and the Manhattan Project.” In Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War: Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds, 1st ed., 40:180–201. Liverpool, United Kingdom: Liverpool University Press, 2011.  

Wright, John B., and Carol L. Campbell. “Landscape Change In Hispano And Chicano Villages Of New Mexico.” Geographical Review 98, no. 4 (October 1, 2008): 551–65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40377353.