by Carmen Baca
Somos Norteños, 15,500 of us strong, más o menos. Between April and May of 2022, the majority of us fled the flames of the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire. I’m pretty sure most waited until the absolute last moment to evacuate like we did, and I know more than a few never left. This place we call God’s Country runs through our veins; it’s our herencia and our querencia woven by familial roots going back centuries. In the thick of the fire, pulling ourselves away from our homesteads remains one of our collectively poignant and most painful memories.
When the panic struck and we knew we couldn’t stay, I said, “Ya por Dios,” and left
our house and land in God’s hands. We fled through black smoke and red flames the night of April 22, 2022. “Que Dios nos salve,” I prayed. Only He could save us now. Driving the 20 miles to the nearest town, we joined a caravan of Norteños de Las Tusas and San Ignacio. At the crossroads of Sapello, we took turns entering the line of vehicles coming from Mora 20 miles north of us.
We Norteños populate something like 30 rural communities, small towns, and ranchitos between the southern border of Colorado to Las Vegas—the original one—in New Mexico. The fires affected every one of us, physically, emotionally, mentally, in ways we’d never thought possible in our relatively safe corner of the world. A year later, we still experience flashbacks from red sunsets, high winds, small, low-flying aircraft, or the smell of smoke; the acongoja, the distress, brings on a renewed panic, sometimes an internal hysteria we push down to prevent our screams from bursting forth.
Before la Floresta ignited the largest fire in our state’s history, we had never experienced a huge and devastating disaster. Our tornados spun by the winds are mere dust devils; our earthquakes register barely a blip on the Richter scale; our avalanches are more like minor landslides; and our floods, rare and far between. Until now. Burn scar flooding taught us a lesson about the power of water we could’ve lived fine without knowing firsthand. But that came later, even before the final flame of the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire was extinguished—137 days after it erupted.
But it was those early spring days we remember most, the horror of being in the path of destruction we had no hand in creating and no way of preventing. Catastrophic was the word the Southwest Incident Management Operations Section Chief used for the last two weekends of April and the first one in May with Red Flag winds of 70 miles per hour. The bone-chilling possibilities supplied by our fears increased as pictures and videos took over social media. We recognized vecinos y primos from places as familiar as our own back yards on the local and then the national news. Flames licking at their montañas or pasturas in the background. Familia rushing to get livestock into trailers, corralling their children and pets. “Ya por Dios,” I said, putting into God’s hands what I couldn’t control. Surely, it would be contained before it reached us. “Dios nos salve,” I prayed, visualizing myself cortando las nubes many times over the next weeks.
The fire maps also contributed to our unease, our downright terrified day-to-day existence, most especially on those three consecutive weekends. We watched in horror as the red parameters grew and approached our lands closer by the day until they covered the dots marking our homes. The spring of 2022 did a number on us all. One we still feel a year later, wondering when or if a sense of normalcy will return. What’s hard is what we see when we look out the windows or go outside. A visual, constant reminder in the vista that we live in the aftermath.
When evacuation orders lifted, our roads opened, and those of us who had left went home. For me, it had been 19 tense days of stomach-chewing anxiety and fear creeping between episodes of downright panicked hysteria. Traveling north, I passed burn scars for the first time, some still smoldering, all the way with little breaks in the blackened landscape. Everything had changed. Almost a thousand of us lost our homes. Todos perdímos algo: we all lost something. Forests, meadows, plains, and more. Some lost livestock, and a good number lost livelihoods: the Christmas tree farmers, los leñeros, los jardineros, sawmill owners, farmers, ranchers, artisans, among others. But we returned, and we’re still here. We face the landscape forever changed and rise to the challenge of rebuilding, replanting, restoring the land, accepting no alternative, even knowing the recovery of our forests will take 120 years.
They won’t resemble those beloved places we grew up exploring until they became familiar. Our meadows won’t grow the grasses our livestock need, not for a while; the dirt which burned has no nutrients. Beneath the pines is a dirt of a different color and texture, like the ashes of a loved one, which, in a sense, it is. Places which survived the fire flooded when the monsoons came. The waters running through the burn scars left debris, fallen trees, and even boulders where oats, alfalfa, or winter wheat thrived before. The banks of our creeks and rivers and the acequias they fed eroded. The places in the ríos of our childhoods where we played and swam are gone. The floods rerouted the waters; they bear no resemblance to how we remember them. Pictures from our past are evidence of that.
In the years to come, they say the floods will be worse. The tierra can’t absorb the water, and because the first flood season bared the landscape in many locations, it has no obstacles to stop it. It spreads like lakes into our meadows.
Everything changed because la Floresta ignited two prescribed burns months apart. The infernos merged and consumed 341,471 acres of Norteño lands and national forests surrounding us. Yet, the USFS plans to resume the practice. We pray common sense and prudence speak louder this time in the minds of those making decisions. Would that we had a vote. We hear of disasters in other places; it’s tragic no matter how they start. The aftermath is something else.
Ours differs because of herencia. We own these tierras now because our ancestors passed them down to us as we intend for our progeny. But our generation is handing it down less pristine than it was, a foreign vista forever damaged. Therein lies the pain and what sets us apart from others. One dictionary defines us as “people originally from northern Mexico and southwestern US.” Many of our antepasados came from Mexico to settle here. Others came from Spain. And many were indigenous to the US. A good number of us descend from Serbians and Sephardic Jews. Some of us are mestizos, those of Native American and Spanish descent, like me. We can trace our roots to the 1400s. Our tierra is our legacy. So, when the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire consumed 534 square miles, much of it was our inheritance. The disaster took more from us than from most survivors of such tragedies elsewhere. Those of us living on the lands now, who have been raising cosechas, jardines y arboleras, livestock for decades, feel the pull of querencia. That’s why we stay. Otherworldly now, this is still home in body, mind, and spirit.
Our roots too deeply entrenched in these tierras don’t allow us to venture far. And we always come back. Many of my Martinez or Valdez relatives living in neighboring states, mainly Colorado y Califa, make their pilgrimages to return home. Coming from LA, Oakland, and Berkeley, Brighton, Denver, Rocky Ford, Manzanola, and Pueblo, nuestros primos, tíos y tías, y más who left from here to there—they feel the pull of their Norteño roots to come back.
Norteños feel the connection to this place, the “no place like home” comfort of familiar, familial territory. That’s what makes this catastrophe so much more severe to us as a people. The terrain is forever altered, making our memories of how it was so much more poignant. As a culture, it’s important to us that others realize how much was taken from us with this disaster. All of us lost something of the legacies we saw thrive in our lifetimes. All of us will persevere. We have no choice.
Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for 36 years before retiring in 2014. As a Chicana, a Norteña native to New Mexico, she seeks to preserve elements of her culture through regionalism to prevent them from dying completely. She is the author of six books and multiple short publications from prose to poetry in a variety of genres.