Dam construction led to displacement of families

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FARMINGTON — For most residents of San Juan County, the Navajo Dam and Navajo Lake are two features of the local landscape that hold little significance beyond their utilitarian and recreational purposes.

But when construction of the dam began in 1958, it was not an action that began in a vacuum. The land upstream of the dam that would become part of the lake was home to several communities and hundreds of families that would find themselves displaced. Eventually, the rising water would obscure not just hundreds of homes, businesses, farms and ranches, but a way of life that had endured for generations.

The story of those families and communities will be told by a local historian and writer during a presentation Wednesday as part of the San Juan County Historical Society meeting. Patty Tharp will deliver a program on "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam: Los Martinez, Los Pinos, Rosa, and Los Arboles" during the meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Aztec Senior Center, 101 S. Park Ave. in Aztec.

Tharp's presentation will be based on a historical society booklet she is writing under the same name, although that project has been split into two volumes, with the first volume due for release in April.

A Farmington native, Tharp didn't grow up in the lost communities she chose to write about, but she felt a strong connection to them, all the same. She recalls in great detail attending the dedication ceremony for the new dam as a 10-year-old on a blistering hot September day in 1962. There were approximately 5,000 people in attendance, and they were treated to a keynote address by U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.

Over the ensuing years, Tharp and her family returned often, spending their summer days gliding across the water on their houseboat and making Navajo Lake an important element of her childhood.

Tharp eventually went to college, married and moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband, spending 40 years there. But after she moved back to Farmington in 2014 and became an active member of the historical society, she organized an excursion a couple of years later for a handful of society members to an annual celebration at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church just down the road from Navajo Dam.

The experience Tharp had that day triggered her desire to chronicle the tale of the villages that had been drowned or razed a half century earlier in the name of progress.

"I thought, 'Here are the descendants of the people who had to leave. Their story should be preserved,'" Tharp said.

The stories of the lost communities are not identical. Los Martinez was demolished, becoming the staging site for dam construction. It was home to a trailer park that would house 700 workers and their families while the dam was constructed from 1957 to 1962. Los Pinos, Rosa and Los Arboles were flooded by the slowly rising water, which obliterated any evidence of their existence.

The project led to the displacement of approximately 200 families, most of whom were given between one and three years to pack up and get out, depending on where they lived.

"It was absolutely devastating and shattering to many people," Tharp said, describing most of the affected residents as Hispano families who had spent decades sinking roots in the area. Most were poor subsistence farmers, politically unconnected, without the resources or knowledge to fight their displacement.

Tharp has been researching and writing about their plight for the last two years, relying heavily on the work of social scientist and author Frances Swadesh Quintana, who first wrote about the area's history and the construction of the dam in her book "Los Primeros Pobladores." Eventually, she would locate Adelia Martinez Velasquez, a victim of the displacement who was born in Los Martinez in 1934 and who would help connect her to other survivors and their descendants.

Tharp also relied heavily on government maps, census records, Catholic baptism and marriage documents, and newspaper obituaries. All that information helped reinforce and support her conclusion that what the people of the lost villages may have lacked in material riches, they more than made up for with a deep, abiding sense of community.

"These were close comrades," she said. "They could depend on each other through thick and thin."

After their displacement, the affected families scattered across the region, reuniting only occasionally, usually for funerals or feast days at the small Catholic churches that remain, Tharp said. But those gatherings make clear how strong those bonds still are, she said.

That makes the story of those families, and the communities they built, worth remembering, Tharp said.

"Anytime eminent domain. comes into the picture – no matter if it’s the expansion of a highway or a government office or a park or whatever – whenever people are displaced, it's sad," she said, adding that people seldom are fairly compensated for their losses in those situations by the government. "It's sad that those three communities are now underwater, and there is no going home. … They lost a wonderful sense of kinship and bond."

Today's meeting is open to the public.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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