RINCONADA — Casey Sánchez stood by a partially restored 1955 GMC truck in the debris-strewn dirt in front of his trailer and shook his head.
“They are coming after me like a target,” he said.
He was referring to state and federal agencies that, in his view, have been harassing him for years over his roughly 1.1-acre salvage yard just off N.M. 68 on the southern side of the Embudo Valley village of Rinconada, about 47 miles north of Santa Fe, where he restores old vehicles and sells them.
On Tuesday, crews from the New Mexico Department of Transportation cleared out old cars and trucks, a mobile home, firewood, wooden pallets and other items that had been sitting in Sánchez’s front yard for years.
He said the operation took a toll on his business, Sánchez Restoration. But he still hopes to restore his father’s old 1929 Model T, sitting in a corner of his backyard surrounded by other vehicles and debris in a fenced area where he keeps about 15 sheep and a couple of white dogs.
His neighbor, Kim Deuel — whose husband, John, had come by Tuesday to help Sánchez move some vehicles at the last minute to prevent them from being seized — said she felt like state officials were ripping up the man’s life.
“It’s just junk to those who see it as junk,” she said.
The Transportation Department says it wasn’t a question of whether the material — old cars from decades past, assorted bric-a-brac and a bus (which Sánchez managed to save) — was rubbish. Rather, the action was the result of years of inaction on Sánchez’s part.
The department repeatedly had asked him to clear out the area between the fence that surrounds his trailer and the rim of the nearby highway, a distance of about 100 feet.
“His stuff was encroaching on the right of way there,” said Marisa Maez, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. “It wasn’t impeding traffic, but we need room [on the side of the road] for people to pull over and for emergency vehicles to respond if there’s a crash. We had to do something.”
Sánchez said he had been scrambling to clean up the area before state crews arrived. At 63, he said, it wasn’t easy. He lost his mother in December, he said, and he’s still reeling, emotionally and physically, from a battle he had with U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials about 15 years ago, when his collection of debris was encroaching on public land adjacent to his property.
In that much-publicized case, BLM officials joined U.S. marshals in an early morning raid in September 2004 in an effort to move the haul. Saying they feared Sánchez might threaten them, the officials first made him turn over two guns and then led him outside at gunpoint as they prepared to bulldoze the site.
Sánchez was briefly handcuffed as crews removed what was described in news accounts at the time as “car batteries, motor oil, transmission fluid and barrels of stuff unknown.”
He still thinks federal authorities are after him.
To Sánchez and John Deuel, the recent back-and-forth between the state and Sánchez — who said he was born in nearby Dixon but has lived on the Rinconada property since 1970 — speaks to the conflict over land that can still erupt in the West.
Sánchez has long maintained that his family inherited hundreds of acres of land from the Embudo Land Grant, a 1725 treaty that gave land adjacent to Picuris Pueblo to Spanish settlers. The question of whether the grant was still valid initially made its way to court over 140 years later; the court decided the heirs to the grant had no rights to it because they no longer held the original land title.
State Historian Rob Martinez said that became a legal loophole.
“Heck,” he said, “even by the late 1700s, they needed a copy because the original documents were tattered.”
Issues surrounding the centuries-old land grants are very much alive across New Mexico today.
“Obviously, lands were granted under the Spanish monarch and under Mexican rule, so what you had was a system that had been in place since the 1600s,” Martinez said. “And while the United States promised to honor those land grants, they became problems in the American court system.
“You had a bunch of Americans making New Mexicans fight for their lands in a system that [New Mexicans] had no idea how to work.”
Sánchez said he and his father, the late Joe Sánchez, have fought for years, unsuccessfully, to prove the land is theirs.
“I’m not done fighting,” Sánchez said.
Meanwhile, he said, the state Department of Transportation has hampered his ability to make a living.
Paul Brasher, an engineer for the department’s District 5, which includes Rinconada, said Sánchez was given time to comply with mandates.
He sent Sánchez an initial notification letter in June 2018 telling him the vehicles and other objects on his property were in violation of the Department of Transportation’s right-of-way regulations, Basher said, adding the department gave Sánchez 30 days to comply or to request a hearing on the issue.
Sánchez opted for a hearing, which was held in late July 2018 in Santa Fe.
In November, a panel of three Transportation Department supervisors ruled against Sánchez. He then was given another 30 days to comply, Brasher said. But because the department did not want to push the issue during the winter months, he added, it waited until summer to move the debris.
“We had to draw the line,” Brasher said.
Sánchez’s case is the first in a planned move to pursue a “cleanup campaign in the N.M. 68 corridor,” Basher said. “We have a number of properties that we will pursue. Mr. Sánchez’s isn’t the first ever, but it’s the first one we’ve conducted in a long time.”
Brasher said he expects other transportation districts to follow suit.
Sánchez said he still doesn’t understand why, if the property is his — the Transportation Department doesn’t dispute that — he can’t do with it what he wants with it. He said he finds it insulting when people say he is running a junkyard.
“It’s not junk,” he said. “I save history.”
John Deuel said Sánchez is an ace at restoring the old vehicles in his yard and is the sort of neighbor who helps anyone who needs it.
Sánchez said that’s been his way for most of his life, as it was his father’s before him.
He sees that way of life disappearing in the Embudo Valley.
He will host a community rally in early September, he said, to bring neighbors together and discuss ways to “get Embudo back.”
In the meantime, he sat looking at the vacant yard in front of his trailer, shaking his head.
“I don’t understand how this all goes around,” he said. “They say history repeats itself. Ain’t that the truth? But I’m not happy with how it’s repeating itself here.”