It took me less than half a century to get around to reading one of the classic books of my youth, The Milagro Beanfield War (1974) by John Nichols. The book is set in northern New Mexico in 1972. The several hundred souls occupying the little village of Milagro include a diverse cast of characters who are poor in material wealth, but rich in culture, self-sufficiency, and whimsy.
The bad guy in this one is a wealthy land developer named Ladd Devine who hopes to expand his property holdings and influence through the construction of a dam, which poses an existential threat to Milagro. As has been the case throughout much of our history, Devine has little regard for the families who have occupied this space for 300 years; native inhabitants intermixed with those who arrived at this northern outpost of what used to be a Spanish-American empire.
The people of Milagro have already learned what it means when a man like Devine promises that his idea of land development will benefit all. The disruption to their lives began decades earlier—a story Nichols explores in the second of this New Mexico Trilogy, The Magic Journey. By 1972, Milagro was divided by a north-south highway which aptly demarcates “the other side of the tracks.” On the west are the villagers I have described living on land that has been “legally” denied access to the most precious resource of the region; water. It is very dry and dusty on this side of the road.
On the eastern side are found the beneficiaries of Devine-style land development; relatively new arrivals, mostly white, living in luxury with manicured lawns and swimming pools.
It is the 1970s and still the North American land grab continues; although in a fashion suited to the sensibilities of the civil rights era. In other words, rather than just take it, those with money use social, political, and financial power to manipulate the bureaucracies in their favor. In this case, Ladd Devine plots directly with officials from the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico’s state government, including the governor and a “hired gun” state investigator and, with a bit of guilty reluctance, the Mexican mayor and sheriff of Milagro.
As a cash-based economy displaces old economic arrangements, impoverished people are tempted with opportunities to prosper within the new order of things. As it turns out, the opportunities are thin and fleeting. While a few of the Milagroans do well, mainly by selling out their friends and family, most find themselves living on land which is now being taxed by the bureaucracies that favor growth, development, and “progress.” Whereas land ownership had long been largely based upon agreements among people who had lived together for centuries, the new arrivals have secured for themselves the rule of law; their law.
Unable to pay their taxes to support the infrastructure of the recreation area they oppose, and often unable to even prove that they own what their families have owned for generations, the citizens of Milagro are forced to sell off parcels of land at rock-bottom prices just to feed themselves; that is, until handyman/hustler Joe Mondragón diverts enough “illegal” water to irrigate less than an acre of his parched land. He then plows it and plants his beans.
A woman named Ruby Archuleta sees the beanfield as a symbolic opportunity to save their town and her initial efforts get the attention of Devine and company.
Gathering his cronies to protect their investments, the capitalists begin to realize they have a potential war on their hands. “Those people up there have traditionally had long fuses,” the state engineer named Bookman informs them, “but they do have fuses, as any of you gentlemen who’s studied this state’s history a little knows.” Proceeding cautiously but with the hope of undermining Joe and Ruby, he adds, “We go to Milagro, maybe, talk with people, find the weak links. Maybe float a little money, see who nibbles, make a few promises… Seed a rumor. Mondragón has a hair-trigger temper. Get him to assault someone, an official of our office, or a cop – put him away for a time until things cool down.”
When asked whether Mondragón will eventually quit, “I know the north,” Bookman says, “and something like this has been building for a long time… The worst thing we could do is make him a martyr.”
In an often-comical series of events, Joe’s beanfield miraculously catalyzes the people, but not before we get to know many of them intimately. In long delightful passages, Nichols explores the individual perspectives of a delightful cacophony of characters including long back stories, often unrelated to the beanfield war but still absolutely hilarious and enlightening. The result is a patchwork quilt of diverse personalities and experiences which, over time, come together in a warm blanket of community.
As resistance to the developers builds, the “battles” in the Beanfield War are often hysterically funny, while the reality of Nichols’ fiction is the hard truth of many who have suffered under the uncompromising boot heel of racialized American capitalism.
While it is clear early on what the New Mexico developers hope to gain, the story sadly rests upon their ignorance of what is being lost; much like the first European explorers and colonists that began the conquest of North America.
For John Nichols, the initial success of The Milagro Beanfield War was bolstered in the late 1980s, when director Robert Redford descended upon rural northern New Mexico to film on location what would become the film of the same name. The screenplay was co-written by Nichols who had moved to Taos, New Mexico in 1969. Unsurprisingly, he has lived there ever since.
Yes, the musical score of the film is great, and won an Academy award for composer Dave Grusin, but Redford’s work dramatically fails the book. While the movie is fun and quirky, it does little justice to Nichols’ finely drawn characters. In several cases, liberties are taken that actually undermine the heart of the book. In the long back-story of a one-armed man, for instance, Nichols’ book brings the lost arm to life with a force all its own; a deeply rooted legend with spiritual overtones that serves to illuminate the rich, enduring, and now-threatened, culture of Milagro. In Redford’s movie, the lost arm gets a single line. A New York Times reviewer wrote at the time that this movie “is not Mr. Redford’s finest hour.”*
It seems that Nichols has some regrets about signing off on and participating in this film. Although, the reasons he did it seem clear enough as he continued to work in the movie industry and the notoriety of Redford’s film drew eyes to his other work.
From the release of the film to 2000, the population of Taos County soared by 30%, as did property values. In other words, a book largely about an impoverished people rising up against corrupt government and corporate bureaucracies may have attracted the very sort of wealthy people developers like Ladd Devine wanted in the first place.**
My paperback edition of Nichols’ book includes an afterword written in 1993 – five years after the notoriety of the film had begun taking its toll—where he writes, “Milagro, which in the beginning was a story that actually saved my life [financially], has metamorphosed into an albatross around my neck.”
In an appeal to his local friends who have seen their community transformed, and a testament to the power of this book, Nichols throws up his hands. “Hey dudes, mellow out,” he writes, “it’s not my fault the book ran away from me. Blame it on the readers. Honest, I didn’t know the gun was loaded.”
I’m headed to Taos today – Friday April 28, 2023 – with its touristy streets peppered with art studios and food and drink. This time, I hope, thanks to John Nichols, maybe I’ll be able to see, or at least imagine, a remnant of what used to be. I also understand that this is no easy task because I, too, am a part of the change that has settled upon this part of the country. I say that without regret but with the recognition that understanding how the comfortable things of our world became so comfortable is the least we can do for those who, perhaps, did not necessarily welcome the change.