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Wildfire threatens ‘cultural genocide’ in New Mexico villages

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By Andrew Hay

TAOS, NM (Reuters) – Miguel Gandert isn’t sure if his family’s 19th-century log home was burned down by a New Mexico wildfire, but he fears the blaze could destroy an Indo- much older than the United States.

The wildfire is the largest currently in the United States and threatens a chain of villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where Gandert can trace the roots of European and Mexican settlers as well as Native Americans.

The blaze burned countless homes in the Mora Valley, and strong winds on Sunday threatened mudbrick ranch houses, churches, chapels and watermills dating back to the early 19th century.

“It’s almost a form of cultural genocide that’s going on and fire is the enemy,” said Gandert, a retired University of New Mexico professor who spent childhood summers fishing and helping out on the family farm in the village of Mora.

Some resident families have been in New Mexico since the late 17th century and more than half of Mora County, which has a population of 4,500, remained to defend homes, police said.

Working-class families in the communities of Holman and Cleveland used their own bulldozers and machines to scrape firebreaks alongside firefighters, said Mora-born Gabriel Melendez.

They are driven by “querencia,” or love of place, grounded in a religious sensibility for the land they pray for in Catholic churches and chapels known as “moradas,” Melendez said.

“You lose an inheritance, you lose the value of those homes,” said Melendez, a 69-year-old retired American studies professor whose nephew remained in Holman. “People will rebuild, and they will work to mend the fabric of this torn culture, but it’s a big challenge.”

Those who evacuated feel devastated, said Patricia Marie Perea, whose loved ones left San Miguel County for Albuquerque.

“Three hundred years of ancestry is there in my family,” said Perea, assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. “All of this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to leave.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Leslie Adler)