The current community gives its allegiance to the history of Mexican land grantees but acknowledges its earliest known American Indian residents. Its name is not to be confused with another small town in northern New Mexico called Chili, or chile, the delicious condiment we put on all of our food or what the weather becomes once the Balloon Fiesta arrives.
According to the 2020 Census, Chilili has a population of 126 people with 44 households. Of those, 108 identify as Latino or Hispanic. The Bernalillo County settlement is located on New Mexico 337, 20 miles south of Tijeras in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains. It’s one of the oldest recorded place names in New Mexico, according to Robert Julyan in his book “The Place Names of New Mexico.”
According to Julyan, Capt. Francisco Sánchez, known as El Chamuscado, visited the area that would eventually become New Mexico in 1581, and made note of an inhabited Indian pueblo located near Arroyo de Chilili. Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate would follow 17 years later and record the name of Chiu Alle. Most believe it was a pueblo of the Tiwa people. Apache raids led to the abandonment of the settlement between 1669 and 1676.
It would be nearly 200 years before another community took its place.
According to Julyan, the current community began settling the area in 1841. The Chilili Land Grant was created that same year when the governor of the province granted land to 31 families living there.
More than a 100 years later, Chilili would join the Chicano Movement, a political awakening for those of Mexican American descent that was sweeping the United States in the 1970s. Mexican-Americans embraced their heritage while fighting for the rights of farm workers, pursuing higher education and mobilizing voting and political efforts for their communities. They also fought for the restoration of land grants given to their ancestors by the Mexican government before it ceded western and southwestern portions of the country to the U.S. following the end of the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
Meanwhile, the villagers formed El Comite para Reformar y Preservar Las Tierras de la Merced de Chilili in 1973 to win back control of their land grant from the Chilili Cooperative Association Inc. The land fell to control of the state in the 1930s due to unpaid property tax. The cooperative was formed in the early 1940s and recovered the land from the state, over a period of decades, by paying those delinquent taxes.
The co-op planned to sell 5,100 acres of common land within the 41,000-acre grant boundaries to a group of investors from Alaska for $1.2 million. The co-op supported the sale but it enraged many of the grant families.
A May 26, 1976 Albuquerque Tribune story quoted Ray Ortiz, a spokesman for the Chilili heirs, as saying “The only way you can sell is by eliminating every man, woman and child in Chilili.”
Land grant heirs became vigilante during this time.
A 1976 pamphlet with the title “Tierra Y Libertad: The Fight for the Chicano Nation” provides a glimpse of the political and cultural battle lines drawn.
According to the pamphlet, on Sept. 1, 1976, more than 30 Chicano villagers showed up armed to block and halt the road an Anglo developer was trying to install on his property, fearing it would destroy their community. According to the pamphlet, it “would have opened up the area for more development, more tourists, more rich people moving in and eventually leading to the destruction of the traditional way of life of the Chicano people of Chilili and the destruction of the village itself.”
A Dec. 10, 1976 newspaper clipping from the Albuquerque Journal outlines another dispute land heirs had with a local utility company installing a power line.
“El Comite, acting in the interests of the majority of the heirs and villagers of Chilili, will not tolerate the construction of your line on our grant,” they wrote in a letter to the utility company. “If by the morning of Dec. 23, 1976, you have not removed the posts, the villagers, supporters, and sympathizers will tear them down. This is a final notice.”
The power company responded and said it was not installing a new line but instead moving one that had already been in place. The spokesman said the company would remove the lines but it would leave 50 people without electricity.
Things eventually settled down and little development has happened in the subsequent years. Chilili even has its own flag now. Signs in the area bearing phrases such as “no land sales,” “La Merced del Pueblo of Chilili is a sovereign self-governing entity,” and “Respect what we love,” leave no doubt about the fierce protectiveness the people of the community still feel about their land and their way of life.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email columnist Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”