ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — TOMÉ – During a weather event Tuesday morning that was almost too astonishing to believe, Lawrence Sanchez was about to begin a blessing ceremony near the top of Tomé Hill, when a bright sun broke out from between huge encircling clouds, lighting up the hillside.
“There’s Edwin now, smiling,” said Sanchez, his own face beaming.
Sanchez was referring to Edwin Berry (Baca), an iconic New Mexico penitente, folklorist and musician who revived a Holy Week pilgrimage to Tomé, a Spanish land grant community nearly 300 years old and about 35 miles south of Albuquerque in Valencia County.
Berry, who died in 2000, is credited with erecting a crucifixion shrine in the late 1940s at the top of the hill, which he often described as the perfect church: “Open to all, at all times, and no collection plate.”
On Tuesday, negotiations spanning years resulted in a historic signing ceremony that marked the transfer of ownership of the hill from the Valley Improvement Association to the Town of Tomé Land Grant.
To many residents, the return of the hill – a rocky, black basalt-covered dormant volcano considered sacred for hundreds of years – represents a revival of the heart and soul of the community.
The hill was lost during a war over the 1968 sale of the 47,000-acre land grant to Horizon Corp., an East Coast land development company, which pitted families and friends against each other and spawned decades of ill will, open conflict and lingering discord.
Community leaders hope that the transfer of ownership of 188 acres, which includes the hill, will end any lingering discord and begin a new age of conciliation among residents. Tuesday’s transfer took place inside the town of Tomé Community Center, which includes a museum that exhibits local historical artifacts.
The ceremony culminates years of negotiations, taken “one step at a time, one hurdle after another,” Sanchez said.
“The hill, really, has always belonged to the people, and now it is back in the hands of the people,” Town Trustee Rita Padilla said, crediting Paul Baca and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, leaders of the Valley Improvement Association, a private land assessment and community development company that succeeded Horizon as owners of the land. Lopez is also a land grant heir.
“We’re a landless land grant, which is really ironic,” Padilla said. “But now, we’ve become a community service and history preservation land grant.”
Reprising the land grant war, Padilla said one side said the sale would provide new homes, college educations and a better standard of living, while opponents warned it would plunder spiritual and historic ties to the land. Years of court battles and the adding of thousands of heirs resulted in relatively small distributions to individual heirs.
“There might still be some residual feelings today about what happened, but we’re hoping that this (return of the hill) will heal and move this community in a really different direction,” she said.
Assunta Berry, the widow of Edwin Berry and an honored guest at the ceremony, said she believes her husband was smiling down on the ceremony. Later, at the top of the hill, Andrea Padilla, Berry’s niece, said she hopes the new ownership will honor the spirit of her uncle’s desire that it always be open to all denominations at no cost.
“My uncle is happy and smiling down on what was a truly amazing thing that has happened today,” she said. “It’s just the right thing.”
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