Creating Commodity

'Landscapes of Fraud' chronicles the privatization of the Upper Santa Cruz

Real-estate fraud lies at the core of the current economic meltdown, just as it did in the boom and bust of the 19th century.

Today's subprime mortgages are more elaborate cons cut from the same cloth of yesteryear's Panic of 1857. The panic was a global recession brought on by, in large part, land speculation that relied on the expansion of rail lines. Then, as now, the myth of an "ownership society" fueled the notion that everyone could and should wade into the murky waters of the stock market and make investments.

Government and banks have long colluded in wreaking havoc in the financial and real-estate markets--and among native peoples. And never has that collusion been so perfectly and depressingly detailed as in Thomas Sheridan's fascinating Landscapes of Fraud: Mission Tumacácori, the Baca Float, and the Betrayal of the O'odham. Not quite a historical page-turner à la Nicholson Baker's recent Human Smoke (a revisionist take on World War II as a senseless conflict), Sheridan's history is still pretty darn readable, an accomplishment given that the author is an academic and, as the opening chapter makes clear, a tad prone to jargon.

Skip to the second chapter, which chronicles the Jesuit presence amidst the Tohono O'odham ("People of the Desert") in the Upper Santa Cruz Valley. The story begins, naturally, with Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and the very beginnings of Mission Tumacácori. Says Sheridan:

Despite (Kino's) charisma and diplomacy, however, violence scarred the early Spanish settlement of the Pimeria Alta. Spanish miners and ranchers were pressing north into O'odham territory at a time when the Spanish frontier to the east was convulsing because of widespread Indian resistance and rebellion.

Increasingly, the Spanish response involved heightened militarization, giving credence to the old saying that it's in the colonizers' best interest to allow missionaries into a country first in order to "soften up" the natives with God and disease. The latter, as Sheridan points out, undermined O'odham shamans, as the people "watched their children die from illnesses their bodies had never been wracked by before." Indeed, Sheridan does a splendid job of presenting both the views of the colonizers and the colonized, articulating the complex motives governing their respective actions.

Gradually, the Jesuit influence faded as Apache raids intensified. Then it was the Franciscans' turn to protect the O'odham from the evils of frontier culture. This effort involved the creation of the Tumacácori Land Grant, effectively granted by Spanish authorities in 1806. No matter how they struggled, though, the Franciscans could never get Tumacácori to match the beauty of Mission San Xavier (to the north).

As a result, Mission Tumacácori fell into decline, yet the O'odham still inhabited the area and battled the Apaches for it. The O'odham were ignored as the Upper Santa Cruz was carved up again and again, victims of "a world that valued paper titles more than living communities." Some of the crazy land deals of the 19th century--as the railroad spread its mighty tentacles cross the nation--are broken down thoroughly in chapters like "Early Anglo Speculation and the Tumacácori Land Grant," which covers everything from the California gold rush to the various mining and ranching outfits that spread their way westward. But it's the 20th-century follies of "Rio Rico and the Land Rush" that most folks will get the biggest kick out of.

Fraud, of course, became even more rampant in the 20th century, thanks to the collusion of government and corporations. As Sheridan relates:

Ironically, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal laid the foundation for the resurrection of Hoover's dream after World War II. In 1934, Roosevelt ramrodded the National Housing Act through Congress. Until then, homebuyers had to cough up 50 percent down payments and pay off their mortgages in five to 10 years. The National Housing Act allowed the new Federal Housing Administration to back 20-year mortgages for up to 80 percent of a home's cost.

Such deals ultimately led to profound abuse. I don't want to give away too much about Landscapes of Fraud, but if you're in the real-estate biz, or you're someone who's been burned badly by a deal--or if you've ever wondered how and why the transformation of the Southwest into a commodity (at the expense of community) has haunted us since the very first colonizers made their way into the desert--this is a book for you.

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