Tomé Hill: Foundation of a community

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While the Rio Grande may be the lifeblood of the valley, it can be argued that Tomé Hill is the very foundation of the community.

Photo courtesy of Ramon Torres: Edwin Berry leads a procession up Tomé Hill on Good Friday 1980. Berry erected the three crosses beginning in 1947 as a remembrance of faith and to fellow soldiers who died in WWII.

When the Tomé Land Grant was established, the Spanish Crown didn’t just award land to people on a whim. There had to be certain resources present for the community to thrive and grow on — water, pasture land for livestock, materials to build houses and churches.

The water came from the river to feed the nearby bottom lands and the wood came from the bosque or the forests of the Manzano Mountains. Adobe bricks for buildings were easily made, but those bricks needed someplace to stand.

According to Tomé native and historian Ramon Torres, that’s where the hill comes in.

“To build a house, you need footings,” Torres said. “The only place to get rock was from the hill. Every house and church built in Tomé started with rocks from the hill.”

Several years ago, when part of the north wall of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Tomé collapsed, Torres said the community returned to the hill for the rocks that have held up the spiritual center of the community for almost three centuries.

“It is a massive foundation — about 48 inches wide and 3 feet down. That rock is the only material the alkali soil around here won’t eventually eat,” he said with a laugh.

Capped with basalt rock, it’s no surprise the hill, as one of the highest points in Valencia County, stood against innumerable floods from the Rio Grande.

But the Spanish settlers weren’t the first people to use the resources of the hill, to post lookouts for marauders on it, to use it for a guiding beacon home. Etched into those basalt boulders are more than 1,800 ancient petroglyphs.

In the mid-1990s, the Office of Contract Archeology with the University of New Mexico spearheaded the cultural study of the hill that got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property on July 9, 1996.

The petroglyphs include anthropomorphic figures, masks, human hands and foot prints, animal figures and tracks, lines and geometric shapes, historical symbols, dots, plant forms, unidentifiable forms and recent graffiti, the study notes.

They appear to date to the Pueblo IV time period and are characteristic of the Rio Grande style of rock art. The Pueblo IV period is usually dated between 1300 to 1450 A.D., or, in some areas, until Spanish contact in 1540.

According to the study, the highest point of Tomé Hill is 5,223 feet above mean sea level. The hill itself rises between 300 and 400 feet above the valley floor, according to various geological studies and measurements.

From that height, a person can see just about everything in Valencia County. To the south, the towers of industry rise out of the Rio Grande Industrial Park, marking the necessary demon of progress.

The verdant swath of land along the river lies to the west and north of Cerro de Tomé, while to the east, the llano stretches to the purple foothills of the Manzano Mountains, mostly vacant.

The early Natives didn’t establish a permanent settlement near the hill, but in the 16th century, explorers from Europe decided the valley was a prime place to live.

In 1598, Spanish settlers led by Juan de Oñate moved through the lower Rio Grande Valley to begin permanent settlements. The original Spanish land grant, including Tomé, was awarded to Thome Dominguez de Mendoza in 1659.

The Dominguez family, along with some Isletans, fled south during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. He never returned to reclaim the land, and in 1739, the pueblito that bears his name was founded.

That year, 125,000 acres were granted to 30 town of Tomé families by the Spanish Crown and affirmed by the United States in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The treaty turned New Mexico over to the United States, with a promise that land grants would remain intact.

In mid-1955, the grant converted to the Tomé Land and Improvement Corporation and land grant members become shareholders. However, over the next decade, the conflict grew between the so called “progressive” and “conservative” members of the corporation over whether to sell the land.

When the “progressives” won a majority of the seats on the board of directors, that cleared the way for the sale and in 1967, stockholders voted to sell, 175-18.

The following year, the $4.7 million contract for sale of the land to Horizon Corporation was approved by the board. The sale of the grant to Horizon was completed on Nov. 4, 1968.

Not one to court controversy, Tomé native Edwin Berry decided to make his mark on his community after his return home from World War II. After surviving bullets, bombs and malaria, Berry knew he owed his maker something in return.

In a 1996 News-Bulletin interview, Berry said he began feeling depressed, inferior, because he wasn’t on the front lines of the fighting.

“But I kept telling God I wanted to at least show my appreciation, my sympathy for those who were face to face with the enemy,” he said in the article.

As Berry decided how to best honor his fallen comrades, his mind returned to the cross the penitentes put up every year on the top of Tomé Hill until around 1922, when someone burned it.

“They would put the cross up on Ash Wednesday and leave it up 41 days,” Berry told the newspaper. “On Good Friday, the penitentes would sleep on the hill, stay there all day Saturday and on Easter Sunday, take the cross down at dawn while singing. It could be heard across the valley.”

Inspired by the devout men who had come before him, Berry literally drew up a plan for the monument he wanted to erect on the hill. Now only copies of copies exist, but it is still possible to read the document, which is dated 1947.

The plans called for the monument to face west, set upon an alter 8 feet by 4 feet, with an aluminum finish cross rising 16 feet above the alter. According to Torres, the center cross faces the Eucharist of Immaculate Conception.

“This is my plan: I will build a truly Christian monument atop this mount — Cerro de Tomé — I will bear all cost, but I will invite all people to help me with the work — and it will bring happiness, faith, hope and peace to all people of good will. The inscription will also commemorate our fallen heroes — those who gave their lives in the war.”

The total cost of the monument was a mere $383.

It’s hard to make out, but it is said that the final sentence on the paper reads, “If people leave me alone it will take me about three years to build — if 500 people will help me, I know I can do the job in one day.”

People in the community did indeed come out to help, cutting Berry’s three year estimate down to one year. He started construction in 1947 and completed the monument in 1948.

Jesus Sanchez was one of the boys who helped Berry erect the crosses. He remembers being between 13 and 14, when he, along with seven or eight friends, carried water, cement and posts up the hill.

“Whatever was needed,” Sanchez said. “We had nothing to do really, I guess. This was about giving back to society and to the people. It felt good, the helping.”

In a transcript of a 1995 Valentine’s Day interview of Berry by Dan Scurlock, of the Office of Contract Archeology at UNM, Berry talks about the hill.

“Tomé Hill is still rich and more in history and tradition. But we think we have done good things to Tomé Hill, but Tomé Hill has done more good things to us. Now we can go do good to Tomé Hill or we can leave it alone. And that also would be good. We don’t know which is best. OK.

“But we do consider Tomé Hill the very best, the very most proper, most ideal church in the whole world because it is always open and there are no collections.”

Berry’s son, Dante, says his late father was never afraid to let his faith shine forth and embraced it with vigor.

“There was a time, when I was younger, I didn’t understand,” Dante said. “He would just start singing, or preaching in this loud voice about the end times.”

And making that promise, a promsea, to honor the fallen and God, was “a very New Mexico thing,” Dante said.

The people of Tomé used to do passion plays and pageants on Good Friday, reenacting the events of that day, Dante said, but the tradition faded away in the late 1940s.

“After World War II, the world changed,” he said.

Not only were the crosses a religious monument, but they were dedicated to all the people lost in the war that Berry survived.

“Maybe he thought it should be hard, a kind of sacrifice,” Dante said of his father’s decision to locate the crosses on top of the hill. “A lot of those guys didn’t come back, and some that did, their scars weren’t always on the outside.”

To his knowledge, Berry never missed a year going up the hill on Good Friday, Dante said.

“And you know, some Good Fridays in New Mexico, well there was snow and rain, but he always went. He was very devoted to that purpose,” Dante said. “He never had the attitude of, ‘Well I’ve done it for 30 years, that’s good enough.’”

Berry’s last trip up the hill was when he was 78 years old, just three years before his death in 2000.

Dante said his father fought for the preservation of the hill, the sacred ground. During the 1970s, hang gliders started driving up the hill to launch. It was a battle between Berry and the flyers that he waged for several years.

“He would put up barricades and signs and they would be torn down the next day,” Dante remembers. “But in the end, he won. He was more persistent. I will always admire his dedication.”

Berry was one man dedicated to the preservation of the 178 acres that is Tomé Hill. And the company that currently owns it is also dedicated to that same mission.

The hill, along with other common areas, parks and land set aside for public schools was deeded over to Valley Improvement Association in 1970 by Horizon Corporation, said Paul Baca, VIA’s president and CEO.

“Tomé Hill is very special to the people of the community,” said Baca, a Belen native. “I’m glad VIA was able to help in its preservation and continued access.”

Under VIA’s ownership, Baca said the company has done minimal “work” on the hill. Mostly, it has put up post and cable around the perimeter to keep out motorized vehicles and discourage people on horseback, erected signs reminding people to be respectful of the hill and to “pack it in, pack it out.”

Growing up with the hill in his backyard in a way, Baca says just seeing the hill can make a person reflect on life.

“As things evolve, progress, whether we want them to or not, whether you are from here or new, the hill kind of pulls you back from the hustle and bustle of life,” he said. “We can preserve it as growth comes, and keep it as a focal point, a refuge.”

As you climb the hill on a silent morning, the scent of the dirt underfoot reminds you that this is a place that will always be. Stretching its shadow across the valley, comforting and protecting.

At the top, the world fades away until there is only you and the hill. And in that moment, that space between heart beats, you are connected to something much greater than yourself.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.