Writer John Nichols, author of ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’ with a social justice streak, dies at 83

Nov 28, 2023, 5:40 PM | Updated: 8:38 pm

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Writer John Nichols, best known for his populist novel, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” has died. He was 83.

Nichols died Monday at home in Taos, New Mexico, amid declining health linked to a long-term heart condition, said daughter Tania Harris of Albuquerque.

Nichols won early recognition with the 1965 publication of his offbeat love story “The Sterile Cuckoo,” later made into a movie starring Liza Minnelli. The coming-of-age book and subsequent movie were set amid private Northeastern colleges that were a familiar milieu to Nichols, who attended boarding school in Connecticut and private college in upstate New York.

He moved in 1969 with his first wife from New York City to northern New Mexico, where he found inspiration for a trilogy of novels anchored in the success of “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

That novel — about a fictional Hispanic agricultural community in the mountains of northern New Mexico, a scheme by business interests to usurp the town’s land and water supply, and the spontaneous rebellion that ensues — won widespread recognition for its mix of humor, sense of place and themes of social justice. It was turned into a movie directed by Robert Redford, starring Rubén Blades and Christopher Walken, with scores of local residents on camera in Truchas, New Mexico, as extras.

“My sense it that he wrote that as a valentine to northern New Mexico. … He really became embedded in Taos and Chama and all the towns in northern New Mexico,” said Stephen Hull, director of the University of New Mexico Press, which last year published Nichols’ memoir under the self-deprecating title, “I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer.”

“He wrote it as a gringo — an ‘Anglo’ — but he wrote it with real life experience and it seems to me with a great deal of authenticity,” Hull said.

In his memoir, Nichols says he drew in writing “The Milagro Beanfield War” on his involvement with local alternative media outlets and a successful advocacy campaign to ward off construction of a conservation-district dam near Taos, including his notes from uproarious public meetings.

“New Mexico’s sense of humor, its history and cultures, as well as its poverty and inequalities affected each sentence I crafted,” he wrote. “The novel’s attitude and style had been with me since childhood.”

Gerald Ortiz y Pino met Nichols in the 1970s while working as a community organizer out of a welfare office in Taos and said the author wrote with humor and sympathy about turbulent times, amid a local movement to reclaim land tracts ceded to the U.S. government in the Mexican American War and tensions over the arrival of communes and “hippies” in Taos.

“He wrote three novels about Taos in those days, and in all of them was a sense of the absurdity of what was going on,” said Ortiz y Pino, now a state senator. “He captured a point in time.”

Friends and colleagues trace Nichols’ social justice streak — as a self-described “liberation ecologist” — to his travels in Latin America and Guatemala, starting in the 1960s amid U.S. interventions in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

Nichols would later collaborate as a uncredited screenwriter with film director Costa-Gavras on “Missing” about the search for a missing American writer in Chile in the aftermath of the September 1973 coup against leftist President Salvador Allende.

Nichols’ published works include at least 13 novels along with nonfiction ranging from collected essays, original photography, nature writing, a chronicle of his parents’ early life and more.

He lived alone after three marriages in a Taos home lined with books, papers and manuscripts, amid an enduring work routine that involved writing through the night, according to friends and relatives.

Nichols is survived by son Luke Nichols and daughter Tania from his first marriage to Ruth Wetherell Harding, and three granddaughters.

United States News

A fire burns at the Warren Grove Air To Ground Range, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. in Bass River Townshi...

Associated Press

Forest fire at New Jersey military base 80% contained after overnight rain

BASS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Heavy rain overnight helped firefighters gain more control over a forest fire burning at a military bombing range in southern New Jersey. Fire officials said Wednesday that half an inch (1.3 centimeters) of rain fell overnight at the Warren Grove Air to Ground Range, a training facility for the New […]

14 minutes ago

FILE - Former Trump White House advisor Peter Navarro speaks to the media as he leaves federal cour...

Associated Press

Ex-Trump adviser Peter Navarro is released from prison and is headed to Milwaukee to address the RNC

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Former Trump White House official Peter Navarro was released from prison on Wednesday after completing his sentence for a contempt of Congress conviction and is expected to speak hours later at the Republican National Convention. Navarro, who served as a White House trade adviser under President Donald Trump, was freed from custody […]

27 minutes ago

Associated Press

A Texas school that was built to segregate Mexican American students becomes a national park

A west Texas school built in 1909 for Mexican and Mexican American students as part of “separate but equal” education segregation was designated Wednesday as a national park. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally established the Blackwell School National Historic Site in Marfa, Texas, as the nation’s newest national park and the seventh […]

37 minutes ago

President Joe Biden speaks at a 2024 Prosperity Summit Tuesday, July 16, 2024, in North Las Vegas, ...

Associated Press

Nearly two-thirds of Democrats want Biden to withdraw, new AP-NORC poll finds

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly two-thirds of Democrats say President Joe Biden should withdraw from the presidential race and let his party nominate a different candidate, according to a new poll, sharply undercutting his post-debate claim that “average Democrats” are still with him even if some “big names” are turning on him. The new survey by […]

40 minutes ago

An historical marker near the spot where George Washington “narrowly escaped death” years befor...

Associated Press

‘Of all the places’: Deep red Butler, Pennsylvania, grapples with Trump assassination attempt

BUTLER, Pa. (AP) — On the streets of Butler, Pennsylvania, in the wake of Saturday’s assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump, the same four words have been spoken again and again: “Of all the places.” Butler, home to some 13,000 people, and the county whose grand courthouse graces its square are named for a […]

2 hours ago

Follow @ktar923...

Sponsored Content by Sanderson Ford

3 storylines to get you revved up for the 2024 Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals training camp is just a couple weeks away starting on July 25, and Sanderson Ford is revved up and ready to go.

Sponsored Articles


Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

Writer John Nichols, author of ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’ with a social justice streak, dies at 83