History of Traditional Hispanic Values in Colorado
Early New Mexican Settlements
Early New Mexican settlements of southern Colorado were indeed the founding cornerstone communities in the state of Colorado’s history, but because cultural beliefs and traditional land use hindered communal progress, eventually the Hispanic populace was taken over by Anglo-American aggression.
After New Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule in 1826, the Mexican government had heavy concerns for Anglo-American expansion, and devised a plan to encourage Mexican citizens to colonize further north to thwart such aggressive activity. Since the Mexican population had increased in size; there was already a great need for land. To aid in this relief, for the next ten years, the New Mexican government issued a drawn out success of land grants in northern New Mexico, which also included thousands of miles of southern Colorado territory. Those land grants included much of what consists today of Conejos, Rio Grande, Costilla, Huerfano, Las Animas and Pueblo counties. Of the five major grants situated within Colorado, the Sangre de Cristo grant had the most success, so successful that it managed to lure in the earliest Hispanic settlement of San Luis, which was established in 1851.
Besides land grants, the scarce commodity of wool for American soldiers’ uniforms during the Civil War caught Mexican sheep herders’ interest. Seizing an opportunity, entire families settled down within the San Luis valley area, creating small communities built up for protection against the possibility of native American attack.
Religion was also a major factor in the success of the early Hispanic community. The Hispanic settlements strengthened resolve by building organized parishes, and making the church the focal point within the community. The first church to be established within the southern Colorado region was “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” which was built in 1857, and located in present day Conejos.
One of the legendary accounts of devout faith within the Hispanic community is the story about the village people of San Acacio Vega, which is presently located in Costilla County. During the 1850's, the people of the settlement came together in prayer after discovering a Ute war party on a nearby bluff. The villagers prayed to their patron saint, St. Acacias and asked for deliverance. As the story goes, the warrior party advanced as if they were going to attack, but then suddenly stopped in their descent. The Utes was seen looking toward the sky, pointing their spears at the great clouds which hung low, and then they quickly retreated. Years later, one of the community members befriended an old Indian woman who claimed she recalled the day in which the Ute warriors were about to raid a nearby settlement when they saw a great vision of a defending warrior astride a white charger in the clouds, and were spooked. Afterward, the village people fulfilled their promise and built the church of San Acacio.
Though religious faith held lasting intrinsic value within the Hispanic community, it was unfortunate other valued traditions such as the use of land and the rights to the land were not so permanent a value.
Between 1849 and the 1860's, American immigrants and gold-seekers poured into the countryside. The American threat had become a reality, and Mexico and the United States finally went to war. By 1848, the Mexican government had been defeated, and the united states had gained Colorado lands and the 80,000 Mexican citizens that came along with it. Eventually, American Congress created Colorado Territory, and by 1876, Colorado was enacted into statehood. With a vast influx of Anglos seeking life in a new state and the already established Hispanic populations, these two cultures veered toward one another, creating a mesh of ethnic objectivity. Hispanic valued time-old traditions as “the only true way” and Anglo’s centered their ideals on “European progress.”
Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, Abbot, Leonard, and Noel. , 4th ed., 2005.
America’s Byways: Los Camino Antiguos, Segment 5, A Breeze of Freedom,http://www.krma.org/byways/lca_breeze.html, Rocky Mountain Broadcasting Network.
San Acacio: http://www.dioceseofpueblo.com/parishes/City/bcsanacacio.htm, Diocese of Pueblo
These extreme cultural mindsets set in motion a biased struggle between Anglos and Hispanics, yet there were a few individuals who tried to make a difference amid all the enmity. In the 1860's, an American entrepreneur by the name of John Lawrence supported Hispanic tenant-herders, guiding in their financial independence. On the other end of the spectrum, Casmirio Barela, a Hispanic settler turned patron and politician overcame cultural alienation and learned to speak English and practice among the Anglos when he was elected to office in 1871, and in return for his hard work, he was able to help his own people better understand the americanized system.
Even though a few Hispanics gained ground in the entrepreneurial and political spheres amongst the Anglos, by the 1870's the American legal system no longer recognized the value of “traditional rights,” and the Hispanic commoner lost his greatest foothold in the American society. Eventually, a large part of the early Hispanic settlements was abandoned. In search of another means of survival, many Hispanics found their way into the coal camps and railway gangs or labored on farms or ranches for wages. In the end, the Anglo-American ascension of power became an unfortunate reality to the Hispanic communities of southern Colorado, and by the 1900's with the new society of anglo aggression and biased opinion, many Hispanics were forced to relocate or live on isolated farms, and away from the traditional Hispanic setting.