Sangre de Cristo Heritage Center opens in San Luis

Photo by Diane Drekmann The Sangre de Cristo Heritage Center in San Luis is open. It is a museum with some local artifacts on display.

SAN LUIS — The Sangre de Cristo Cultural Heritage Center in San Luis is now open. There was a special event Oct. 28 dedicated to sharing memories of the center before it was closed for many years.

The Cultural Center was originally called the San Luis Arts and Crafts Institute in the 1930s. It has also served as a school, museum, and theater. The Cultural Center is once again a museum, with some local artifacts already on display.

There will be a memory wall where the community’s thoughts, remembrances about life in San Luis Valley will be preserved for future generations. In the next few days, it will act as an offrenda, honoring peoples' loved ones for Day of the Dead.

The classroom is open and will offer a class in Mesoamerican History and art in Spanish. The theater hopes to host productions in the future.

History Colorado was on hand on Oct. 28 to offer advice on how to preserve a property, or photographs, or do an oral history. Danielle Lewon with the State Historical Fund explains their role.

"The State Historical Fund, run through History Colorado, is a granting organization that has given over $300 million to all 64 Colorado counties in the last 30 years,” she said. “The money comes from gambling revenue. It is comprehensive from start to finish...the whole thing. State Historical Fund focuses on the physical places and archeology of the area. History Colorado covers a broad range, from churches, photographs, a variety of places. It's designed to work with non-profits. History Colorado also works with homeowners and business owners who can get a tax credit. It's the local people reaching out and the local community coming together to save what is important to them."

Eric Newcombe of History Colorado said it "helps people list their properties on the National Register — the nation's official list of properties that are significant and worthy of preservation. There is also a State Register for Colorado properties."

A number of San Luis residents and a few people from the surrounding villages of Chama and San Francisco shared their memories of growing up in the area.

Helen Seay is an English teacher at Centennial School. Last year, her eighth-grade students began an project gathering the oral history of their parents and grandparents "to learn more" and create a Museum of Memory. Now in ninth grade, the project is continuing. Seay shared the plans for the future.

"Carlos Martinez wants to make a mural with QR codes...the kids contribute in design...they selected the most important audio clips," Seay said. It is a partnership with History Colorado and Centennial School.

Maria Islas Lopez of History Colorado and San Luis resident Dana Maestas organized the Oct. 28 event.

Lopez said the "importance of learning your own history...connecting with's meaningful and grateful...what to remember."

Maestas’ first memories of the Sangre de Cristo Cultural Heritage Center are from when she was 10 years old when the Center was a school.

“Charlie Hawkins was my math and algebra teacher...the theater had movies and popcorn...the typing room was where the bathroom is now," she said. As an adult, Maestas worked in the museum, in the archives.

Charlie Hawkins spoke next.

"The juniors and seniors used to stage plays in the theater,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has a long history with the Cultural Center. His father was a bus driver and custodian.

"They always had graduation ceremony at the Center. The weather was always nice," Hawkins said. Hawkins added he appreciates what History Colorado brings to the table.

He shared the Center, "was built during the Depression...Life is still like the Depression. Don't have any money. Never did. (History Colorado) helps preserve our town. We don't have the funding or expertise to do it."

Carlos Atencio went to high school at the Cultural Center in the 1950s. He graduated in 1963, went into the military, came back to the San Luis Valley and taught at the old high school from 1975-1976. He was on the first school board.

Atencio related how he and Amos Bernal helped plan the museum theater, and morada room (of religious artifacts). Atencio, a master weaver and carver, also stressed the importance of "preserving the culture, the food, language. (We) can't do it without help."

He also gave thanks to History Colorado.

"The morada room closed down due to lack of's a small population and hard for people to support."

Atencio urged the community to “be proud of who you are and where you come from...Let it shine...Tell people who you are and where you are from. Listen to our stories, our rich culture."

Donna Madrid Hernandez of San Luis and Femia Barela of San Francisco practice a traditional type of embroidery called colcha, making rugs and other items with the coarse wool of the churro sheep. 

Hernandez thinks "San Luis has the best food. I am proud of who I am...(We) survive whatever comes and stick together."

Richard de Olivas y Cordova's parents are from the San Luis Valley. He grew up in Wyoming and retired here 13 years ago. He is a Penitente.

"It is a Catholic religious organization dating back to the 1500s — like the Knights of Columbus from the 1500s." They worship in "moradas" where there were not any churches.

“There used to moradas from Wyoming to Las Cruces, N.M., in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. Now there are only three in Colorado — Garcia, San Francisco, and Fort Garland," he said. He is also a member of SPMDTU. He also gives tours of Main Street in San Luis. De Olivas y Cordova has seen many people move to San Luis Valley in the last 13 years.

He "wants people to learn our dialect (manito). Be part of and learn our culture. (We) live well although we don't have money. Families intermarry. Anglo and Spanish. It's all mixed. Love all of our culture. It's beautiful, unique. Be authentic and share," he said.

Huberto Maestas is a local artist who went to elementary school at the Cultural Center. In fifth grade, he walked down the street to the consolidated school.

"There were a lot of rivalries back then. The principal put up a boxing ring," he said. Maestas was in the first art class of the new school. In seventh grade, he won an art contest and was invited to go to the high school.

Maestas was also on the first board of the Costilla County Economic Development Council (CCEDC), a local non-profit in charge of maintaining the Cultural Center. He related some of the difficulties causing the Cultural Center to close.

Now open, Maestas says the CCEDC is getting grants to become ADA compliant and get electricity for the commercial kitchen, so it can be operational again.

His wife, Dana, received a grant to clean the classroom and "get the morada room back where it should be." They plan on putting a grand piano in the theater.

Adrienne Garbini from Saguache has been visiting the San Luis area for 10 years and "is impressed with the persistence...and has an appreciation for the hard work. It's an exciting time to be here...for artists."

San Luis art co-op also had an art fair and displayed their work in the museum area.