September is Hispanic Heritage Month and it’s time to remember why their heritage is important to the San Luis Valley.
As the first and the largest group of non-tribal natives to settle Colorado, their story is essential to the history of the highest state.
The 2010 U.S. Census, as cited by the US government, confirms that Hispanics are the largest and one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Colorado.
Roughly one out of every five Coloradans is Hispanic , one out of every three Denverites, and one out of two residents of the San Luis Valley.
The Valley includes six Colorado counties and towns, with Spanish names like Alamosa, Monte Vista and Del Norte, not to mention Agua Ramon, Capulin, Mogote, Chama, Los Fuertos, Antonito, San Acacio and many others who have drawn scant attention. Even tiny Mosca is a nod to Hispanic heritage.
The Rio Grande del Norte begins in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and is essential to life in Colorado, New Mexico and parts of Texas before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Governing its allocation is an interstate agreement to apportion equitably the water of the Rio Grande among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The compact was signed at Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 18, 1938, approved by the state legislatures, and approved by Congress on May 31, 1939.
It’s part of written history since the 1500’s. Between 1540 and 1542, Francisco de Coronado, a Spanish explorer looking for the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, may have crossed into Colorado. Old Spanish records indicate that as far back as 1598 Juan de Oñate reported gold discoveries in the San Luis Valley. These early Spanish expeditions usually traveled trails that Native Americans before them had worn into the deserts, plains and mountains. Native American typically also served as guides to European explorers.
Spanish exploration and prospecting in Colorado are believed to have been more frequent than the records reveal.
On April 30, 1598, during Juan de Oñate’s expedition north from Mexico up the Rio Grande del Norte, he claimed all of that river’s drainage for Spain. The Adams-Oñis Treaty of 1819 between Spain and the United States more precisely defined, Spanish Territory in present day Colorado as everything south of the Arkansas River and west of a line running due north from the Arkansas River Headwaters on Fremont Pass up to the 102nd parallel.
Colorado’s birthplace is San Luis. Established in 1851, this is the oldest continuously occupied and incorporated town in Colorado. The Plaza de San Luis de la Culebra Historic District contains an important collection of buildings and is one of many places in the Valley listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
To the west, Conejos County was one of the original 17 counties created by the Colorado legislature on Nov. 1, 1861. First called Guadalupe, it was quickly renamed Conejos, Spanish for Rabbits. The original boundaries of the county included much of the southwestern corner of Colorado. It became part of the state in 1912. 1874, most of the western and northern portion of the county was broken away to form parts of Hinsdale, La Plata and Rio Grande Counties. Conejos County achieved its modern borders when its western half was taken to create Alamosa County in 1912.
Dating back to 1850, nearby, La Capilla de Viejo San Acacio is the oldest continuously used religious space in the state, a history highlighted by hand-carved gravestones in its cemetery. A stained glass window in the church is more than 100 years old.
In Conejos, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest Catholic parish in Colorado, boasts ancient stained-glass windows, deep history reflected in the graveyard and a nearby labyrinth under construction. In Antonito is the home of La Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos, a Hispanic union founded in 1900 to combat discrimination against Hispanics in the Valley. It eventually grew to host bases in most small towns, as well as neighborhoods in the cities.
Because it is the site of some of the earliest settlements in Colorado, rural Conejos County contains some important historical sites. The town of Antonito is home to the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, a narrow gauge steam engine railroad constructed in 1880 makes the daily trek from Antonito to Chama, New Mexico during the summer and fall and carries with it designation as a National Historic District.