Las Animas County, Colorado

Barela, Casimirio (1847 1920)

During the troubled summer of 1864, citizens of Denver City were too angry to take much note of the lethargic state of affairs in southern Colorado Territory. The Civil War had caused problems out west, and bold Arapahoe and Cheyenne warriors had all but cut off supplies to the infant city. Troops were training at Camp Chambers, near Boulder City. A campaign against the Indians during the fall was imminent. If it failed, the swelling tide of American civilization in Colorado might be halted for many years to come. Certainly, no one in 1864 cared about the poor New Mexican padres outfitting caravans in Taos and Mora for their annual journeys over Raton Pass to the squalid collection of adobe hovels called Trinidad.

Ever since the founding of San Luis in the great southern valley during 1851, modest numbers of Hispanic immigrants had filtered into the sage-covered lands bordering the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When Colorado became a separate territory in 1861, their poor communities were carved out of New Mexico Territory. The inhabitants became isolated politically, economically, and socially. Most Americans in Denver and in the gold camps could have cared less about them. The Indians were the immediate problem. As long as the Mexicans remained confined to the southern portion of the territory, they posed no threat to the glorious pageant of Manifest Destiny being played out up north. The politicians in Washington had made them an instant minority group within the boundaries of the new territory, and the Anglo-Saxon population wholeheartedly approved.

Consequently, no one knew, and no one cared, about a seventeen-year-old lad by the name of Casimiro Barela, who made the hard trip over Raton Pass that summer in the company of the padres. The youth immediately fell in love with the new land. Being the son of a poor farmer and freighter, he returned to New Mexico in time for the harvest. Within three years, however he returned with his family to the valley of San Francisco Creek, twenty miles from Trinidad, to start a farm. Soon the citizens of Denver would know the name -- Casimiro Barela. Beginning in 1876, this immigrant from New Mexico would begin a tenure in the Colorado State Senate which would last until 1916 -- one of the longest of any state senator in the history of the United States.

Casimiro Barela was born on March 4, 1847, in the town of Embudo, in what became New Mexico Territory. Educated by the clergy in the local mission churches, Casimiro showed extraordinary academic aptitude and leadership ability at an early age. When he migrated to Colorado at age twenty, he came prepared with a plan to start a small freighting business. After staking out quarter sections under the Homestead Act, the Barela clan planted grain and raised cattle. In the fall, the Barelas took their produce in wagons to be sold at Fort Union and other isolated way stations along the old Santa Fe Trail. A little village grew up on the family's land, and they named it, appropriately, Barela, Colorado.

In March 1867, Casimiro briefly returned to New Mexico to marry Josefita Ortiz in the chapel at El Sapello. He brought his new bride to Colorado and settled down to a life which would bring him many financial and political rewards.

Within five years, Casimiro's genius for business made him a very successful man. With early profits, he started a sheep ranch. He invested in the budding open range business. He imported over 1,200 head of Texas Longhorns into Barela to stock his growing ranch. From there his investments and corresponding wealth multiplied, extending to railroads, real estate, and banking.

During the 1870s, Barela built "El Porvenir," a veritable castle at the base of a small mountain. The luxurious stone mansion was resplendant with drawbridges, gardens, and reflecting pools. Turreted spires allowed Casimiro to look down upon his sheep and cattle empire below the village named for his family.

In 1871, Casimiro Barela went to Denver as a territorial representative from newly organized Las Animas County. His commanding use of the English language spoken with an eloquent Spanish accent immediately impressed his fellow legislators. In 1875, he was chosen to be one of the forty-nine delegates to the convention that drafted the Colorado state constitution. At Barela's urging, the laws of the new state were printed in English, Spanish, and German. In arguing his case, Barela exclaimed, "You may say that ignorance of the law does not excuse the breaking of it. I say it is the only excuse."

With statehood in 1876, Barela was elected senator from Las Animas County and thus began a career which extended into the second decade of the twentieth century.

Casimiro's wife, Josefita, died in 1883. Within a year he married Damiana Rivera, a wealthy woman from New Mexico. The senator built yet another town, naming it Rivera in honor of his new bride. His own assets combined with those acquired through this second marriage elevated Barela to a position of wealth unequaled among the Hispanic peoples of southern Colorado. By the mid-1880s, he was one of the three wealthiest stockmen in the state. His horses were recognized as among the finest in the nation. From his famous sire, Senator, came many of the noblest quarter horses and polo ponies to ever please the tastes of eastern sophisticates. In business and private life, Casimiro Barela was very successful.

More notable than his financial accomplishments, however, is his record of achievement in helping the Hispanic people of Colorado while concurrently displaying the pragmatic political sense to keep himself in a position of power during an age of severe racial prejudice. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Casimiro Barela had set the state well on the path toward listening to the concerns of people in southern Colorado. But the task was not an easy one.

Throughout his long career, Barela used his eloquence as a speaker to advance his many causes. Not without a sharp temper, he had the ability to out-shout the best of them on the floor of the Senate. He always seemed to get his point of view across in boisterous fashion. Within a very short time, many people believed that Casimiro Barela would become a major force in the Colorado Senate. And they were right.

In order to garner political support and inform Hispanic people about his activity in the Senate, Casimiro Barela established two printing businesses. Las Dos Republicas was centered in Denver where Hispanics were starting to congregate toward the end of the nineteenth century. The other press, EI Progresso, was located in Trinidad to serve his constituents in Las Animas County. Leaflets and news releases, printed in Spanish, frequently rolled off the giant iron presses and were distributed,

Casimiro Barela did not go unchallenged by his numerous enemies. During a speech delivered to the people of Hoehne, Colorado, on Halloween evening of 1896, that point was made all too clear. No one seemed to notice a window being raised on the second story of an adjacent wood frame building as Senator Barela rose to speak. Within a few moments, five shots rang out across the plaza. People screamed. The senator fell to the ground, blood flowing down his cheek.

Fortunately, Barela was only grazed. But the crowd wanted action. A posse was organized to round up two men who had been seen fleeing down a dusty alley. "We'll hang them on the spot," was the violent reaction from the incensed crowd. Barela motioned them to be quiet. "Violence," he said, "is not the answer. Let the law take its course."

By 1900, opposition to Barela and the concerns of the Hispanic population in southern Colorado increased. Anglo opponents forced close elections in Las Animas County after that time. After one especially hard-fought campaign, Barela won re-election to the Senate by a very slim margin. His opponent insisted that the election had been unfair. He claimed election fraud. Showing no anger, Casimiro Barela offered his defeated opponent $100 to help pay for the protest. After a recount, Barela was once again returned to the Senate.

Despite his staunch stands and unrelenting desire to help his people, Senator Barela maintained the cool political sense necessary to flow with changing times. After the administration of

Populist Governor Davis Waite was blamed for the depression of 1893, both Populist and Democrat alike were out of favor with most Colorado voters. After 1901, reform sentiment, which culminated with the regulatory changes spearheaded by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, was taking the nation by storm. With the dawn of a new century, Casimiro Barela thus switched his allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Consequently, he was able to win reelection in 1902, sweeping in on the coattails of Governor James Peabody. To strike a balance between the interests of his Hispanic constituents and the interests of the state as a whole, Barela very shrewdly supported popular stands in Colorado. He was an ardent supporter of the silver standard, populism in the 1890s, and the progressive movement of the early 1900s.

By the turn of the century, Barela depended more and more on Anglo votes to remain in office. Finally, in 1916, it all came to an end. Barela was defeated for the Senate by Wesley De Busk. For the first time in forty years he was not returned to the state capitol. He retired to Rivera, where he spent the remainder of his life in seclusion. On December 18, 1920, the "perpetual senator" peacefully passed away. He was buried in the old cemetery at Trinidad.

Today, the prairie winds blow wild across the weathered remains of the old town of Barela, Colorado. The community is no longer on maps, but the ambitions of its founder, Casimiro Barela, are still very much alive. Barela was successful during his generation because of his unusual sense of pragmatism. He was, after all, "el patron." Ever since the early settlement of southern Colorado, the Mexican plaza system of community development had its political patrons. These local politicians received political support in return for the obligation of providing employment and political favors for their constituents in the villages. After 1876, Casimiro Barela transferred this age-old concept to the state level. By that time, however, the arrival in Trinidad of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway and the eventual discovery of coal in southern Colorado brought ever-increasing numbers of Anglos into Las Animas and adjacent counties.

The resulting cultural conflict doomed the plaza system and impoverished many Hispanics. Casimiro Barela witnessed this collapse. He remained in power only so long as he was able to bridge the gap between the interests of the two ethnic groups in his constituency and in the state at large. When he left office, much of his cause fell silent for a time.

Colorado Profiles, Casimiro Barela. Western History Department, Denver Public Library.

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