Huerfano County, Colorado
Oral Interviews

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Nasario Garcia

Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Dick Chenault

Hispanic Heritage in Huerfano County, Colorado
by: Nasario Garcia
Department of Foreign Languages
University of Southern Colorado
Pueblo, Colorado 81001

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado ventured into the Southwest in 1540 in search of the treasures of Quivira. This marked the beginning of a series of explorations that helped shape a large portion of the Southwesternpart of the United States. Other explorers like Antonio de Espejo, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, Francisco Leyba de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña, followed.

But Juan de Archuleta, a surname that has been quite popular in the history of Huerfano County, was the first to penetrate Colorado territory in 1664. He and a reconnaissance group in pursuit of Indians from Taos reconnoitered Southern Colorado which today includes Huerfano County. His efforts signaled the beginning of Hispanic heritage from the Arkansas River east and south of Pueblo extending to various parts of the territory. Another 17th century explorer, Don Diego de Vargas, Governor and Captain General of New Mexico, traveled to Colorado over three—quarters of a century before the United States became a sovereign nation.

In l706, Juan de Ulibarri, at the command of the governor of New Mexico, forged into Colorado in search of Indian fugitives. By then the route from Santa Fe to Denver, with intermittent stops at Taos, Trinidad, Walsenburg (Plaza de los Leones) and Pueblo, was well established, The search for more Indian fugitives during the latter part of the 18th century culminated in the defeat of Juan Bautista de Anza of Cuerno Verde, the Comanche leader. This occurred south of Pueblo at the foot of the Greenhorn Mountain, named in his honor. Permanent settlements in Huerfano County are generally dated from the mid-19th century after Colorado became part of the United States, upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico in 1848. This was almost thirty years before Colorado actually became a state.

The question is, where did the first Hispanic settlers of Huerfano County come from? Most of them came from New Mexico, with a few, very few, coming from Texas. Those whose relatives came from New Mexico claim Spain as their mother country, even though only a limited number of them refer to specific provinces, Vascongadas, for example, or cities like Córdoba.

The hispanos in Huerfano County most frequently mention places in New Mexico like Espanola, Questa (Cuesta), Mora, Taos, Tierra Amarilla, Amalia and Wagon Mound. Virtually all of them are in the northern part of the state. In some cases Spanish names of smaller villages in Mew Mexico, for example, Talpa, Badito (Vadito), Chama and Santa Clara, were adopted for their new settlements. Other names reflect the topography of the county according to what they saw or imagined: Alamo (poplar or cottonwood), El Palomar (grove of doves), La Jara (thicket, willow, reed, etc.,), Piedras Amarillas (Yellowstones), Laguna (lagoon), Rio del Oso (river of the bear), Las Vivoras (snakes or vipers), El Arroyo (small stream), El Oso (the bear), Los Crestones (crests or summits), La Veta (the vein), Mosco (gnat or mosquito), Rito Puerto, Rito de la Gallina (“Turkey” Creek), Delagua (De la Agua) (from the water), El Graneros (the grainery) and Cucharas (spoons). The majority of these names are not listed in studies that have been conducted on Colorado place names. This would indicate that the Hispanic heritage of Colorado, especially Southern Colorado, has not been adequately documented in the recorded history of the state.

Places like Walsenburg, the center of activity in Huerfano County, was named in honor of Fred Walsen, a community leader who operated a general store. However, the city began as a small Hispanic settlement known as La Plaza de los Leones, named for Don Miguel Antonio Leon, an early settler. Similar name changes have taken place elsewhere: Farisita was once known as Huerfano Canyon by settlers and travelers who used the Taos Trail in the 1850's. Later the name was changed to Talpa, also a Spanish name for “knob,” but, because there was a Talpa, New Mexico, the postmaster Asperidon S. Faris offered the nickname of his daughter Jeanette, whom everyone called “Farisita.” Thus, Plaza de los Leones and Talpa are only two examples of Spanish names that have disappeared from Huerfano County. Huerfano, meaning “orphan,” itself has survived distortions like “Wolfano,” at least in spelling.

Another question that one may ask is, “Why did settlers come to Huerfano County?” The principal reasons were trading, mining or agriculture. At the outset people came for hunting and trapping, and later for agricultural reasons. Settlers came seeking arable land, as available irrigated lands in New Mexico became more and more scarce. The winter seasons in the Wet Mountains were also milder than those in the San Luis Valley. The wild game of the Huerfano Valley was found to be fatter and more plentiful than the game in the more severe climates. Settlers came by horse and buggy, on horseback and afoot across, the Santa Fe Trail and up from Ratón and other locations in New Mexico. Before long relatives followed. All of this movement transpired around the decades of the mid-l9th century and onward.

Since the vast majority of the land was uninhabited by permanent settlers, the newcomers were able to homestead. The magical number of acres that settlers acquired was one hundred and sixty. Learning the system of irrigation by ditches from the Indians, early Hispanic settlers began to till the lands by the many rivers and creeks of Huerfano County. Two of the earliest settlements were Cucharas, east of Walsenburg, by present Highway 10 and Autobee's Plaza, on the Upper Huerfano. Badito, the county seat until 1876, stood at a central juncture of the Santa Fe Trail from Taos to Pueblo, and was the center of much activity in early county years.

Many hispanos in Huerfano County today rejoice at the prosperous times of yesteryear. They all recall with sadness that as soon as they fell in arrears in property taxes, either the banks took over their land, they abandoned it because they could not survive, or they sold it cheaply. There are accounts in which land, large tracts of it, was sold to the “outsider” for pittance. In one case a man sold his land for a few goats and an old bath tub. Episodes like this are recalled with sadness and even some bitterness by individuals who witnessed, experienced or were told by their forefathers of such losses and the circumstances surrounding them. Other hispanos say that the big change in land ownership took place after World War II, children of many families who had homesteaded the same land for generations were no longer satisfied with the subsistence existence of the farm, and left the land for jobs in the cities. In some cases they sold the land, and in other cases they simply left, unaware that the land could be purchased by others for delinquent taxes.

Not all hispanos in Huerfano County have been carefree about their land; nor have they had to abandon it. Many have never left their ranches; others have gone away to work elsewhere but have retained ownership. The hispano still owns much property, but it remains to be seen what will happen if he/she is not around to take care of it.

The relationship between hispanos and Anglos was a cooperative enterprise in early pioneer days. Mixed marriages between Anglo soldiers from Ft. Garland and so-called Mexican girls from Walsenburg, for example, had occurred ever since the 19th century. Names like Burns, Reynolds and King were some of the first to intermarry. However, the importation of immigrant labor for the mines brought with it considerable tensions, partly because many of the Hispanic miners held management positions in a period of time when labor and management were at odds. Another contributing factor to these tensions was that most Hispanic settlers at this time were Republicans, while the pro—union immigrants were members of the emerging Democratic party. Despite tensions between Anglos and hispanos, Huerfano County appears to be one of the few county governments in Colorado to maintain a working partnership between Anglo and hispano in the administration of local government.

Over the past one-hundred years many hispanos have been active in politics in Huerfano County. A number of them has held political office. Names like Lupe Archuleta, Juan de Dios Montez, and J.J. Valdez, are synonymous with politics. Juan de Dios Móntez is said to have been responsible for building the court house in Walsenburg. One area where discrimination has been evident in the past is in education. Most Anglo teachers did not know Spanish, the only language the mono-lingual hispano knew in most cases. In addition, it was against state law to speak or to allow Spanish to be spoken on the school grounds. As a result, people today vividly recall being punished because they spoke Spanish, even though their school may have been composed predominantly of Spanish speakers. Some English speaking teachers thought that students spoke Spanish to ridicule or make fun of them, Not all of these teachers reacted in hostile fashion; some were very compassionate toward and understanding of the hispano's language and culture.

Eventually schools in Huerfano County began to hire hispano teachers who spoke Spanish either from the county itself, from New Mexico, or occasionally from Mexico. Later the difficulties of entering an English speaking school system for children from a Spanish speaking background were acknowledged formally by educators, and bilingual materials were introduced into the school system as a means of overcoming this disadvantage.

While there were conflicts and disagreements between parents and teachers, they agreed on one thing: discipline. Fathers and mothers were strict disciplinarians, and, consequently a child who misbehaved at school also suffered the consequences at home. Misbehaving was not tolerated, either at home or at school.

Physical conditions at school were often inadequate. Most schools were one room edifices with a pot—belly stove placed strategically to keep everyone warm. The lower grades sat in the front rows and the advanced ones toward the back of the classroom. Some schools had recreation; others did not.

The one room country schoolhouse had its advantages and its disadvantages. On the one hand, the student's education depended almost entirely on the quality of the teacher that he or she was likely to have for a number of years. A good teacher could mean encouragement, learning, and inspiration for years to come; a bad teacher could mean disaster for a child's education. On the positive side was the close working relationship between the community, teachers and students. The community school boards, elected by the many small school districts, selected teachers, prepared budgets, and supervised the local, schools. One room schools not only provided personal involvement by parents in the school, but also served as a meeting place and center of social and political activities for the community.

Education was neither easy for the teacher nor for the child. One of the difficulties in the early days was the long distances to school that students had to travel, either on horseback or afoot. Teachers were also not always well prepared. Compounding these two factors was the parents' attitude toward education. Most parents did not consider education important. The chores on the farms took precedence, and as a result, children often attended school only three months out of the year. Hispanic teachers recognized the validity of education and offered good advice to parents, but most often it was ignored.

Many parents preferred for their children to follow in their own foot-steps, which included farming or ranching. For those who had thousands of sheep, their thinking was understandable, but not everyone was that fortunate. Many hispanos were ordinary sheepherders who frequently had to leave Colorado and travel to Wyoming or Nevada f or temporary employment as sheep shearers. Their income was supplemented with whatever they were able to raise on their farms.

These farms were often small, water dependent on rainfall (de temporal), and farming equipment (horse and plow) was inadequate. Therefore, the production of food was usually only enough to sustain a family. Food raised included squash, corn, beans, peas, lentils, wheat and spinach. Other foods the hispano enjoyed at home were sopaipillas, enchiladas, chili, atole, chaquehue (chaquewe), tortillas, panocha, chi— cos and toasted habas (today's version of popcorn). If a hog was butchered, soap was made in the process; if a cow was slaughtered, carne seca or jerkey was prepared to preserve the meat. In reading about life on farms and ranches we find, over and over, people mentioning how plentiful crops were in earlier years, and how neighbors worked together from planting time through harvest. It seems that cooperation and sharing characterized the lives of these agrarian settlers.


In the second half of this article we shall examine some of the customs and folkways of the hispano in Huerfano County. Most Hispanic folklore found in Huerfano County is closely related to the many traditional lore characteristic of and indigenous to northern New Mexico, which itself can be traced back to Spain, via Mexico. The hispano's folkloric customs in the county were unaffected by either the presence of large numbers of Mexican immigrants in Colorado who came after the Mexican revolution of 1910, or by the Indian cultures which were once visible in the region. Nevertheless, there has been a decline of many of the hispano folkways as the population diminished and because newer generations have lost interest in maintaining them.

Today, for example, probably all hispanos go to a doctor for medical assistance, but in Huerfano County before 1900 there were no doctors, so most of the Hispanic population depended solely on the medical expertise of the curandera or the medica, the folk healer (even nowadays many hispanos would prefer a curandera to a doctor), who specialized in various kinds of remedios or remedies. These included, among others, herbs like yerba buena (spearmint), poleo (pennyroyal of mint family), osha (chuchapate of parsley family), chmiso (j ) hediondo (sagebrush of aster family) and manzanilla (camomile tea of aster family); or oils like aceite mejicano, so-called Mexican oil or aceite volcánico, volcanic oil. Many of these remedies are still popular today in numerous households.

Faith in the curandera, médica or a partera (mid-wife) and the sobador(a) (folk chiropractor) extended to religion as well. Religion is inextricably bound to medicine in most Hispanic communities in New Mexico and that is true in Huerfano County. The rezador(a)--the person who prayed during someone's illness—-would be called upon to say a rosary, a novena or some other prayers for the person who was ill, and the rezador(a) usually did so as a kind of community service without charging the family of the ill person.

Respect for the Catholic Church among hispanos in Huerfano County has always been profound. Women have had the reputation of being more religious than the men, except perhaps for the men who belonged to the penitentes, lay brothers sponsored by the Catholic Church. One organization in Huerfano County was La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus. The purpose of organization like this one was to take care of the local church and its possessions; and to conduct religious services and provide help for the parishioners during the absence of priests who often only came to the community once a month.

During Holy Week, the most solemn religious season for most Christians, including hispanos, the men participated in the penitente rituals, such as flagellation, crowning with thorns and crucifixion, while the women, many of them wives, would take food to their husbands who were in seclusion praying. Moradas (lodgings or meeting houses) became alternative sites when the use of regular church buildings was not given. They were common in Colonias, Lagunas, Cucharas, Rito del Oso, Chama, Badito, Farisita and Walsenburg. There are still active moradas in Huerfano County. Most penitentes, though, have disappeared, in part because the Church and State frowned upon some of their practices like self—flagellation, a medieval practice, and because of the harassment of curious adolescents.

The penitentes limited their participation to men only, but on dias de fiesta or festive days, everyone in the community celebrated. The days that called for a celebration in Huerfano County were those honoring the village's patron saint or simply another saint's day. The most popular were Santa Ana (St. Anne) and Santiago*(St. James), both during the latter part of July. Popular also were St. John's Day (Dia de San Juan) on June 24th and San Isidro, the farmer's patron saint, celebrated in May. Noche Buena or Christmas Eve was celebrated too, although there is no mention of the Midnight Mass or Misa del Gallo which is very popular even today in the rural as well as urban areas of New Mexico.

On days of celebration, most of which were during the summer months, all kinds of activities took place. The festivities usually began with a short procession around the church before the mass. This was followed by various sporting events. Las corridas de gallo, literally the “rooster races,” in which a rooster was buried in the ground with his head sticking out so the man could lean down and scoop up the Spain's patron saint fowl as he galloped by on horseback, was a favorite in many villages. Rivalries existed between communities like Chama and Los Crestones (Redwing).

Most events like horse races, cockfights, baseball, bronco riding, steer riding and calf roping were all dominated by men. So were games like Tejas or “Tiles,” a game that can best be compared with horseshoes, but instead of using horseshoes, flat stones were substituted and pitched into a hole in the ground. Another game that was common in Huerfano County, also brought from New Mexico, was El Chueco, like field hockey and played with a ball, although in other parts of Colorado it is known as La Pelota, “The Ball.”

Even though most activities were for men only, St. Anne's Day was reserved especially for women. They rode on horseback and they had their own horse races, but they did not participate in rough male-dominated sports celebrated on other dias de fiesta.

A day's festivities always culminated with a dance in the evening at the local community dance hall, often a school house. Entire families attended, young and old alike. The dances were joyous occasions. The music was gay. The guitar and the violin were the popular instruments and there was hardly ever a problem in finding musicians to play. Once in a while someone joined the other two with an accordion. The dances they played rangedfrom polkas, valses (waltzes) and folk dances like cuadrillas, cunas, redondos to the varsoviana, the American version of “Put Your Little Foot.”

During these dances young people had an opportunity to meet socially. The boys were allowed to attend the dances alone or with their male amigos, but the girls had to be accompanied by the father and mother or other members of the family. Certain formalities were practiced at times. A boy often asked the mother if he could dance with her daughter. When the dances were over, the girls went home with their families. Freedom was limited and fraternizing was restricted.

Courtship sometimes started at these dances, although it was the exception rather than the rule. In many cases the parents of the boy simply pre-arranged the marriage between their son and a girl whom they wished for a daughter—in law. In this case, neither he nor she really had too much to say about the matter. If a marriage was not arranged by either parents and courting had occurred, the prospective son-in—law underwent a test by the girl's parents.

This generally meant that the boy's parents would visit her parents (the son would accompany them) with a carta de pedimento asking them for their daughter's hand-in-marriage. The boy then waited a week to ten days. If he heard nothing negative from her parents via his parents, approval was imminent and hence he was spared a “squashing” or calabazas, a practice that supposedly started a long time ago when someone was rejected but was sent home with pumpkins instead of empty handed.

Parental stronghold on their children usually resulted in a strong family unity. Discipline was rigid and respect for parents and the elderly was practiced. Reason and advice took precedence over punishment, but the latter was not precluded under any circumstances. Most families were large and the eldest son shared in the responsibilities of the family. Today many hispanos in Huerfano County, particularly the older ones, believe that family unity is weakening, that brothers do not like or help each other the way they used to years ago. Children's laws in Colorado, according to some of them, are also causing family disunity because they interfere with the parents' right to discipline their own children.

In the days when there was no radio or television, it was customary to assemble the children in the evenings after supper for praying and/or story telling. The person who conducted these “sessions” was a grandparent. His/her repertoire of payers, stories, riddles, sayings, adages and the like, was extensive. Thanks to people like them, a family was kept close and united at the same time that various aspects of folklore were kept alive. Testimony to this is one of the oldest legends, La llorona, “The Wailing Woman,” who, according to legend, killed her baby and afterwards threw it into the water. When she died she was forced to suffer for her crime by wandering along the banks of the river mourning her child. In conclusion, several observations concerning the hispanos in Huerfano County are in order. They are proud of their heritage and the role each has played in shaping the history of the county and the contributions made to Colorado. As they look back in time an ambivalence of pleasant and sad memories prevails, but at the same time most of them are realistic, without delusions or regrets. Perhaps Sam Vigil summed it up best when he said: “I believe we ought to learn more and more of these affairs (about our past) because our purpose is this. The more we talk about it to others, it is to the benefit of everybody. (Then) I am very happy.” Hopefully the spirit of these words has been captured in this study on the hispano's heritage in Huerfano County.

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