Cradle of Colorado History
A cradle of Colorado history lying at the intersection of the Hispano Southwest and the Anglo Rocky Mountain West, the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is unique. Today the San Luis Valley exists as a recognizable subcategory of western culture. Main streets lined with murals, historic adobe churches and delicious tamales all represent the unique Hispano stamp of the Valley. The art, language, architecture, folklore and traditions remain evocative of the region’s early Spanish colonists and Mexican settlers.
The greater endurance of traditional values and practices in the Sangre de Cristo region may be attributed to the geographic isolation of the valley. The resiliency of the area residents and their willingness to adapt, but not fully assimilate, to modern ways also lends the area a special character. Residents of the area and their ancestors have clung steadfastly to their traditional culture and continue to resist the influences of newcomers. Time-honored Hispano traditions and lifestyles that have been passed on through the generations remain integral to modern day living.
Churches were established when new villages were settled, but because of the lack of clergy in the region, masses were held once a month in most communities.
Like northern New Mexico, the lack of clergy led to the development of La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (the Society of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene). Members of the Penitente brotherhood filled the clerical gap by providing religious leadership in the community through ceremony and ritual. Penitentes constructed moradas (meeting houses) that functioned as places of worship.
From the earliest days of settlement, religion was a central aspect of life in the San Luis Valley. Among the historic churches is Our Lady of Guadalupe located just south of Conejos. John Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe, oversaw its construction in the 1850s making it the oldest parish in Colorado.
The story of Los Hermanos Penitentes is rooted in Hispano traditions and remains a part of the area’s landscape today. Thisreligious and fraternal order arrived in the New World from Spain at the time of the conquistadors and eventually sent brothers into the San Luis Valley because of the region’s remote location and lack of Catholic priests. The brotherhood has played a role in nearly every Hispanic community in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado since1850. In addition to substituting for resident clergy and undertaking spiritual matters,the brothers also took responsibility for the charitable and economic needs among their communities. The brothers’ meeting places, called Moradas, are traditional simple adobe structures which still exist today. Some are still in use.
Hispano influences can also be found in the area’s music, arts, and architecture. Hispano music is a mixture of Spanish classical sounds melded with native instruments and rhythms to create an Indo-Hispano music. More traditional Mexican Mariachi bands are also found in the region. Along with music comes dancing and Spanish Colonial folk dances are well preserved and still practiced in the area.
Local festivals and events are a deep expression of the area’s Hispano traditions that take place throughout the year. Ceremonies, pilgrimages and festivals such as the Santa Ana and Santiago Festival are more than 150 years old and are still active today. Like the festivals, much of the art in the area is based on religious traditions. For example, artisans in the area still create religious icons such as Santero carvings and the ¾ size bronze “Stations of the Cross” statues.
Other art traditions include weaving, a craft that arose during the heyday of sheep ranching in the Valley. Weavings from the region are nationally famous and include Eppie Archuleta’s traditional Rio Grande Weaving style. Finally, the area’s historic towns showcase the traditional adobe style of architecture.
Churches and civic buildings built in this style are evidence of the influence of Hispano traditions and sit in contrast to the rail road towns like Alamosa that contain mostly brick buildings.
San Luis, Colorado’s oldest continuously inhabited community was established by Hispano settlers in 1851 and stands as an excellent demonstration of Hispano culture. The town’s architecture, food, layout and religious structures all reflect the traditions of the early settlers.
The Spanish language of the area’s first colonialists remains the dominant language in the area. Remarkably, the geographic isolation of the San Luis Valley has ensured that pure Castilian Spanish of Spain’s royal court is still spoken in certain remote villages of the Sangre de Cristo region. More common, however, is a Spanish dialect that reveals the slow mixing of culture overtime as Castilian and Mexican Spanish and, in some cases, English have all blended.