A town in southern Colorado where Hispanic, Native and Anglos lived a century and a half ago but is now defunct, still offers important lessons for current cultural and technological exchange, according to Virginia Sánchez, an independent historian for the Hispanic Genealogical Society of Colorado.
In October 1862, eight Hispanic families from the San Luis Valley crossed over to the other side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and founded the town of Cuchara, were they settled to do farm work and raise sheep.
But the arrival of the railroad a decade later, and the opening of mines and metallurgical plants in southern Colorado, the forced language change from English to Spanish and the separation of families (men worked for
The story of Cuchara and the Hispanic families living there would had been forgotten if not for a document from 1884 related to the use of ditches (irrigation canals) that Estela Fernández, Sánchez' mother in law and a descendant of Cuchara's inhabitants, gave to Sánchez.
The analysis of that document and others, including registries, newspapers, maps and census of that era and later periods, and interviews with the eight other descendants of pioneer families, allowed Sánchez to reconstruct a complex history of exchange and cultural shock that initially led Cuchara to be a prosperous town and then sentenced her to disappear.
Sánchez compiled the results of her research in a book, Forgotten Cuchareños of the Lower Valley (Los Cuchareños Olvidados del Valle Inferior), published by The History Press and presented by Sánchez during CSHG's year-end meeting in 2010.
"A book about Hispanics in southern Colorado should have been written long ago. Few books have been written on this subject and even less about Hispanics in Huerfano County," said Sánchez.
Her book, said the historian, presents new historical information about the first Hispanics in Cuchara, focusing on two elements that previously received little attention: the presence of Native Americans adopted as servants by Hispanic families and the responsibility of women in the care and maintenance of ditches.
"The cuchareños were strongly influenced by their relations with the indigenous tribes of the area and then with the Anglo-Americans and European immigrants. Many changes occurred when the Anglos arrived in the Valley of Cuchara in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," Sánchez said.
"The English newspapers of Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Walsenburg and Trinidad worked with the railroad Denver & Rio Grande (D & RG) to promote the sale of land in southern Colorado and to attract entrepreneurs and Anglo farmers," she said.
As a result, Hispanic farmers and landowners in Cuchara and the surrounding areas were forced to sell their land first, then leave the area and finally to switch languages. By 1930, with the closure of railways and mines, Cuchara was virtually deserted.
"Cuchara was a place where Hispanics lived together with Native Americans, like the Ute and Navajo, to the point that they adopted their lifestyle and many of their practices, such as wearing moccasins and eating venison. Hispanics and Native Americans exchanged horse blankets, bags, tilmas and ponchos," said Sánchez.
"But the arrival of the railways from 1872 on changed everything," she said.
For example, when Cuchara was founded, its two main streets were named Valdez and Bustos. But soon after the railroad arrived in August 1874, these names were changed to Main and Miller. In addition, laws and contracts that were written in Spanish had to be written in English only.
The newspapers' campaign was so successful "that we have forgotten an important part of Colorado history and the important contributions made by Hispanics in southern Colorado."
"There are many other communities that we must also document," said Sánchez.
Katie Parry, of The History Press, said Sánchez "provides a fascinating account of the native cultures, the Hispanic and the Anglo communities in southern Colorado."
"Sánchez presents events that ultimately resulted in changes in the social and political situation of Hispanics in that area. These events are important to the history of Colorado, but they are almost forgotten. The history of Cuchara and other Hispanic communities needs to be documented and their history needs to be remembered," Parry said.
For more information, visit hispanicgen.org.