A new book reveals the lessons anonymous Hispanic pioneers can teach us about caring for the environment.
"On the Edge of Purgatory: An Archaeology of Place in Hispanic Colorado" by Dr. Bonnie Clark, an associate professor of anthropology and an archaeologist at the University of Denver, explores the "unwritten history" of the Hispanic population in the southern part of the state.
Clark and some of her students examined the everyday lives of diverse populations in southern Colorado since the arrival of the first Europeans until the first decades of the last century.
Their analysis combined archaeological excavations in southern Colorado with contemporary ethnography and oral and written history and led to the discovery of the impact the region's economic and political changes had on the identity of the groups living there and about the role Hispanics played for hundreds of years in the development of ethnic identity in Colorado and in the West.
Clark describes her approach as "thinking about the present through the past." And one of the main lessons learned, she said, is the way Hispanic families could commune with nature, using renewable natural resources, but not "exploit" those resources and pollute the land.
Clark began her archaeological work in southern Colorado in 1993 as part of a team that was cataloging archaeological and architectural sites in the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, which for three decades has belonged to the U.S. Department of Defense.
The PCMS is an area of more than 236,000 acres southeast of Pueblo, near the Purgatoire River, between the towns of La Junta and Trinidad.
Clark returned to the area in 2000 to conduct archaeological excavations as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she completed in 2003 at the University of California at Berkeley. Almost a decade later, this dissertation has been published in a book "that explores the Colorado Hispanic, which is both a place and a people."
Clark and colleagues focused on La Placita, a name given by researchers to an anonymous and abandoned site in which several Hispanic families lived for at least 10 years in the second half of the nineteenth century, forming a "regional community."
These families took advantage of the resources the land offered, for example, capturing rainwater, orienting the house toward the area receiving the most hours of sunlight (south), using local materials for housing construction, and eating what they could hunt or farm.
However, the arrival of the railroad and mining from about 1880 on marked the end of an era, forcing men to find to work away from their land and eventually leading to the abandonment of these lands and homes.
"The anglos took over the region, which led to the neglect of the history of the Hispanic presence. But the physical traces of their presence are still there, from architecture to waste," said Clark.
"Hispanics worked and lived in places like La Placita. Their children were playing there, because we found toys. Although children also worked, for example, hunting rabbits, it must have been an amazing place to be a child," she added.
According to Clark, the anonymous Hispanics of that time left an important lesson for the present, to "live off the land using the resources, but without exaggeration."
"They really knew the land. They lived in a beautiful place and were socially active. La Placita was the setting for socializing. It was a way to show who did not want to be anglo and who were content with what they had," said Clark.
For this anthropologist and archaeologist, how Hispanics relate to the land is very different than the way in which Anglos do. "La Placita is a testament to the love Hispanics had for their land," she said.By 1900, only 18 percent of Hispanics still had their land and homes.
La Placita, said Clark, is an example of what happens when self-sufficient families are forced into a wage economy.
"There are also lessons to be learned there," she said.