Voices of the Valley Oral Histories

Language carries the culture and stories transport the past.

Collecting community memories involves a program that records oral histories, family photos, photography of artwork and hand crafted items, recipes, songs, and traditions. This lets each individual contribute what they feel is an important part of their heritage, and their community’s heritage, within the broader context of the region’s history.

Since so much of the cultural significance of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area stems from its residents; their traditions, families, faith, and communities. It is important to the heritage area that voices of individuals and groups have their interpretations and memories recorded. Voices of the Valley is an oral history study that explores the rich historical and cultural legacy that has shaped life in the San Luis Valley by interviewing locals to help answer the question, “What is the meaning of this place and how am I connected?”. Heritage pride and community memory grows as more of these important narratives are recorded.

This project, protects and celebrates living heritage resources, language, art, traditions, spirituality, and sites associated with traditional cultural practices. It fosters understanding and pride in cultural identity and community spirit among residents of all ages, those who’s families stem from this part of Colorado and the broader history of Colorado.

Eagan Family

“We are proud of our Irish heritage,” exclaimed Danny Eagan “and we must keep it strong.” The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area recognizes the vast and different heritages that create a vibrant cultural loom. To celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious celebration in honor of Ireland’s foremost patron Saint, we sat down with Danny and his two sons Rion and Tyler Eagan, to discuss how they celebrate their heritage. The Eagan’s who live in Alamosa, have been able to trace their roots all the way to County Mayo, Ireland by utilizing Ancestry.com. Danny’s great grandfather, John T. Eagan, and 1.5 million of others, left Ireland due to the disease that had destroyed their potato crops. These difficult conditions left millions without food. The immigrants who made it to America settled in Boston, New York, and other cities where they lived in harsh conditions. During this time period, Irish immigrants were often looked down upon and treated poorly. Unskilled workers worried that the Irish would take their jobs, and Protestants persecuted the Irish’s faith, Catholicism. The Eagan family overtime drifted out West. Danny’s grandfather moved to Morrison, Colorado to begin working on the railroad, specifically the Rio Grande Western. Danny shared that his grandfather was the first generation to live in the San Luis Valley, and his grandfather found work as the Postmaster in Antonito. The Eagan’s, meaning “fire” in Irish, keep their traditions alive by continuing to research their family origins, sharing stories, eating and drinking Irish cuisine, and rooting for Notre Dame sports.  When asked what Irish cuisines they enjoy the Eagan’s collectively exclaimed “potatoes!” It’s a staple to find cornbeef and cabbage alongside a tall glass of Guinness beer at the Eagan’s dinner table. The Eagan’s are eager to one day revisit their roots in Ireland and see where their heritage began. For now, Tyler shared that he purchased land in Ireland and gave his father the deed. Curiously, the land is a single square foot and brings the Eagan family plenty of laughs.

Kathy Faz

As a young girl growing up in San Antonio, Texas, many childhood experiences led Kathy to a career and interest in land conservation and historic preservation. Kathy was immersed in the outdoors during visits to her local neighborhood parks, but it was her family and church visits to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park that was her first introduction to National Park Service. Adorned in a headdress and ceremonial clothing, Kathy and hundreds of other Matachines Dancers would descend upon the San Antonio Missions to celebrate religious feast days. This traditional dance has indigenous and Spanish roots that have been passed on generation to generation since the 17 th century. This rich cultural pilgrimage infused Kathy’s young mind with passion and gratitude for public lands and created a harmonious connection with the land. Profound moments steeped in cultural traditions within her childhood, transformed Kathy into an adult advocate. Kathy is now able to pass the torch of preserving history, culture, and tradition, and protecting the great outdoors to today’s youth. In her current role with the National Park Service, Kathy is investing in our youth by creating educational programs and camps that she hopes will plant a seed of passion for public lands and all they have to offer us. Further, Kathy is forging towards a more equal world by making space and time for young voices to be heard, promoting access to public lands, advocating for environmental justice, and uplifting the voices within marginalized communities. Kathy currently lives in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, and is Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The person that Kathy is today is shaped and woven by her parents who encouraged her to dream big, and who she states have left a distinctive mark on the defining moments within her career and life. Kathy is continuously inspired by her partner whose knowledge and appreciation of resource conservation, and connection to land and tradition, fuel her passions and expand her mind. When asked what advice she would give to the next generation of women leaders, Kathy without hesitation remarked: “do not ever doubt your worth, and when faced with a challenge, see it as an opportunity for personal growth.”

Kathy currently lives in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, and is Chief of Interpretation at the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. She is also the liaison between National Park Service and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.

Alex Hernandez

Alex Hernandez, Regional Program Manager for the National Park Service’s National Heritage Areas Program, sat down with us to share reflections, inspirations, and motivations that have shaped the woman she is today. As a young girl, Alex dreamed of becoming an archaeologist and even an astronaut. That dream was sculpted by empowering female family figures, especially her mother. “My mother is a passionate force to be reckoned with and she constantly encouraged me to dream big, work hard, and be a better person,” Alex says with a gleaming smile. Coming from Latina and Native American roots, Alex is motivated in her work to preserve and share underrepresented stories that often go untold. Alex worked for the NPS Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, which ensures that stories of those detained during World War II are preserved and protected for present and future generations. “My younger self would be proud of the work that I do today.” The highlight of Alex’s career thus far was in 2019 when she was the Acting Superintendent at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Arizona. Alex is currently forging to a more equal world by uplifting voices that deserve a seat at the table. Alex encourages women to strive for positions of leadership, and when encountering a barrier or a challenge, “keep on going,” she exclaimed.

Alex is a huge asset to the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. Alex always looks for opportunities to share the organization’s successes and ideas on a national level. We appreciate her dedication and visits to the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.

Loretta Mitson

Loretta Mitson was raised in a family that was supportive of worker rights and unions. Back in the Great Depression days, her grandfather was a printer in Detroit and when times were tough and work was cut back, the union printers all cut back their hours so everyone could have some work. Detroit, being an industrial auto town, there were a lot of people in breadlines.

After their father’s untimely death and at the age of 12 and 13, Loretta and her brother spent the summer picking cherries in the orchards of Pennsylvania, trying to make some money because finances were tight. She suffered a back injury as the result of being given a broken ladder to use.  The lifelong consequences of that injury made her wonder what would have become of her had she been one of the migrants, who were working alongside them in the orchards, who had families to support with no benefits.

When Loretta was in high school in Southern California, she recalled the importance to her family of never crossing a picket line. If they were to go to a grocery store that had a picket line, her mother refused to cross the picket line and they would simply drive to another store.

When Loretta was in college, the UFW was still organizing in Southern California. They had made progress with organizing farm workers in terms of worker rights. The problem was that the UFW was not getting the political traction it needed. In between working full time and going to school full time, Loretta would volunteer with the local United Farm Workers organization in 1973. It was something that mattered so she made sure she had the time. The UFW had spent over a decade organizing farm workers, and now they needed to provide the public with education on why it was important to support the UFW’s efforts to enable farmworkers to collectively bargain for workplace rights that were already afforded to most workers in the United States. In 1974, Loretta was working for the City of Fullerton when the UFW asked her to join full time. Loretta decided that she could not pass up the opportunity to work for the UFW. Loretta’s employer, the City of Fullerton, agreed to hold her job.

Loretta was hired on as an organizer and was strategically placed in suburban areas. During that time the UFW called on Fred Ross, who taught Cesar Chavez, to train the new organizers in East LA. They sat through days of training on how to organize a community and how to approach people that were not familiar with the issues. They spent a lot of time educating themselves about labor law history, the history of the UFW and farm labor, and the issues of pesticides, herbicides, and their toxicity. Following their training, they were sent back to their assigned communities where they lived in community houses and lived on $5 per week, as did all UFW employees, including Cesar and his family.  It was a low budget operation!  Since Loretta had savings, she decided not to give up her apartment and instead would host volunteers to stay with her. Loretta remarks that the times were rough, but everyone had a roof over their heads and all the beans and tortillas they could eat. There was no time for a social life as they worked 6 days a week, and it was intense. Every week you had to report who you recruited, what you did, and how you did it. Loretta and other organizers would spread the word at malls, grocery stores, and house meetings. It was common practice to put on films in the community to create publicity for the general public. One often successful event was called a sopa, where they would show a film and give a presentation to the public, serve beans and tortillas, and then the attendees would donate the cost of what a restaurant meal would be to the UFW. This showed a sense of camaraderie with the struggle of farmworkers.

In the early 70’s the UFW started the Gallo Wine Boycott. Gallo Wine, manufactured in Modesto, California, is the largest wine company in the world. Their political complicity, in helping agribusinesses resist the efforts of farmworkers to unionize and collectively bargain for labor rights, made them the focus of the UFW’s efforts. Due to the pressure they received from the Union, Gallo Wine stopped putting the Gallo label on their wines in an attempt to hide their identity, and resorted to only putting “Modesto, California” on their bottles. The Union spent time educating the public and creating a reference guide on which wines to purchase at the store. The pressure continued to be put on Gallo. Some of the larger agribusiness companies were promoting the “Teamsters Union.” The Teamsters Union has a long history of being complicit with the owners of companies and with organized crime. They were brought in by the larger growers in California to be a front union. When there was an election for the workers, the owners would push their workers to vote for Teamsters or else they would be fired. They were considered a sweetheart union. Additionally, there was a lot of controversy around undocumented workers being brought in and exploited to break the United Farm Workers strikes and organizing efforts. The UFW was put in the position of fighting undocumented labor. The Union was in a difficult position.

At the end of the year in 1974, Jerry Brown was elected governor of California. When legislation came up in California in regard to allowing collective bargaining rights for farm laborers, it finally passed. Not only did the UFW participate in organizing for the rights of farmworkers, they also went into Hispanic communities in the Los Angeles area to canvas for Hispanic candidates who would support what the Union was trying to accomplish. It should be noted that farmworkers have continued to struggle for community support even today. Since Cesar Chavez became such a cultural icon, there is often a misconception that they achieved farmworker rights for the entire country. It was only California. The issues around justice for farmworkers still exist, to some degree, throughout the country.

When one worked for the Union one did not have time for a social life, so people tended to pair off. She met a young man by the name of Leandro Salazar from Los Rincones (rural Manassa, Colorado), who was a Franciscan Seminarian. When you work in a stressful and all-consuming environment, you really see people’s character, and she loved what was revealed. Leandro and Loretta eventually married in 1978 and moved to the San Luis Valley. Interestingly, Leandro’s brother, Kenneth Salazar, became Secretary of Interior under the Obama administration. It was his goal to get a few National Monuments designated before he left office. One of them was at the Union Headquarters at La Paz in Keene, California.

Kenneth Salazar invited Loretta to the dedication of the National Headquarters of the United Farm Workers in Keene, California. Leandro had passed away, so Loretta was his direct connection to first-hand experience as a UFW organizer. Loretta met President Obama, who was in attendance, along with Jon Jarvis, the head of National Park Service at the time, and the Parks Service Interior staff. In all about 8,000 people attended; all who were bussed into the ceremony due to it being in a remote area. The night before the dedication, Loretta got to meet and tour the UFW headquarters with the Chavez family. She took them a copy of her recruitment poster that she had kept over the years. The Chavez family had never seen this particular poster and were fascinated. This was a moment of bonding between Loretta and the family. Loretta was introduced to Cesar’s son, Paul, and Arturo Rodriguez, leaders at the time of the UFW.

Loretta toured the facility and visited Cesar’s gravesite. Loretta reflects on how everything was built with recycled and local materials. Cesar’s office was left untouched and preserved following his death in 1993. Loretta reflects on seeing Cesar’s chair, sticky notes, mementos, and his jacket. This experience was extremely touching for Loretta. Loretta had been to La Paz once before in the 1970s to deliver a donated fireproof file cabinet. For Loretta it was interesting to see the vast improvement in the place.

In reflecting in her time with the Union, Loretta states that it was a life changing experience for her. Like most things, it had its ups and downs and was intense work.  This work was rewarding and made a difference in getting legislation passed. Personally, the experience was life changing for Loretta because it is what brought her to her husband and his family and eventually to the San Luis Valley. “I feel privileged to live with a foot in two cultures”, remarked Loretta.

The only strike in Colorado happened in Center in the summer of 1973. Leandro, a man with a master’s degree in theology, found a job as a part of a lettuce crew to help his family out. The second day on the job, the strike happened. Leandro refused to cross the picket line. This was when he received word that he was needed in California. Arguably, if it was not for the Center Lettuce Strike, Loretta and Leandro might have never crossed paths. Eventually, Leandro and Loretta came back to the San Luis Valley to farm, and it was always important to them to treat their workers well.

Farmworkers have still not reached a standard of living that Chavez would be satisfied with. “He would never be satisfied,” laughs Loretta. The union made a difference in the quality of life in California, but there are still unresolved issues. For example, about 3 years ago, the EPA refused to ban chlorpyrifos, which is a toxin that people, including kids, are getting sprayed with in the fields. Loretta still does not eat grapes on moral principle. Even though issues with grape unionization have been resolved, at least to an extent, in California, what is sprayed on them is still problematic, warns Loretta. Unions are fighting these battles still to this day. “This country tends not to think about who picked their food. Things are better, but still not where they need to be.”

Loretta’s advice, especially for younger people: “Do something that involves justice, particularly if it’s justice that’s not concerned with your own comfort. A true hallmark of a social activist is somebody who will take a stand for something that doesn’t affect them. There’s no justice until we all have justice. It’s easy to walk away from the injustices of our world, but it’s the higher calling to take a stand.”

The Spanish Dialect of the Upper Rio Grande Region
by Dennis Lopez

The Spanish dialect of the Upper Rio Grande region of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is a study of the evolution of a language, and the preservation of the archaic forms of the Spanish language.  This Spanish dialect is an amalgamation of many languages and cultures. Numerous invasions in the early history of the Iberian Peninsula influenced the early development of the archaic language.  The invaders contributed aspects of their cultures, practices and languages.  It was this evolving language that the Spaniards brought to the Americas in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

The archaic influences of the 15th and 16th Centuries Spain that remain in practice today in the Spanish dialect of the Upper Rio Grande region include words such as “asina” así  (thus or like this/that) in today’s modern academic Spanish, “muncho” mucho (much), “recio” rápido (rapidly/quickly), and “truje” traje (I brought).

The first people in what today is known as the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) were the Iberians who established settlements during the late Bronze Age in the 6th Century B.C.  Many of their vocabulary words are now considered Spanish.  A couple of examples are “conejo” or rabbit, and “manteca” lard.

A last name that is from the Iberian people is Garcia.  The Celtics were the first invaders during the 4th Century B.C. and they left behind such words as “camisa” shirt, and “caballo” horse.  The last names of Lujan from the Celtic Luhan, and Maldonado from MacDonald are still in existence in todays’ world.

The Greeks arrived in 900 B.C. and they gave us such words as “angel” or angel, and “escuela” school. The last name Griego literally means Greek.  In 409 A.D. the Germanic tribes invaded the peninsula and they contributed some militaristic words that became part of the Spanish lexicon.  “Guerra” war and “hierro” iron are a couple of examples.  Germanic origin last names in today’s Spanish are Rodriguez meaning son of Rodrick, and Guerrero meaning warrior.  From time to time the French entered the peninsula as merchants, not as invaders.  They too contributed to the Spanish vocabulary with such words as “vinagre” vinegar and “javón” soap.  Last names include Archibeque meaning Archbishop and Du Pont.

The most formidable invaders in 219 A. D., were the people from the Roman Empire, and their Latin language.  The majority of the Spanish vocabulary stems from the Latin language.  Some examples are “mañana” tomorrow, and “hombre” man.  Last names such as Martinez, son of Martin and Villaseñor, the man (governor) of the town derive from Latin.  Finally in 711 A.D. the last invaders were the Moors,or Arabic people from northern Africa.  Their influence in agriculture, science, math, industry and other cultured aspects were significant.  A few words are “acequia” ditch, “alfalfa” alfalfa, and “arroz” rice.  Some last names are Medina and Borges.

This compilation of influences in the Spanish language is what the Spaniards brought with them to the New World.  Upon arrival in the Americas, the Spaniards discovered many before unknown objects.  The easy solution was to pronounce the native speakers words as closely as possible to the original sound but using Spanish inflections and sounds.  From the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (who called themselves the Chichimeca) many words were incorporated into the Spanish language.  Today, in the Upper Rio Grande dialect, some Nahuatl words in common usage are “zoquete” mud, “jején” mosquito, and “tecolote” owl.  When the Spanish northern movement occurred, the Spaniards encountered the Pueblo people along the banks of the Rio Grande.  From these Tewa speaking people, the language adopted such words as “tewa” buffalo-skined sandles, and “cunque” coffee grounds.

Once the Spanish settled these northern regions, additional encounters with speakers of other languages continued the evolution of the dialect; and by now the distinct dialect in use today.  The first explorers from the east were the French fur trappers.  These explorers shared their vocabulary and inter-married with the Hispano pobladores.  Some French words in use today are “puela” skillet and “chamuz” chamois.  The expansion movement by the newly established United States brought English speaking people.  Examples of English words adopted by the Spanish speakers are “cuques” cookies and “tíquete” ticket.

In the mid-1900s, the Spanish speaking people in the southwestern part of the U.S. found themselves in an awkward situation because they were seen as second class citizens by their Anglo co-citizens and as lower class Mexican people by the Mexican people from Mexico.  In order to feel unique in this environment, the Spanish speaking U.S. citizens developed a unique culture that became known as the “Pachuco”.  They invented new vocabulary words that would not be understood by the English speaking Anglo population, nor the Spanish speaking Mexican people.  Their new language became known as “Caló”.  From this the Spanish speakers incorporated the words “vato” dude, “greña” hair, and “frajo” cigarette, in addition to many other words.

Today’s Spanish dialect of the Upper Rio Grande region is the culmination of all of the above mentioned influences that have been passed on through the ages.  This unique Spanish dialect is unlike any other in the Spanish speaking world.  This Spanish dialect is a marvelous example of the fluidity of language as it evolves; and it is an example of the adaptability of people as they experience and express the world around them.  It is incumbent upon us to practice, teach and document these unique linguistic characteristics in order to preserve this tremendous treasure that needs to be valued as an important aspect of the history and culture of the Spanish speaking people of the Upper Rio Grande region.

Glossary of archaic words still used in the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area:

Acequia

Referring to irrigation or the ditches which carry water for irrigation

Adobe

The mud, usually prepared with straw for strength and formed into bricks, used to build homes and other buildings.

Alabado

Religious hymn of praise to God, the Virgin Mary or the saints

Brujo(a)

witch or sorcerer with psychic supernatural powers.

Buen tiempo

Good time or bon apetite.

Bulto

Statue or carved wooden image of a holy person places in the church or the morada. Often the head is carved and the body is dressed in vestments.

Champes

Rose bush or rose hips

Chorreras

As written in old Spanish deeds, meant strips of land at the sides of buildings, to be kept clear for the drainage of rain falling from roof canals. Also, houses erected in uninterrupted single file that formed the walls of the fort-like villages during early settlements.(see plaza).

Colcha

A bed spread, a type of couching stitch or a textile embroidered with this stitch often used as a tapestry.

Cofradia

Co-fraternity, brotherhood.

Corridos

Local ballads

Creencias

Beliefs

Crismes

Christmas

Cuarandero(a)

A healer who traditionally uses natural herbs and home remedies to cure the sick. Curanderos or folk practitioners.

Cuque

Cookie or biscut, often called a biscochito.

Dicho

literally means said. “Dicho y Hecho”–no sooner said than done. Colloquially a saying or proverb.

Ejido

The “Mountain Tract” or common land given to the people for their use by Carlos Beaubien. (see La Sierra).

Entradas

An early exploring military expedition.

Extranjero

A foreigner or a stranger to the land; often referring to Anglos.

Gente

People, in the San Luis Valley the Hispanos often refer to themselves as La Gente or The People.

Gringo

An English speaking white person from the United States.

Hermano Mayor

The presiding officer of a morada in a Penitente brotherhood.

Horno

Large conical or beehive shaped outdoor oven used for baking and making chicos.

Jacal(es)

An early building technique with rows of vertical poles(varillas), filled with mud to form a wall.

Latias

The skinned poles used as ceiling beams in adobe homes. These poles are laid in a herringbone fashion and serve as lath for the adobe on top.

League

A Spanish league is a straight line of 5.000 varas.

Milagro

Miracle

Morada

Literally in Spanish means dwelling. Used colloquially to mean Penitente chapel or meeting place.

Plaza

The town square or the center of the village. Also, the early villages which were built in a fort-like arrangement with each house connected to its neighbor for protection.

Orgullo

Pride

Quelites

Lamb quarters. Also called wild spinach.

Remedios

Remedies or medicines, often a home variety used by curanderos.

Retablos

Paintings of saints or holy persons on wooden panels.

Santos

A carven wooden statue of a saint, a bulto.

Santero

A person who carves a santos or bultos.

La Sierra

Sierra means a saw or mountain range. A “sierra circular” is a buzz saw, but “La Sierra” refers to the “Mountain Tract” or common land given to the people.(see ejido).

Tierra

Earth, the land.

Varas

An early unit of measurement approx. 2.78 feet long.

Varillas

Wooden log, fence post or wooden pole used in building a jacal wall.

Vecino

A neighbor. Historically a citizen of good standing.

Velorio

A wake. A vigil for a deceased person or saint involving processions, hymns, prayers and a midnight supper.

Verso

A verse or rimed quatrains.

Yela

Jelly.

Yonque

Junk.

Zoquete

Mud.

To learn more about the archaic dialect used in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area you can purchase the classic reference book for the region written by linguist and folklorist Ruben Cobos on  Amazon.