The Voices of the Valley is an oral history project by the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (SdCNHA) that explores and documents the relationship between culture and natural resources in the San Luis Valley, placing emphasis on the particular meanings that inhabitants associate with the communities they live in.

The SdCNHA would like to share some of the topics covered in just one interview with local Valley resident Dennis Lopez. Dennis Lopez is the Vice President for SdCNHA and was one of the founders of the organization.  He is a big supporter of the Voices of the Valley project.

“The history of a people is most often conveyed from person to person by way of one on one dialogue.  It is through these stories that history comes alive and portrays an actual event that is memorable and provides a tradition, a value, a moral, or an event of significant importance to the particular community. Recording these oral histories is of vital importance and urgency because the repositories of these stories are the elderly tradition bearers of our culture.  These histories need to be preserved before they are lost in time as our elders slowly pass away.  Our history is what grounds us and gives us a foundation upon which we can build and move forward as a people.”

Dennis Lopez

This week Chicano Activism is celebrated as Saturday March, 31 is Cesar Chavez day. Cesar Chavez was a prominent union leader and labor organizer. Hardened by his early experience as a migrant worker, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. His union joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in its first strike against grape growers in California, and the two organizations later merged to become the United Farm Workers. Stressing nonviolent methods, Chavez drew attention for his causes via boycotts, marches and hunger strikes. Despite conflicts with the Teamsters Union and legal barriers, he was able to secure raises and improve conditions for farm workers. The San Luis Valley has a close connection to this part of history and SdCNHA would like to share a few key excerpts from Dennis Lopez’s oral history:

Dennis Lopez was raised at the edge of the foothills of the San Juan Mountains in the small town of Capulin.  His connection to the mountains and to his family roots in the San Luis Valley influenced him to stay in the Valley and share his knowledge with the community. Dennis attended what he calls a “Catholic Public School” in Capulin from the first through the 10th grades.  The school was public and funded by the state but the teachers were nuns from the local parish. During his junior year the Capulin School consolidated with Centauri School District.  This was a big change of culture for the students of Capulin. They now were taught by public school teachers in a community that was very Anglo and the sense of rejection was very real for Mr. Lopez and for the other students trying to acclimate. There was a sense of rejection brought upon them for speaking Spanish and for being culturally different. This rejection sparked a passion in Dennis that would push him to delve into where he came from, his culture, his language and pushed him to learn and instill pride in himself. With the intent to teach, Dennis graduated from Adams State College with a BAs in Spanish, French and Education, an M.A. in Secondary Education with a minor in Chicano Studies and an EDL from the University of Denver. He jumped right in to lead Alamosa High School’s first Chicano Studies program and taught there for 18 years before entering education administration.

Dennis remembers participating in the local lettuce, grape and Coors boycotts in the San Luis Valley during the movement and identifies as a Chicano.  He explains in his oral history video what the term Chicano means and the complex nature of identity for settlers of the San Luis Valley. The Spaniards came to Mexico in 1492 and took over power between the years of 1519 and 1521. Spain was in control for nearly 300 years. In 1820 Mexico gained its independence from Spain and this area became Mexican territory from 1820 until 1848. In 1848 this area then became US territory. Because the Spanish reign was the longest, it had a stronger influence and some local people identify as Spanish, but the US government used the title Mexican-American.

When young men from the region went to serve in the military in the 1940’s and 50’s they discovered they were not treated as second class citizens for being “Mexican-American” but were treated with respect by the rank they held.  When they returned they again were discriminated against. Americans didn’t treat them like equal Americans nor did Mexicans treat them as equal Mexicans. This pushed the people to create an environment that was fair and encouraged them to establish their own identity. Learning that the original people from which their culture stemmed were Mestizo, a mix of Spanish and Mechica, known today as Aztecs, who were called Mechicanos.  They took away the “me” and were left with the term Chicano as their identity. It was the US government that created the term Hispanic for the US Census in 1980 that lumped together all people with Spanish language last names even though some were Puerto Rican, Cuban, South American, Central American, Mexican and US Chicanos. Then in 2000 the Census Bureau changed the term to Latino.

“I find the term Latino to be an insult.” says Dennis. “The term Latino comes from when Napoleon sent Maximilian to rule Mexico after Mexico lost the Mexican-American War in 1860. Mexico couldn’t repay France for their aid during the war so they sent Maximilian to rule the area as a French territory. Maximilian didn’t want the people to be called French, because they didn’t look like French and he didn’t see them as equals. He didn’t want them to identify as Mexican or Spanish either, so he came up with a new term for them, he called them Latino.”

Dennis goes on to talk about the importance of the unique dialect of Spanish in the San Luis Valley that is spoken nowhere else in the world, the changes in Catholic Church traditions he has observed, how important community is and how he has watched people leave the SLV only to return “home” later in life.

To watch the full oral history interview visit the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area’s YouTube channel: SangreNHA. This channel is free and publicly accessible and posts a new oral history video each week.  If you would like to help support Voices of the Valley you can become a member of SdCNHA. If you would like to recommend someone to be interviewed, contact Tori Martinez. We are also asking for a donation of a TV screen and headphones for the Conejos Museum so visitors can view these important oral histories.