Nuevo Mexicanos of the Upper Rio Grande: Culture, History, and Society
In the summer of 1940, Stanford professor and linguist Juan B. Rael returned home to northern New Mexico and southern Colorado to record the musical and religious traditions of his own people, the Spanish-Americans, as they were called in English prior to World War II. The Nuevo Mexicanos or Hispanos, as they call themselves, developed a distinctive regional culture over four centuries, since the establishment of the Spanish colony in 1598.
What became in time the Hispano homeland, the Upper Rio Grande, is a vast arid region defined by a life-giving river that descends from the steep southern ranges of the Rocky Mountains through the barren plateaus of the north to the Chihuahuan desert of the south. It is the ancestral homeland of sedentary Tanoan and Keresan Pueblo Indian peoples, who diverted its waters and farmed its valleys, as well as nomadic Athabaskans (Apaches and Navajos) and Shoshoneans (Utes and Comanches), who roamed and hunted its mountains and deserts, alternately raiding and trading with the Pueblos.
Since the fabled mineral wealth of the region turned out to be a legend, the principal reason for the Spanish Crown to maintain the impoverished colony was the large population of natives, who represented a substantial harvest of souls for the Church. However, the over-zealous methods of the Franciscan fathers entrusted with the project led to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which totally restored native religion. After the reconquest of 1692 and the resettlement of the province, differences were set aside as the Pueblos and the Spanish Mexican settlers united to defend their communities from the depredations of the nomadic tribes that surrounded the Río Grande valley. Better armed and better mounted, these enemies put the future of the colony into question on many occasions.
After the devastating Comanche wars ended with the treaty of 1786, the frontiers of the colony became safe enough for settlement. With the presence of the United States Army after 1846, protection from the Utes, Navajos, and Apaches was achieved as well. Within a century, a colony the size of Connecticut expanded in all directions into a homeland the size of Utah. In 1848, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded the Southwest, from Texas to California, to the United States. Despite the American government's reluctance to protect their treaty rights and land titles, Hispanos pioneered the settlement of Colorado. By the 1880s, this expansion was checked by competition from Anglo immigrants and a massive loss of land in the American court system. During the controversial deliberations of the U.S. Court of Private Land Claims between 1891 and 1904, as many as thirty-three million acres were lost to the lawyers of the notorious Santa Fe Ring and a federal government still acting under the powerful influence of Manifest Destiny. Many new villages did survive, however, even though they were cut off from their land grants.
Since the protective alliance with the Pueblo was no longer necessary to survive, Hispano settlers moved beyond Taos Valley looking for new lands to graze their flocks. By 1815, Juan B. Rael's home village of Arroyo Hondo was founded north of Taos. In the 1850s, the San Luis Valley of Colorado was settled despite initial differences with the Utes. The enterprising villagers were familiar with the rigors of frontier life and had always been responsible for their own welfare, the defense of their communities, and even the sustenance of their religious traditions.
Since the few priests that came to New Mexico were assigned to the Pueblo missions, Hispano settlers who moved into outlying areas only rarely enjoyed their services. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, this institutional void was filled by the appearance of a lay religious organization whose social and cultural influence became the hallmark of the nineteenth century in the region. The Hermandad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Pious Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), commonly known as the Penitentes, fulfilled the same functions that confraternities, sodalities, and lay religious groups did all over Latin America. In frontier areas like New Mexico they became central to the very survival of the communities they served. The Penitente brothers led saint's day festivities, Lenten and Holy Week services, rosaries, prayer vigils, wedding ceremonies, and wakes for the dead on a year-round basis in their Moradas or chapels. With the permission of their mothers and wives, boys and young men joined and learned to respect the moral and civic authority of the leadership of the confraternity. The Hermanos or brothers, as they refer to themselves, were involved in the resolution of disputes, the allocation of water, and virtually all group decisions that needed to be made. They also saw to it that families in need or distress were provided for. As the strongest organization at the village level, they became the basis for organized participation in the political process and formed effective voting blocks during elections.
The origins of the Brotherhood are still a mystery. Some scholars have emphasized similarities with the Third Order of Saint Francis, especially since New Mexico is a Franciscan province. Others suspect that the organization arrived fully developed from southern Spain, since there are similar confraternities with the same name in the area of Seville. The Hermanos are dedicated to the example and self-sacrifice of Jesus in his Passion, and observe penitential devotions that are widespread in Spain and Spanish America. Feeling culturally and politically threatened by the Hermanos, American newcomers to New Mexico condemned and sensationalized the Brotherhood, which retreated into semi-secrecy. After generations of ostracism, the American Catholic church finally made its peace with the Hermanos in 1948, and has since formally recognized the contributions and leadership of the Brotherhood. After a decline in membership after World War II and into the 1960s, the Brotherhood has experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s.
Over the centuries the Hermanos have developed an extraordinary cycle of rituals and prayers, culminating in the Holy Week Passion Play and Tenebrae services. Every moment in this ritual process is accompanied by a beautiful repertory of alabados or hymns of praise unique to the region. It is this remarkable repertory of religious music that attracted the interest of Juan B. Rael, not as a musicologist, but as a linguist interested in dialectology.
The dialect of Spanish unique to the region is a reflection of the culture, blending seventeenth-century peninsular Spanish elements with vocabulary deriving from contact with indigenous languages, especially Aztecan Nahuatl, and having a contemporary relation with English so intimate the two languages are sometimes used in alternating sequences by speakers. Rael gathered most of his linguistic data by collecting folk stories, but in the summer of 1940, he was drawn home to record the alabados as well as the songs from the cycle of Autos or folk plays, notably "Los Pastores" ("The Shepherds") and "El Niño Perdido" ("The Lost Child").
Summers are brief and exuberant in the high inter-mountain valleys and plateaus of the upper Río Grande and the southern range of the Rockies known as the Sangre de Cristos, the Mountains of the Blood of Christ. Dry-farmed fields of wheat and pinto beans, carefully irrigated apple orchards, and long narrow plots of potatoes, corn, and high altitude crops like habas or fava beans were especially well-tended. By June, or as soon as the snow pack melted, young men and boys were in the mountains tending large flocks of sheep. After hard times, only a few animals were actually owned by the shepherds, who toiled under strict sharecropping arrangements. Wool was the sole cash crop and local link to the national economy. In Nuevo Mexicano Spanish, lana or wool is still a common term for money. With the collapse of the regional economy in the 1930s, people turned to what had always sustained them in the past -- subsistence agriculture.
In 1940, signs of the approaching conflagration of World War II seemed far off, and summer in the region is always a hopeful calm between storms. The devastating course of the Depression had been stemmed by the New Deal. The cash income lost from the decline in seasonal work in the mines and sugar beet fields of Colorado was being supplanted in part by relief programs and job opportunities with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The people joked about "el diablo a pie," the devil walking around on the loose, which is what the initials "WPA" sound like in Spanish. Hispanos were flattered by the respect shown to their cultural and oral literary traditions by the fieldworkers of the folklore projects and the organizers of the folk arts workshops. They were quite willing to share their music with Rael, the young man from Arroyo Hondo who had gone so far with his education.
For generations after the American invasion of 1846, education had taken place in the home, where parents used Spanish language newspapers to teach their children to read. In 1880, the year that public education began in New Mexico, there were over forty Spanish newspapers available, and all of them published poetry, local ballads, and literary selections in addition to the news. A humorous song in the Rael collection pokes fun at newspaper subscribers and readers, both male and female, for thinking they knew so much. In two elections prior to 1880, public education had been defeated by the people, who concluded that the Spanish language and local culture would be eliminated from the classroom as soon as possible.
World War II put an abrupt end to the Depression, and created a mass exodus not only of soldiers, but of whole families moving to the cities to work in defense industries. The 1950s saw not only a decline in village population, but strong pressure to assimilate and Americanize. The post-war generation experienced a pronounced trend towards language loss and cultural devaluation. Then, with the social and political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, a resurgence in regional and ethnic pride led to a cultural, literary, and artistic renaissance. Several waves of Anglo immigration have also prompted Hispano communities to reevaluate their place in American society. A shift in educational policy from assimilation to cultural plurality has also helped create a space in which Hispanos can be themselves and honor their own cultural traditions.
Much of the music that Juan B. Rael recorded in the summer of 1940 can still be heard today, not from lack of change, but from a newfound sense of continuity and cultural survival. The religious repertory is intact and regularly performed in the morada chapels of the Penitente Brotherhood. Although the waltzes and polkas Rael found in dance halls have been eclipsed by American country, rock, and Spanish language popular music from radios and jukeboxes, the classic, old violin and guitar tunes continue to be played in senior centers and at folk festivals. The culture, language, and music of the Nuevo Mexicanos of the Upper Rio Grande are still flourishing.
Enrique R. Lamadrid
University of New Mexico