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  HOME | World (Click here for more)

Lost Colorado City Offers Lessons About Cultural Conflicts

By Francisco Miraval

DENVER – A town in southern Colorado, which was founded by Hispanics 150 years ago and today no longer exists, offers some timeless lessons about cultural and technological conflicts, according to historian Virginia Sanchez.

In October 1862, eight families from northern New Mexico crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and founded the city of Cuchara in the southern part of Colorado, where they lived by farming and raising sheep.

But the arrival of the railroad a decade later and the opening of mines and metallurgical factories forced the settlers to switch from Spanish to English and separated their families, with the men working a long way from home. The city eventually disintegrated.

The history of Cuchara and the rapid cultural transformation of the Hispanic families living there would have been lost forever but for an 1884 document on the use of irrigation canals that Estela Fernandez, Sanchez’s mother-in-law and a descendant of the inhabitants of Cuchara, gave her years ago.

An analysis of this document and of land registries, newspapers, maps and censuses, as well as interviews with descendants of the original eight pioneer families, allowed Sanchez to reconstruct “a complex history of cultural exchanges” among Indian tribes, Hispanics, whites and immigrants, particularly Chinese.

Sanchez, who works with the Colorado Society of Hispanic Genealogy, compiled the results of her research in a book entitled “Forgotten Cuchareños of the Lower Valley,” which she presented this weekend.

Her book, she told Efe, includes new information about the first Hispanics in Cuchara, focusing on two elements that previously won little notice: the presence of Indians taken on as servants in Hispanic families, and the responsibility of women in caring for and maintaining irrigation canals, creating laws about water use that are still in force.

“The people of Cuchara were strongly influenced by their relations with Indian tribes of the area and then by the Americans and European immigrants. Many changes occurred when Americans reached the Cuchara Valley at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th,” Sanchez said.

Beginning in 1872, she said, “newspapers in English from Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Walsenburg and Trinidad collaborated with the Denver & Rio Grande railroad to promote the sale of land in southern Colorado and to attract American businessmen and farmers.

As a result, Hispanic farmers and landowners in Cuchara and the surrounding area saw themselves obliged, first of all, to sell their lands, then to leave the area, and finally to change their language. Around 1930, with the closure of the railroad and the mines, Cuchara was left practically deserted.

“Cuchara was a place where Hispanics coexisted with natives like the Utes and Navajos to such a degree that the Hispanics adopted the Indians’ lifestyle and many of their customs, such as wearing moccasins and eating deer. Hispanics and natives exchanged blankets, bags, horse blankets and ponchos,” Sanchez said.

“But the arrival of the railroad companies changed everything,” she said.

For example, the two streets of Cuchara were called Valdez and Bustos. Soon after the railroad station opened in August 1874, the names were changed to Main and Miller.

And the laws and contracts that up to then were written only in Spanish, began to be written only in English.

The campaign of the English-language press at that time was so successful “that we have forgotten an important part of Colorado history and the important contributions that the Hispanics of southern Colorado made to this state.”

In fact, Cuchara does not even appear on the first maps of Colorado, even though it had the most important post office in the area.

“There are many other communities that we still should document, because the events that happened there led to social and political changes that continue to affect the inhabitants of Colorado,” Sanchez said. EFE

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