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The Rio Grande

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Walk quietly, Coyote,
The practical people are coming now
Into the juniper, into the sage arroyos,
Where the smoke is sweeter than anywhere
And the mud is ready for building …
While the Puritans over in England
Are getting ready to whisper,
“There is a way and we will build a ship,”
People in motion are … along the Rio Grande.…

—Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “Nocturne at Noon—1605”

The River the Spanish called El Rio Grande del Norte, the nation's third longest, guided the first Euro-American settlers into Colorado. Don Juan de Oñate in 1598 claimed the entire drainage for Spain, “from the leaves of the trees in the forest to the stones and sands of the river.”

The Rio Grande's headwaters converge in Colorado, in the area known as the San Luis Valley, which was one of the most remote reaches of Spain's global empire. The valley is walled on the west by the San Juan Mountains and on the east by the Sangre de Cristo Range. These 14,000-foot ranges frame the dry valley, which lies at 8,000 feet and has average annual precipitation of about eight inches. Rainfall often proves to be an illusory virga, evaporating before it reaches the earth. The area was never economically important to Spain, or, after the 1821 revolution, to Mexico.

In 1806 President Thomas Jefferson assigned U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Only after Pike and other U.S. explorers, traders, and trappers repeatedly poked into the San Luis Valley did Mexico become concerned. To promote settlement and limit Yankee encroachment, the Mexican government made five land grants, including the gigantic Conejos and Sangre de Cristo grants of 1833 and 1843. A few parties of farmers from New Mexico arrived in the 1840s but were pushed back by the Utes, who had inhabited the valley for hundreds of years.

In 1848 the United States took possession of the San Luis Valley after winning the Mexican War and established a fort in 1852 to police the Utes. Fort Garland provided more protection for Mexican-Americans than Spain or Mexico ever had and made possible permanent settlements such as San Luis (1851). Most of the Mexican land grants, however, passed into the hands of non-Hispanic newcomers through proceedings in the Yankee courts. Both through the legal process and in other ways, land granted to New Mexican farmers and ranchers has been gobbled up by non-Hispanic newcomers. Land grabbers have ranged from the first Colorado territorial governor, William Gilpin, to the billionaire Malcolm Forbes, who acquired the largest private estate in Colorado, the 240,000-acre Trinchera Ranch.

Mormon settlements at La Jara and Manassa, and Anglo, German, Japanese, and Scandinavian settlers added to the valley's diversity. Yet Spanish language, culture, and architecture linger in the valley, which sometimes seems more New Mexican than Coloradan.

The San Luis Valley has funneled Hispanic art, architecture, culture, and people northward into the rest of Colorado. Hispanics, many with roots in “El Valle,” have become the state's largest ethnic minority. But not until development of the Santa Fe Style in the early 1900s did Hispanic architecture become respectable. By the 1950s it had become common throughout Colorado in derivative styles, especially in ranch houses.

Hispanic towns in the Rio Grande Valley dug irrigation ditches and set aside grazing fields and hunting areas that allowed poor farmers and ranchers to survive in a tough country. Adobe structures, following older Spanish custom, were built around plazas, which provided protection and promoted community.

Churches were the cornerstones of these plazas. Hispanic churches, unlike Native American structures, which hugged the ground, challenged the landscape with vertical lines, asserting spiritual as well as physical dominion. No matter how simple the valley churches, they share the Renaissance ideal of symmetry and perspective. Each is properly viewed from its gateway, and inside, the main altar is set opposite the main door and framed as the focal point. Church spires still preside over many of the smaller Hispanic towns. Sometimes a morada (Spanish, dwelling) sits next to the church. These are small halls where the Penitentes, a radical Catholic men's group, meet to do penance.

A few churches are still decorated with retablos (paintings on wood panels) and bultos (statues carved of wood), although Anglo collectors have acquired many of these treasures, just as Anglo settlers acquired the land. Like the kachinas of the Pueblo tribes, these santos, or statues of saints, are functional; they are carried out of the church in processions to bless the fields, to bring rain, and to ward off harm. If effectual, as Father Thomas J. Steele, S.J., notes in his book, Santos and Saints, traditionally “the santo would be rewarded with a new dress or costume jewelry, a vigil light, or some other small token of gratitude.” If the santo did not perform, “it might be ‘punished’ by being turned to the wall, put out of sight, or deprived of some ornament.” Saints, at least in folklore, not only healed people but restored leaky church roofs and crumbling adobe walls.

Adobe is an ancient building material dating back at least to the Egyptians, who built the pyramids at Saqqara using sun-fired bricks of clay with chopped straw or coarse grass stubble. Adobe was also used in what is now Iraq earlier than 3000 B.C. From Iraq and Egypt, adobe made its way around the Mediterranean world to Spain, then to New Spain. Mud had been in use among Precolumbian Native Americans, who soon began using adobe bricks as well.

In New Mexico and southern Colorado, adobe bricks are about twelve inches long, six inches wide, and three inches thick. They are made by mixing clay and water, then adding straw for reinforcement. Originally made by hand, adobe bricks are now formed in wooden frames but are still sun dried. Adobe thinned with water is used as mortar, and as plaster to patch walls. Building walls are replastered more or less regularly, sometimes with animal blood mixed into the water to harden the plaster. Adobe structures are ideally two bricks thick to keep winter heat in and summer heat out.

Sometimes logs, not adobe bricks, formed the structure under mud plaster. The oldest type of Hispanic log structures, jacales, were made of posts planted upright with their feet in a trench and their tops lashed together and capped with a horizontal bond beam. They were often plastered with adobe and roofed with whatever was at hand. Jacales were used as the first fences and corrals as well as houses. Variations using horizontal logs are called fuertes. As towns grew more permanent, adobe brick structures generally replaced cruder jacales and fuertes, which often were reused as outbuildings.

In the San Luis Valley the oldest adobe structures are Territorial, as buildings erected after 1848 and the establishment of U.S. territories (and architectural influence) are known. Territorial adobe buildings have log roof beams that do not extend beyond the walls, unlike the distinctive vigas of the Native American Pueblo style. As Indians had only stone tools, they did not cut roof beams flush with the walls as Hispanics did, but let the ends protrude. While Native Americans used round logs, Hispanics often squared logs on two sides, leaving the sides round. They also laced peeled limbs ( latías) together in a herringbone pattern across the ceiling beams to form a ceiling. They might paint doors blue, the color associated with the Blessed Virgin, to keep out the devil.

Hispanic adobe buildings of the 1850s–1880s originally had flat roofs, but, confronted by the harsh Colorado climate, many residents added pitched roofs later to provide better insulation and drainage. Early adobe buildings had few openings and little or no ornamentation. Later Territorial adobe structures are distinguished from the earlier, simpler Hispanic adobe by the presence of such architectural details as brick corbeling, pedimented wooden door and window frames, and Italianate or Victorian elements.

Modest adobe houses commonly began as a single room. As the family grew, additional rooms were added. Larger structures were often a series of self-contained rooms, each with exterior, but not interior, doors. After making two or three additions in a row, builders sometimes added the next rooms to form an L shape, then a U shape, and finally perhaps a four-sided structure with a central courtyard that echoed the community's larger plaza plan.

Adobe construction prevailed until the 1880s, when the influx of Anglo settlers and railroads carrying lumber, bricks, quarried stone, and other materials led to a hybridization of Hispanic and Yankee architecture. Many adobe buildings hid their mud origins under concrete stucco, frame, tarpaper, or metal siding. Earlier Hispanic settlements were displaced by railroad towns, such as Alamosa, Antonito, Del Norte, and Monte Vista. Many of the valley's Mexican towns are gone. The adobe plazas romanticized by guidebooks have disappeared, but in some towns pre-1880 churches and older nearby adobe buildings are clues to where the plaza once was. Today abandoned churches, cemeteries, and adobe ruins, with a few newer adobe solar structures, highlight the architecture of a rural area that is the poorest region in Colorado in terms of per capita income. Many mobile, pre-fabricated, cinderblock, and low-budget homes are scattered among the adobe buildings, which include a number of tiny churches.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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