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History of the Region and El Rito

The Background of the Community of El Rito

Excerpts from an interview with Fr. Jerome Martínez recorded at the Parish Rectory in El Rito, New Mexico, on September 17, 1983.  A quarter-century later he is The Very Reverend Monsignor Jerome Martínez y Alire and Rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.

On the early history of El Rito:

Originally the people who lived in this region were Native Americans, Pueblo Indians.  And they had established a very well defined culture and civilization.  But in this area particularly—El Rito—the Pueblo Indians had abandoned their settlements, the ruins of which you can see about two miles down the road.  They had abandoned them several hundred years before the Spaniards ever arrived.

The first European people that arrived were Spaniards, of course, in the name of the King of Spain, looking for areas to conquer and treasures to find, and they came up from Mexico, Mexico City having been conquered by Cortez in 1521.  They were constantly seeking to expand their domains, their boundaries, and looking for new peoples.  And so in 1540 Coronado, one of the great Spanish explorers, came up into this area of New Mexico and did a rather extensive exploration, even going as far as Colorado and Kansas.  He did not stay long.  He didn’t find any gold or any of the things he was looking for, and he went back.  It took about another fifty years for a serious attempt at colonization to occur in New Mexico, the reason being that Coronado when he went back told the Viceroy, the king’s representative in Mexico City, that this miserable kingdom was not worth the effort.  And so the colonization was delayed.

In 1598 another nobleman by the name of Oñate brought up a serious expedition, this time not for exploration but for colonization.  And I’d like to make some very important points here, and that is that they came up not so much looking for gold (they had already given up on that dream here in New Mexico) or for any glory, because the peoples here did not have great civilizations to conquer.  They came here basically for the purpose of missionizing the Indian peoples, and then also for establishing a buffer zone or a buffer area for the colonists that were feeling pinched for land in Mexico to come up and get suitable arable land for their families.  So this is a totally different kind of conquest for settlement than occurred in the Valley of Mexico.       

On the People of El Rito

Here the people were peasants.  Here the people were not rich, spoiled young kids from Spain.  They came here with a very serious purpose in mind—that is, to spread the Gospel and then also to establish Spanish civilization in these outreaches.  And so as you know the great population centers of New Mexico were founded very early on: Santa Fe, Taos, Santa Cruz, and Albuquerque.  This particular area of El Rito was not settled until fairly late in the Spanish domain, the reason being that this area was constantly being attacked by nomadic Indians, not Pueblo Indians but nomadic Indians like Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos.  And the Spaniards did not have the population or the military strength to subdue these nomadic Indians, so this area was kind of off limits.

That all changed after 1781 when a great Spanish General by the name of de Anza was able to subdue the Comanche, and with that kind of victory at hand the last major effort of Spanish expansion and colonization occurred.  El Rito was established around 1786, and it began to flourish around 1800.  The people who inhabited El Rito came from two areas, and it explains the kind of flavor the village has.  They came first of all from Abiquiú, which was an older community founded in the 1750s.  And those people that inhabited Abiquiú were genízaros, which means they were Indians captured in wars.  They were detribalized; they were baptized, given a Spanish name, the Catholic faith.  And because they were captives they didn’t know what tribe they belonged to anyway.  And so they adopted wholeheartedly the Spanish customs and religion and faith and became citizens of the realm.  But they were primarily, when it comes to racial stock, Indian.  Now they came from Abiquiú over here, because Abiquiú had already grown beyond its limits; and they came in search of arable land here.  Now the other strain that came into El Rito were people from Santa Cruz and were more European than they were Native American.  You can see the difference today among the different families that are a little more European or a little bit more Indian.

In any case, there was a mixture of the two.  The Spanish Law of the Indies which governed the expansion and colonization of the New World allowed Spaniards to intermarry with Indians.  And they did so.  Spaniards have never had the idea that we must keep the race pure and without any kind of stain from another kind of race.  They felt that in the joining of the different races they could produce a stronger one.  This is very much the history of Spain, since the Spanish are an amalgam of Phoenicians, Iberians, Celts, Moors, Jews, Romans, you name it, because Spain was the bridge between Africa and Europe.  It was always a meeting place of many different racial strains.  And so that continued here in the New World.  The settlement here blossomed about 1815, and by 1846 there were over 1500 inhabitants here. 

On the Church of El Rito:

The church was begun by 1827, and 1832 was the completion date.  A church this large was deemed necessary probably because the population had grown so fast.  Even though in 1781 the Comanches and Navajos had been somewhat subdued, there was always the possibility of raids from Utes that came into the area.  So the church was built not only as an impressive temple or a place of worship—and that it certainly is—but it was built in massive dimensions that it was with the five-foot thick adobe walls and the flat roof, the crenellated parapets, and all that.  It was built that way to serve as a defensive fortification; it was a physical as well as a spiritual fortress.

On the Art in the Early Churches

The people here, the only interest in art they would ever have, basically would be that of religious expression.  And to adorn their churches, which they built in their own style.  I like to say this because I think architecture is part of art; the architecture they developed really reflected the amalgamation of different cultures.  You see, it’s a unique combination of Hispanic, the European architecture, and the Pueblo Indian architecture that was very prevalent here.  And in the unique combination of the two you get a real sense of beauty and simplicity.  To adorn these churches they did not have ready access to art centers or artisans in Mexico and much less Spain to import statuary or paintings or beautiful works of art like chalices and candlesticks.  To have imported them from Spain would have been prohibitive and expensive, and these people were poor people.  Also, even to have gone to Mexico would have been tremendously inconvenient because the wagon train came up from Mexico City only about once every year and had to travel over one thousand five hundred miles and was subjected to enormous difficulties by Indian raids and things of that nature.  So only the necessary things came up, very little luxury.  So the people—separated from art centers of Mexico and Madrid—began to develop their own art expression, especially religious art expression.

I think this was really a magnificent flowering here of folk or American art.  They developed a rather primitive style—some people would call it a primitive style—because they were not trained artists or architects.  They took the elements that God had given them here and they used them to fashion a work of praise for God.  They would take rough-hewn boards.  They would paint on them the images of the saints they had particular devotion to.  They would carve them out of the cottonwood or the aspen trees around here.  They would decorate them with cloth or painting.  And they would put them in their churches.  Now some people call them a little ugly. Some people call them primitive and backward, and yet I think God is very pleased with them.  If you would take the analogy of a Valentine Day card that a mother receives from her child: it would be much more precious if the child is able to fashion it out of crayola and construction paper or whatever.  It would be a much more precious gift than if he had gone to the store and bought a very expensive one, because this one really expressed the love of his heart, the one that was made by the hands.  And so the people here have the same feeling you know.  It may not be the very best, it may not be the most refined sort of art, but it’s ours.  And that was the development of the art that occurred here and filled our churches for so many years.

On Marriage in the Culture of El Rito

When the Hispanics came here, this was truly an area that had not been extensively settled, even by the Indians themselves.  And so trying to keep their sense of world order, they brought with them their collective memory of what that world order should be from Spain.  That included of course the Church—the Catholic Church and all its sacraments.  One of these sacraments was the regulation of marriage.  Marriage was a very serious business for any Hispanic person, and it was a very serious business on the frontier especially, because it meant the propagation of the race and the ability to continue living here and continue to be able to subdue the earth.  And so the weddings were very much regulated by Spanish law and by Church law.

Marriages were some of the great moments in the villagers’ life or the Hispanic family’s life.  They were celebrated in very beautiful ways which they brought with them from Spain.  They were celebrated in one of two ways, I should say, because of the tremendous distance that was covered by the ranches here.  Often times they would have their own private chapels.  And a resident priest was nowhere near those haciendas or ranches.  They would have the wedding there in the private chapel which would be decorated with the family’s favorite santos and retablos, and there they would invite the whole family. 

Another way of celebrating, if they were closer to a population center, was to take it to the parish church.  And this was more often the case.  In either case, it was a fairly common practice that if a young man was ready to get married to this particular girl, that his menfolk—probably his dad, his godfather, padrino, and any other friends he may have—would go en masse as a delegation to the house of the girl and there present the request for the girl’s hand.  Now oftentimes it was never explicitly stated so.  A lot of times a letter was carried, and they would sit down with the menfolk of the girl, of the bride to be, and they would talk about the good relations of the families and how they could be improved and how their lands would benefit and things of that nature.  It was all a kind of roundabout diplomatic sort of thing.  And then as they left, they left in the hands of the bride’s father, the bride to be, the letter.  Now of course everybody knew what the letter contained.  It was the request for the girl’s hand.  Then the menfolk of the girl’s side would discuss it, and they would ask her if she would be willing to get married, and the answer would be given later.  Sometimes it would be a week later.  If it was to be a positive answer, then all the menfolk of the girl’s family would go and visit the menfolk of the man’s family, and they would bring the letter and they would also agree that it was a good thing for the families to get together.  If it was a negative answer, they would often bring a pumpkin, which would be a little gift.  It would be like a second prize to say that “we’d rather not.”  But never were the words yes or no used.  Everybody’s dignity was preserved, you see.  And if the answer was yes, then the bride’s family would prepare the house and clean it up, make it festive, and the groom’s family would come over and take the house over for the week or so necessary for the preparations.  And then the bride and the groom would be introduced that evening with both families there, the extended family, all the relatives there.  They would be introduced to each other, and often for the first time, because these marriages were often times arranged for the benefit of the families.  They maybe didn’t know each other beforehand.  And they would be introduced to each other for the first time, and their families would be introduced to each other.  And after that ceremony, then they would kneel down on white cushions, and the godfather of the bride would come with a lovely rosary of coral or pearl and place it over the head of the bride and groom and show that they were now betrothed or engaged.  And later on that week they would have the actual wedding ceremony in the private chapel or in the parish church itself.

About the Celebration and the Feast and Dancing and the Entrega:

There’s no such thing in a Hispanic village as a small wedding, or a small funeral for that matter, or a small anything because the whole village—El Rito is a perfect example—is related in one way or another.  So whenever there is something that’s very momentous for the village life, everybody comes together—for the wedding, for the funeral, whatever.  So after the wedding ceremony itself in the church, then they would go to a sala, a large hall in which they would celebrate, continue the celebration, which was begun already in the church.  And they would continue it, and there would be a feast, of course, of every possible food and delicacy that could be rustled up from the frontier agricultural society they had.  Oftentimes the families went to great lengths to provide the best feast, and everybody was welcome.  The whole village was welcome.  And this was of course to mirror the celestial feast of heaven, you see, in which everybody would be brought in and be welcome.

So everybody would have a good time.  There would be usually one of the local bards who would come and sing the entrega, a long epic ballad, almost, about the beauties of the bride, the resourcefulness of the husband, and then also the whole family—and it would be a beautiful, integrative sort of element, because you try to bring the two families in together and compliment the two of them, and that was very beautiful.  And there would be dances, in particular the marcha, which would be kind of like a triumphal march of this new family. . .  and invite everybody to partake in the celebration.

Changes in the culture after World War II

This Hispanic way of life that was prevalent in New Mexico for centuries came under attack from the Americans when they took the place over from Mexico in 1846.  This area was conquered from Mexico in that period, and so a whole system, way of life, and legal code was imposed on the people here.  And this was totally foreign to them in many ways, and many atrocities were committed during that time.  I wouldn’t say in terms of loss of life, but in terms of loss of livelihood.  The extensive land grants that belonged to the people here were just completely pulled away from them, many times illegally.  Their language was challenged, their customs were put down, there was a lot of protestant ministers that came here and found all the customs here barbaric and superstitious and sought to eradicate them or ridicule them, and sought to dislodge the importance of the Catholic Church among the Hispanics.  And that’s a movement that’s continued even to this day.  But this kind of prejudice, this kind of discrimination, slowly eroded the self-esteem and positive self-image of the people, the Hispanic peoples who lived here.

I would say that the biggest thing after the American occupation that did anything to change the Hispanic way of life was World War II, because they were very proud to be part of the United States.  They did not necessarily agree with many of the American policies and laws that deprived them of much of their former way of life, but they were very proud to be part of the United States.  And many thousands of Hispanic men died in World War II to defend this country, and died in even greater percentages than many other ethnic groups.  Now when they came back they had seen the world beyond these valleys.  They had been introduced to a much larger society, and no longer were they just the little almost medieval society that contained itself within these walls of this church or of this valley.  They saw another world altogether, and so they left seeking better economic conditions in California, Utah, Colorado, Texas, or wherever.  The villages began to dwindle, the societies that were important to them began to die, and usually if they came back, they came back with new ideas, this time very Americanized ideas.  And a lot of these customs that were surrounding marriage or any of the important social events of their life began to be forgotten and began to be put down by themselves because they wanted to be so American now.  They had felt the pressure to be American and to reject their past, and so all that occurred.

On More Recent Trends Up to the 1980s

I think that from the 1960s to the 1980s there was a tremendous reversal in that erosion process of losing our customs and our culture.  I think the young people began to realize that we can be American and still be Hispanic.  It does not threaten our being American and being Hispanic.  Rather we should be true to ourselves, and in being true to ourselves we can be a greater benefit to the American society, because we can be united in our diversity.  And that’s certainly true of the United States.  There’s so many different cultures that comprise American culture as a whole.  And we can be united in our diversity.  These people, our younger people, have begun to realize that.  They’ve begun to first of all be very proud of their language, their faith, their customs, their culture, and they’ve sought to bring back many of these customs that were part of the very important moments in their lives, like marriage.  By the 1980s many of these customs of asking for the bride in the traditional way were coming back.  The beautiful ceremonial observances, the rituals, the wedding ceremony itself that had been observed for so many centuries and had been forgotten for quite a long time were coming back.  They began to find a real value in the extended family system that was so much a part of the Spanish way of life here.  They began to find more meaning in these things.

Acknowledgements to: Fr. Jerome Martínez recorded at the Parish Rectory in El Rito, New Mexico, on September 17, 1983

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