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Community Voices: Things to Love about San Luis

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Shirley Romero Otero explains to visitors the meaning behind a mural in the town of San Luis created by students and local artists. Photo by Pauline Victoria Martinez

By Pauline Victoria Martinez

The Colorado Trust has teamed with rural community members across Colorado who are helping facilitate conversations with neighbors about what they love about their communities, and what’s difficult about them. Pauline Victoria Martinez lives in Conejos County, and is working as a research consultant for communities in the San Luis Valley. She writes here about what people are talking about in the town of San Luis, in Costilla County.

Near the border of New Mexico at 7,965 feet in elevation sits San Luis, the oldest continuously inhabited town in Colorado. Its historical status, natural beauty, Stations of the Cross Shrine, vibrant murals and small-town charm draw visitors from across the country.

This largely Hispanic community (91 percent Hispanic according to Census data), is rich in both culture and history. It once belonged to Spain, was eventually won over by Mexico, and then was taken over by the United States after the Mexican-American war.

Shirley Romero Otero, a San Luis resident, shared a common saying by locals: “We never crossed the border. The border crossed us.”

Religion is interwoven into the culture of this area; a majority of the population is Catholic. The Sangre de Cristo Parish sits in the heart of the town and at the base of the Stations of the Cross Shrine. The shrine is a spiritual expression of the last hours of Christ’s life, depicted in statues that sit along a mountain trail. The trail was dug by hand and each rock meticulously placed by local residents. It was designed as an act of faith and love by the Sangre de Cristo parishioners. A local sculptor, Huberto Maestas, created the statues. He instilled movement and deep emotion into each piece. Visitors of many faiths come to meditate, walk the trail up the mountain, find peace and pray.

Nearby, local farmers and ranchers raise cattle, sheep and goats. They grow alfalfa, hay, vegetables and potatoes. A system of earthen ditches—known as acequias—were dug by the original settlers of San Luis; the acequia system has been communally maintained by some local residents since their families settled in the area in the 1800s.

The traditional acequia farmers are multigenerational seed savers that grow endangered food such as maiz de concho (white flint corn). Many San Luis residents point with pride to the acequia system as a successful model of maintaining water rights and natural resource management. Craig Arnold’s 2005 book Wet Growth described the acequia system in San Luis as a way of allocating resources “based upon principles of equity and necessity.”

The above-mentioned attributes that help make this community wonderful are not without several challenges, many of which play a role in determining the health and well-being of the people living in this area.

One example is the high elevation and low annual precipitation rate, which leads to a short growing season. Not only does this make it difficult to grow crops; it means the heirloom crops grown here have uniquely adapted to the environmental conditions of the area.

Because of this, some local families have fought hard to keep their land and water rights for irrigation and livestock. Water and land are the lifeblood for this community. Some people have also fought to keep out genetically modified crops, in order to protect their unique seeds from being compromised.

Another social determinant of health for this Hispanic community is rooted in common cultural memories of having lost access to the land. In 2002, after 21 years of protests and a long-standing lawsuit, the Colorado Supreme Court decided in favor of local residents who had fought for access to the 79,500-acre “La Sierra” area of the valley. The land had been awarded to some of the original Mexican settlers in the area through the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, but was later bought by private landowners who denied entrance to members of the community.

“The Mexican government gave those rights to the people and they should still have them,” said Charlie Jaquez, a local resident.

This history has led some residents to be skeptical of outsiders, and fearful of grand promises from the government and outside organizations. Many San Luis residents I’ve spoken with shared stories of discrimination, and some have memories of fighting for their rights to the land and water. Along with the loss of the land came a loss of cultural identity and language that, according to researcher Yoly Zentella, could be the root cause of depression, apathy and generational poverty.

These cultural memories have been passed down through the generations in the form of protests and artwork, and through the powerful tradition of oral storytelling. “If stories are archives of collective pain, suffering and resistance, then to speak them is to heal; to believe in them is to reimagine the world,” wrote University of Toronto researchers Aman Sium and Eric Ritskes in 2013.

A group of San Luis community members, with the assistance of The Colorado Trust, are working to address some of the issues in the community in order to improve the overall health and well-being of residents. Turnout at these meetings has been robust, and it’s led attendees to feel empowered.

“There is strength in numbers,” said Roy Esquibel, who lives in San Luis and has participated in these meetings.

Currently, the group is in the fact-gathering stage of a multi-year process. They have identified several issues of concern.

Margarita Quintana said the process has led her to be reflective.

“It starts with us,” she says. “We have to look inward and say, ‘What is our role in all of this?’”

The group will soon venture out into the community to gain further input on those issues, after which they will prioritize and take steps to address them. Their hope is to make the small town of San Luis an even healthier place with happier people.

They may not be able to change the stories of past wrongs, but they are willing to change how the community responds to those stories. By doing so, they are reclaiming their culture, traditions, heritage and the power to facilitate change. All of this, if executed successfully, could alter the course of future generations in this area.

Read more by Pauline Victoria Martinez at her blog, Rethinking Rural Women.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.