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Setting the Stage

The first Spanish-speaking settlers came to New Mexico at the end of the 16th century, when King Phillip II of Spain turned his sights northward from Mexico. Don Juan de Oñate led an expedition of colonists and Franciscan friars to settle the new land. Most of the colonists were from Spain, or were Spaniards born in Mexico, and they brought with them a blend of Spanish and Spanish-Mexican culture. In late fall 1598, after a six-month journey, the caravan reached the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Chama River. Here they established the first, temporary, capital of the Province of New Mexico near San Juan Pueblo.

Isolated from government centers in Mexico, the colonists had to be self-sufficient, raising all their own food and making their own clothing. They adapted some of the farming methods they had known in Spain or Mexico and learned new techniques from the Pueblo Indians. They worked together to build and maintain irrigation ditches, harvest crops, and build houses. They fought off attacks by Apache and Comanche Indians. They held fast to their beliefs in their patron saints, and they assembled often for prayer and celebration. The cohesive economic and social system they created served them well for two and a half centuries.

In the 19th century, as settlement began to expand beyond the valleys of the Rio Grande, this traditional culture was challenged by new influences. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The Santa Fe Trail brought Anglo-American traders and merchants, some of whom settled permanently in New Mexico and married into Spanish-speaking families. In 1846, New Mexico became part of the United States. Trade with the east brought new products and information on current fashions. Local Hispano society took advantage of some of these changes and resisted others. On the small subsistence farms, or ranchos, in the valleys of Northern New Mexico, it is still possible to find tangible evidence of both how the Hispanos, as the early Spanish settlers of New Mexico and their descendants are called, maintained their traditional culture and how they adapted to change.

 

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