Lesson Plan

The Hispano Ranchos of Northern New Mexico: Continuity and Change

Valencia Historic District, New Mexico

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 2E: The student understands the settlement of the West.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies


1. To explain how and why Spanish settlement in New Mexico expanded into the valleys east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains;
2. To describe how traditional Hispano culture in the valleys responded to new influences after New Mexico became a territory of the United States;
3. To identify the ways in which surviving ranchos reflect those responses;
4. To investigate the culture of early settlers in their own communities and identify how it changed over time.


Time Period: 19th and 20th centuries
Topics: The lesson could be used in American history, social studies, and geography courses in units on settlement of the West or New Mexico history. It also could be used in units on cultural diversity.


Northern New Mexico boasts river valleys surrounded by snow-covered mountains. But it was also harsh and unforgiving; one early settler called it a "glorious hell." The Spanish, who came to this area in the late 16th century, found that the valleys near the Rio Grande could be farmed when streams were channeled into irrigation systems. More than two centuries later, they moved east across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into new, greener valleys. They took their century's old traditions with them, but soon encountered new influences from the rapidly expanding United States.

Some of the small subsistence farms, or ranchos, created in the mid-19th century survive in the mountain valleys of the Pecos and Mora rivers. The irrigation ditches that water the fields are regulated by rules dating back centuries. The houses are built of the same adobe used to construct Indian pueblos and Spanish missions. But the houses also feature decorative details based on architectural fashions brought to New Mexico after it became a US territory in 1851.

The Hispanos, as the early Spanish settlers of New Mexico and their descendants are called, and the Anglos, the immigrants from the east, were often in conflict. The physical fabric of these early ranchos, which combines the traditions of both, testifies to the Hispanos' age-old cultural heritage and to their ability to adapt to change.

Lesson Hook/Preview

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.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


Spanish missions

Additional Resources

American Southwest Itinerary
The Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary on the American Southwest highlights over 58 historic places, including, Salinas Pueblo National Monument, teaching us about the contributions of the various people who settled this distinctive area. 

New Mexico History and Culture
The New Mexico Department of Tourism web page contains two useful essays on the history of the state and on Hispano culture.

Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
In 1940, a professor at Stanford set out to record traditional folk music and drama in northern New Mexico. The Digital Collections include an excellent essay on Nuevo Mexicanos of the Upper Rio Grande valley, as well as audio versions of the music.

National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico
The National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico, located near Albuquerque, is developing a wide range of programs to present Hispanic arts and humanities in many forms.

Hispanic Folk Arts and the Environment Curriculum Guide 
This online curriculum guide uses the themes of land, adobe, weaving, and food to help students understand how environmental and historical forces have shaped the folklife and folk art expressions of the Hispanic people of New Mexico.

Cornerstones Community Partnership
This organization is dedicated to preserving traditional building skills in New Mexico. Its website includes images of adobe churches and other buildings in Northern New Mexico that have been restored, including San Rafael Church, associated with La Cueva.

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Last updated: October 12, 2018