San Luis’ Hispanic Heritage

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on September 8, 2002

On the streets of San Luis, Colo., chats between neighbors often start in Spanish, meander into English, then end up in Spanish again. Locals call it “Spanglish,” a word that speaks to how this American town has retained its Hispanic character and language. San Luis is Colorado’s oldest town, founded by Mexican settlers in 1851.

The mostly Hispanic town is a world apart, set amid the broad San Luis Valley, encircled by the Continental Divide and the spiny Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. Farmers still take water from the 152-year-old People’s Ditch, dug to connect the Culebra River to farmers’ dry fields. Each spring it’s opened with an old Mexican farming tradition, prayers to San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). And ranchers still turn out their livestock on La Vega, the country’s last remaining communal grazing area. La Vega, part of the Mexican land grant that founded the town, is owned by the entire community. Other communal grazing in Southwestern communities with a Mexican heritage have been sold off, but San Luis has held to tradition.

San Luis (pop. 739) boasts Colorado’s oldest courthouse. At the R&R Market, shoppers buy corn flakes and corn tortillas in the state’s oldest business. Passed down in the same family since 1857, the market still holds some of the original adobe in its walls.

“It’s a place with very deep roots,” says San Luis sculptor Huberto Maestas. Many families here trace their histories to San Luis’ founders. The next generation is proving harder to hold, as many young people leave town to find work. That’s changing, though, thanks in part to Maestas, whose ambitious Stations of the Cross on a mesa flanking town have made San Luis a beloved stop for modern-day pilgrims.

In the 1980s, Father Pat Valdez and the local Catholic parish commissioned Maestas to sculpt 15 bronze statues depicting Christ’s final moments, from his trial to his soaring Resurrection from the cross.

The sculptures follow a winding half-mile trail up a steep hillside dotted with sagebrush, piñon, and cactus. The path ends atop the mesa at an otherworldly chapel of whitewashed adobe and heavy timber overlooking the spectacular vistas of the valley—the nation’s newest shrine above Colorado’s oldest town.

“Nothing has moved me like the faces of these sculptures,” says Tracy Urban of Denver, who walked the Stations of the Cross with her husband and mother as the sun rose above the Sangre de Cristos. “I’ve seen Stations of the Cross in a lot of places, but nothing like this.”

Many others feel the same about the beauty of the sculptures and their setting. Pilgrims to the shrine fill new restaurants and lodges in town. “People come by the busload,” says Joetta Frost, who runs the 57-year-old Emma’s Hacienda restaurant. Her mother’s family stretches back nine generations here to the town’s founding.

“I think it’s just as important to the town,” Frost says. “There’s a lot of tradition that Father (Pat) has brought back to the community that had sort of phased out.”

Some visitors stay on, attracted by the town’s slow pace and religious flavor, while many old-timers are returning to the place they were born.

San Luis residents share a tight bond, says Alfredo Chavez, the county’s social services director, who bounced back and forth from his hometown several times before settling down here. “It’s a ‘we’ type of attitude,” he says. “Probably that’s what pulls us back.”

Maestas, too, left San Luis in search of work. Now, he’s raising his children in the town where he grew up. “The roots are here,” he says. “That’s kind of hard to shake off.”