History whispers in Spanish place names


The green road signs flash along Interstate 25, heading south. Pueblo, this exit. Cañon City, Salida, Buena Vista, that exit.

About 50 miles south of Pueblo, you can head east on State Highway 10 to La Junta and Las Animas. A right on 160 west takes you into Huerfano County and along a thread of towns with names like La Veta, Blanca, Alamosa, Monte Vista, Del Norte.

That’s the road my husband, our son and I are traveling to Durango in southwestern Colorado, not far from the New Mexico line, a region we are exploring for the first time.

Along the way is a faded blue billboard that talks about Río Cucharas, the river that flows from La Veta to Walsenburg.

What does that mean? my husband asks.

Spoons River, I answer.

He smiles. It’s a whimsical image — but one, I realize, that never gets painted unless you know the significance of the words. It makes me wonder: How much of place and culture gets lost in non-translation?

So much of Colorado’s heritage is entwined in the Spanish names of its towns, rivers, mountain ranges, counties and streets — even the state itself (Colorado, red or colored). But throughout generations, we’ve Americanized their pronunciations so much — Salida becomes Sa-LIE-dah rather than Sa-LEE-dah, which means exit — that we don’t recognize the language as Spanish anymore. They become, simply, words without definitions. And without meaning, the link to the past breaks.

“For non-Hispanos, that connection has been lost in many ways,” said Bill Convery, Colorado’s state historian. “We lose a little bit of the richness of our culture when we forget the meaning of a place name. Understanding these meanings helps establish our own sense of place — it gives us grounding in our community which, as Americans, is constantly in flux.”

For many Hispanos the connection remains alive but fraught with emotional complexity, said Maruca Salazar, executive director of Museo de las Americas, a Denver organization committed to preserving Latin American art and culture.

“Behind all of this, there is a very intense past,” she said. “The connection was not a friendly one — it was an imposition. … We come from a conquered nation, a conquered people. That makes us very unique.”

Colorado has been home to many ethnic populations — Native Americans, the first, going back more than 10,000 years; French; Germans; Irish; and others. But the first and largest non-native group was the Hispanics.

In the 1500s, Spanish expeditions followed Native American trails in a search for, among other things, gold. Spanish explorers drew the first maps of the state. The Arkansas River in Pueblo, south of Colorado Springs, marked the border between New Spain and the U.S. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it offered land grants to reinforce land claims against encroaching U.S. settlers. But following the Mexican-American War in 1848, in which a number of southwestern states including New Mexico, California and southern and western Colorado were ceded to the U.S. for $15 million, many landowners were stripped of their property by U.S. courts.

A battle for identity ensued.

“Imagine going to bed Mexican and waking up American,” Salazar said, quoting her mother-in-law, whose family has been in Colorado for seven generations. “Imagine losing your land. …”

The railroads in the 1870s also transformed the region. The Denver & Río Grande Railroad wanted to reach Mexico and the Gulf Coast across the Río Grande (big river), so it included the river in its name to appeal to its continental aspirations. It established towns such as Alamosa (cottonwood) and Antonito (little Anthony) to compete with older Hispanic settlements, Convery said.

But the railroads also pushed many Spanish-speaking farmers and ranchers into the northern parts of the state as English-speaking settlers moved in and changed the economic and political landscapes.

They left behind, however, an enduring trail of history in places, traditions and influence.

Many of the names that dot the southwestern part of the state, such as Barela and Cordova, come from the families that first settled the area.

Conejos County is one of Convery’s favorite stories. The county moniker, which means rabbits, came from the naming of the creek, so billed in the 1850s because its waters “ran as fast as a rabbit.”

Huerfano County comes from the volcanic butte that stands as a lonely sentinel — a huérfano or orphan — on the plains near Walsenburg. It was a major landmark for Hispanics traveling through the area, Convery said.

The tiny town of Del Norte (from the North) got its name as the northern end of the Río Grande.

Franciscan monks, following the Spaniards who named the San Luis (Saint Louis) Valley, watched the summer sunlight turn the earth of the nearby mountains a deep red. “It looks like blood,” Salazar said. “That’s what the Franciscans saw.” And so they called the range Sangre de Cristo, the blood of Christ.

French and Germans also left their marks.

Walsenburg was initially La Plaza de los Leones after the León family, but was renamed by the German immigrant Fred Walsen. The French decided to call Río Jesús María (River of Jesus and Mary) the Platte (flat — a pronunciation from French) instead.

Spanish explorers named the river near Trinidad Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (the lost souls of Purgatory). But French-Canadian traders called it Purgatoire, and later, Convery said, American cattlemen rechristened it Picketwire.

Three different names — all reflective of the changing nature of history around the river. Like all names, they are stories that tell us how we got here. But we have to listen — and sometimes that means making the effort to translate.

“Understanding the meaning and history of a place,” Convery said, “grounds us and helps us establish that we belong.”

“Identity is an essential element of your psyche,” Salazar said. When “I know where I come from, I know what my values are.”

As I scan a map of Colorado, poetic names jump at me — Dolores River, the river of sorrows. La Junta, the junction. Las Animas, the souls. What stories, I wonder, lie hidden in their names?

And then there’s Mosca, a town of 674 people in the San Juan Valley whose name means fly.

“I don’t know why it’s called Mosca,” Convery said. “But there’s got to be a story behind it.”

One, assuredly, that gives meaning to life in Colorado today.

Ann Macari Healey’s column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@ourcoloradonews.com or 303-566-4110.


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