Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes and celebrates the contributions of Hispanic Americans tracing their roots to Spain, Mexico, Central America, South American and the Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean have made to American society and culture and is a celebration and recognition of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.

The month, which always begins on Sept. 15, marks the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Two other countries, Mexico and Chile, celebrate their independence on Sept. 16 and 18, respectively. The observance was born in 1968 when Congress authorized the president to issue an annual proclamation designating National Hispanic Heritage Week. Just two decades later, lawmakers amended the law and expanded it to a month-long celebration, stretching from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

“Like all commemorations, Hispanic Heritage month acknowledges the great contributions of Hispanic people to the state of New Mexico and the USA," said Rob Martinez, New Mexico state historian and University of New Mexico alumnus. "It is also an opportunity for everyone to celebrate that heritage through fiestas, food, music, art, and literature."

Hispanics make up approximately 18.5 percent (60.6 million) of the U.S. population; in New Mexico, however, that population is nearly three times as high at approximately 47 percent. In addition to New Mexico, 11 U.S. states have a population of 1 million or more Hispanic residents including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Among U.S. states, New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic ancestry, at 47 percent (as of July 1, 2012).

In New Mexico, the Hispanic population is historically comprised of mestizo communities, which refers to ethnic/racial categorization of mixed-race castas (Spanish for lineage) evolving out of the Spanish Empire involving people of combined descent including European and Indigenous people. The “casta” term, used by historians during the 20th century to describe mixed-race individuals in Spanish America, resulted from unions of Spaniards (españoles), Amerindians (Indios), and African Americans (Blacks).

Coronado sets out
Frederic Remington's painting of the Coronado Expedition as it leaves New Mexico in 1541 to explore the North American Great Plains.

Coronado’s Expedition
In what would become New Mexico, the Spanish explorers arrived nearly 500 years ago in 1540 when Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition up the western coast of Mexico into the southwestern United States in search of the Seven Cities of Gold also known as the Seven Cities of Cibola. Coronado, who was serving as governor of New Spain (Mexico) at the time, led the expedition north with about 400 Spaniards, approximately 2,000 Indian auxiliaries or allies, and thousands of livestock. They arrived in June 1540 at a multi-story stone and mud village named Hawikah, one of the Seven Cities. The expectations of gold and other treasure were soon dashed as the mythical reports were not seen anywhere.

Coronado wasn’t the first explorer in the territory. A pair of other explorers, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1536 and Marcos de Niza in 1539, preceded Coronado. It was Cabeza de Vaca's report to the Viceroy that mentioned Indian tribes in large cities where valuable minerals were traded. Renewed interest ensued from this information in the Spanish quest to find the "new" Mexico that had so far eluded them and helped move the Coronado expedition forward.

As they got closer, Coronado and his men encountered a line of Zuni warriors defending their home against the Spanish explorers. Coronado was rebuffed as he tried to convince the warriors that his intentions were peaceful. The Zuni attacked and the Spaniards turned the Zuni warriors back using their more advanced weapons. After the battle, the Spanish stocked supplies and continued their expedition.

Coronado didn’t find any treasure but he did find several villages inhabited by native farmers along the way. Coronado and his men visited the 12 Tiwa villages over the next two years surviving on the food and supplies obtained by them, sometimes given and sometimes taken, from the Natives who had been living in the area for thousands of years. Coronado called the natives Los Indios de Los Pueblos (Pueblo Indians).

Although Coronado’s expedition turned up no riches and was called a failure by many accounts, they explored a wide range of the southwest including the Grand Canyon, the plains of Kansas, and major Native villages including Hopi, Pecos, and Taos. It also led to an era of history known as the Spanish Colonial Period in the southwestern part of the United States and included territory that would later become New Mexico in 1912.

“All three events (Spanish Colonization, Pueblo Revolt and the Mexican Independence) changed the trajectory of New Mexico history. Spanish colonization put the Pueblo world under the dominion of the Spanish empire. The Pueblo Revolt undid Spanish dominion and returned autonomy to the Native New Mexicans. Mexican Independence, like U.S. Independence, birthed a new nation and New Mexico was part of it, the Mexican nation.” - Rob Martinez, New Mexico state historian and UNM alumnus

Spanish Colonial Period
After Coronado, it wasn’t until 1598 when Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate began his exploration and the European colonization of one of Spain's most remote possessions in the New World. Along with his expedition of 400 settlers, they began their journey north form New Spain crossing the Rio Grande near El Paso in May of 1598. The Spanish had remembered the many highly-civilized, agricultural Indians living in large villages from Coronado’s expedition. Another reason Oñate marched north were the many souls who could be saved by conversion to Christianity. He led more than 100 soldiers, 10 Franciscan Catholic priests, and large numbers of women, children, slaves, and around 7,000 livestock into the Rio Grande Valley where he established headquarters, and his first capital, at the confluence of the Chama and San Juan Rivers and established the colony of New Mexico for Spain. From there, he sent out small groups of settlers in all directions in search of treasure finding none.

Where Oñate decided to settle is significant in that it was near rivers where many civilizations over the centuries began due to the agricultural benefits and the ability to sustain people with drinking water and fertile land for growing crops. Early civilizations could also fish and hunt the animals that came to drink the water. Additionally, goods and people could be transported easily.

Approximately 40,000 Pueblo Native Americans already inhabited the region leading to a revolt at Acoma Pueblo where Oñate killed and enslaved hundreds of the Natives. He also sentenced all men 25 or older to have their foot cut off. The Acoma Massacre produced fear and anger at the Spanish for many years to come even though Franciscan missionaries were assigned to several of the Pueblo towns to Christianize the natives.

Santa Fe was founded shortly thereafter in 1610 when Gov. Pedro de Peralta formally found the second capital of Nuevo México moving the capital from San Gabriel to the site of the new town. Built in 1610 by European settlers, The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe represents the Southwest heritage and has survived four centuries of use as the home of Spanish, Mexican, and American governors encompassing the control of the three countries governing the New Mexican territory from 1610 through 1907.

Pueblo Revolt
An artist's rendition of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Pueblo Revolt
The decades leading up to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 were repeatedly marked by disputes between royal governors and Franciscan clergy. Several issues were at hand including Native representation within New Mexico's early government, the use of Native labor by the governors, and attitudes toward Native religious practices where Pueblo beliefs were both persecuted and accepted. Meanwhile, Hispanics were also being torn apart as partisan groups sought supremacy. If that wasn’t enough, the situations were compounded by drought, contagious disease, and an increase in Apache raids against all areas of the Spanish colony.

The issues came to head when a new governor, Juan Francisco Treviño, took office (1675-1677) and began an all-out assault on Pueblo religious practices. The governor ordered the destruction of kivas, Pueblo ceremonial rooms, and native religious paraphernalia. In his first year in office, 47 Pueblo religious leaders were arrested and whipped publicly whipped. Four were executed by hanging. Also, Spain’s encomienda, a system that rewarded Spanish conquerors with the labor of particular groups of conquered non-Christian people, provided Native laborers with benefits including protection from the conquerors for whom they were forced to work.

Pueblo reaction was quick and successful leading to Treviño being taken as prisoner. A large group of warriors surrounded the Santa Fe capital, while dozens of others broke into the governors' palace and took Treviño prisoner. In exchange for his life, the governor released the remaining Pueblo religious leaders.

The Pueblo Revolt in Santa Fe, led by groups of different Native peoples, wound up killing 400 Spaniards while others fled to the capital and took refuge in the Palace of the Governors. The remaining settlers later escaped to New Spain after the Natives cut the water supply. The Pueblo Indians then occupied the Palace of the Governors from 1680 to 1692 and built a three-story pueblo-like structure on top of the Palace, which was later torn down and returned to a traditional Spanish building after the reconquest.

The “Bloodless Reconquest” was led in July 1692 by Don Diego de Vargas, was a “ceremonial” conquest. He was given orders to lead the reconquest and to bring peace to New Mexico. Leading a small group of soldiers, he returned to Santa Fe, surrounded the city, and called for a surrender of the Pueblo Indians. The Pueblo Indians were promised clemency if they swore allegiance to the King of Spain with a return to the Catholic faith. He met with Pueblo leaders, who agreed to surrender. On Sept. 12, 1692, a formal act of repossession was proclaimed by de Vargas. Spanish colonists resettled a year later after spending the previous 12 years in El Paso after being driven out of Santa Fe in the Pueblo Revolt. However, there were still simmering tensions.

In 1693 when de Vargas returned after going back to Mexico to gather a group of settlers, he encountered a group of warriors and had to fight to get back into Santa Fe. De Vargas had about 70 Pueblo men killed, while women and children were given as servants to the colonists. Fighting also occurred at many other pueblos along with the killing. The Native Indians eventually submitted to de Vargas and the King of Spain’s rule, but resentment continued. The colonists treated the Pueblo people badly, and periodically raided their corn stocks and other supplies as the settlers had trouble sustaining the colony. The colony finally gained a stronghold by the end of the century. 

The next governor, Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, was able to start brokering peace for the Pueblos, both in New Mexico’s government by guaranteeing improved representation and through trade access. Later, in 1706, Valdés founded Alburquerque taking the name from the Viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Fernández de la Cueva Enriquez, Tenth Duke of Alburquerque.

Cry of Dolores
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, launched the Mexican War of Independence issuing his Grito de Dolores, or “Cry of Dolores."

Mexican Independence
More than 100 years after the Pueblo Revolt and Reconquest, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The Guerra de Independencia de México lasted 13 years (1808–1821) and ended with Mexico’s independence from Spain. The period began with Napoleon’s occupation of Spain leading to revolts all across Spanish America. A Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, launched the Mexican War of Independence issuing his Grito de Dolores, or “Cry of Dolores,” (a town in Mexico) calling on his parishioners to arms under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. He called for independence through a revolutionary tract essentially asking for the end of Spanish rule in Mexico, redistribution of land, and racial equality. Hidalgo had some success but was later defeated in his efforts, captured and executed.

However, other peasant leaders seeking independence followed including José María Morelos y Pavón, Mariano Matamoros, and Vicente Guerrero. They led armies that included native and racially mixed revolutionaries against the Spanish and the Royalists. It was the Royalists, comprised of conservative Mexicans of Spanish descent, who ultimately brought about independence. Liberals took power in Spain in 1820 and formed a new government that promised reforms in an effort to please the Mexican revolutionaries. Mexican conservatives then called for independence to maintain their privileged position in Mexican society.

A plan, the Treaty of Córdoba, was approved and signed by Spanish Viceroy Juan de O’Donojú to make Mexico an independent constitutional monarchy in the spring of 1821 when all local government officials swore allegiance to Mexico. In 1848, New Mexico was ceded to the United States through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

“All three events (Spanish Colonization, Pueblo Revolt and the Mexican Independence) changed the trajectory of New Mexico history,” said Martinez. “Spanish colonization put the Pueblo world under the dominion of the Spanish empire. The Pueblo Revolt undid Spanish dominion and returned autonomy to the Native New Mexicans. Mexican Independence, like U.S. Independence, birthed a new nation and New Mexico was part of it, the Mexican nation.”

During Hispanic Heritage Month, University Communication and Marketing (UCAM) will publish weekly pieces comprising a mini-series encompassing the history, contributions, culture and traditions of Hispanics in New Mexico. The first in the series takes a look at three major historical events dating back to Coronado's expedition with a look at Spanish Colonization, the Pueblo Revolt and Mexico's Independence. These are just a few of the events that occurred over the past 500 years that helped shape the State of New Mexico. It is not a comprehensive account of all the events that transpired during that period of time. 

Special thanks to New Mexico State Historian and UNM alumnus Rob Martinez for his insights and contributions to this article. For more information, visit the New Mexico History website.

Sources and images used: New Mexico State History, Britannica.com, History.com and Wikipedia.