By Jesus Lopez
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Optic on Feb. 26, 2011.
It has been two months since our first column, and many Optic readers have contacted us with questions and comments. One continuing question is why Las Vegas and New Mexico history is alternately referred to as Spanish and Mexican.
Some of you have asked, for example, why the San Miguel del Bado land grant is considered a Spanish grant, but the Las Vegas land grant is referred to as a Mexican grant. Or why I related that soon after 1794, Spanish officials in Santa Fe designated San Miguel as the official port of entry into New Spain, but later remarked that in 1841 Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo and his troops celebrated in Las Vegas after repelling the Texas invasion.
I like to compare this query to whether you prefer red or green chile. The answer is very simple, and is easily understood if you divide post-Columbian New Mexico history into four periods: the period under Spanish rule, the Mexican period, the territorial era, and the contemporary period since statehood in 1912.
When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he did so for Spain. As Spanish explorers followed Columbus and continued their exploration and occupation of the new world, they too laid claim on behalf of Spain. When Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec empire and claimed it for Spain in 1521, the Aztecs already referred to their capital city in Tenochtitlán as México. (The root word is Mexitli, and is of Nahuatl-Aztec origin).
As Spain expanded its occupation of the subcontinent, the capital city’s Aztec name, México, was used to describe all the new land that was brought under the Spanish empire. As the Spanish explored northward into what is now the Southwest United States, this area also became part of the Spanish empire known as México. Early maps and documents refer to these northern most reaches as Nueva Galicia (New Spain), but by the mid 1600s, present day New Mexico was referred to by Spanish officials as Nuevo México.
This period of Spanish colonization lasted 300 years, from 1521 to 1821, and after Nuevo México was settled by Oñate in 1598, everything that happened here was done under the authority and governance of Spain, as administered through a very rigid and imperious system of vice-royalty (viceroys) and all its subordinate military and civil bureaucracy. As far away as New Mexico was from all the action in Mexico City and its environs, we were nevertheless under the control of the Spanish viceroy in Durango, and nothing important happened here without the approval of the viceroy or his subordinates.
In 1810 a great revolution began in the vast Spanish empire known as México, ignited by the humble priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, in the small town of Dolores (El Grito de Dolores/the cry of Dolores). The poor, the indigenous and the mestizo people of México rebelled against Spain’s imperial oppression and rule, and after more than a decade of war, Spain’s control of the country ended and the Republic of México was born in 1821 – and Nuevo México then became part of the Republic of México.
But New Mexico’s people, language and culture remained the same. We never changed, only our governance changed. After 1821, everything that happened in New Mexico was done under the authority and governance of the Republic of México. Our governors became Mexican governors and our land grants were made and settled as Mexican grants.
Because of this evolution in governance, the San Miguel del Bado land grant of 1794, made under the authority of the Spanish Crown, is a Spanish land grant. The 1835 Las Vegas land grant, on the other hand, was made fourteen years after Spain was overthrown and the Republic of México established, and is therefore a Mexican land grant.
An interesting twist and great example of the change from Spanish to Mexican rule is the Las Vegas land grant made to Luis María Cabeza de Baca. As recounted in Nuestra Historia in our column of April 11 2014, Don Luis applied for the grant in 1820 under Spanish rule, but the grant was made in 1823 under Mexican rule, as a Mexican land grant.
So let’s just say, will it be red or green?
William Gonzales, who has long been active in water rights and acequia issues, called to remark that even the very early acequia system established in Las Vegas soon after 1835, was extensive and ran well beyond the vicinity of the central plaza. This is absolutely correct and our column of that day (April 18) meant to convey only a snap-shot view of the original settlement, and the acequia was described only as it ran in the immediate area of the old town plaza.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730