Land Water People Time

Ancestral tracks

Veredas antiquas y conecciones continuas


I met Arturo Garrido, an architect from Mexico City, in September 2015. He was attending the Three Trails Conference in Santa Fe, which focused on the convergence in Santa Fe of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Santa Fe Trail and the Old Spanish Trail. We conversed about the origins of the trails, and he shared his observations about the global connections of ancient peoples — those of Central America, the Hopis, the Anasazi and the Tewa cultures. Most of the routes were established for trade and exchange, and there were no borders or barriers other than natural geography.

In the land now known as New Mexico, indigenous peoples connected with one another for trade and ceremony, exchanging precious materials such as turquoise for copper bells, feathers, chocolate and other valuable resources from what is now Mexico. The tierra adentro, the interior, was visited often, and trails and networks were forged over time, connecting indigenous peoples of North and Central America. Trail networks connecting ancient settlements fanned out across the land, permitting travel over long distances.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the royal highway connecting Mexico to New Mexico, evolved from these ancient pathways. In 1598 Juan de Oñate traveled along these paths for more than 1,100 miles, trekking from Zacatecas to the lands at the confluence of the Río Chama and the Río Grande (now Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo near Española).

The consequences of the colonization are recorded in oral stories and written records kept through the centuries. Abuses by the colonists led to a revolt by the Pueblo peoples and expulsion of the Spaniards in 1680. The Spaniards fled south from Santa Fe, settling in San Isidro (El Paso) and farther south in Chihuahua. Some of the settlers returned to Santa Fe with Diego de Vargas 12 years later, but many chose to remain in their new homelands. The resettlement of the northern lands would require recruitment of new colonists.

Just north of Mexico City, a convocatoria was established. This was an encampment where people wishing to make the journey north could settle for several months, gathering supplies and livestock, without imposition of taxes. At this encampment, in the Colonia San Simon, a monument was created in honor of Santiago Peregrino (St. James the Pilgrim), marking the beginning of the camino. The monument is simple, created of native stone, but it anchors a line first forged by indigenous peoples, linking the heart of Mexico to the lands of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area.

In his research of the Camino Real Arturo Garrido uncovered this early monument, which had been isolated and lost over the last three centuries, The portion of the Camino Real that lies within Mexico has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along its route lie many archaeological sites, some only recently discovered. At the northernmost tip of an extension of the Camino Real lies Taos Pueblo, which also has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In these tracks of our ancestors there is a continuum of memory and a sense of connection that is unbroken by imposed divisions of borders or society. We may not know it intimately, but it is in our blood.

In the stories of our parents, somos mejicanos (“we are Mexicans”) was an oft-repeated phrase, designating shared connection. Es mejicano signified a personal acceptance of an individual.  Yet separation from our shared ethnic ancestry was enforced under Spanish rule. Separation was furthered with the conquest of New Mexico by the United States in 1846 and by policy during the territorial period and the period following statehood. It continues to this day.

It is appropriate to celebrate the work of Arturo Garrido in identifying the anchor point of the Camino Real. At the other end of the Camino, Dr. Ana Malinalli x Gutierrez Sisneros has introduced a resolution to the Española City Council. It would establish July 12 (the date Oñate reached Ohkay Owingeh) as Doña Isabel de Tolosa Day, to be observed during the annual Española Fiestas celebration.

Isabel de Tolosa Cortes Motecuhzoma (or Montezuma) was the wife of Juan de Oñate and the mother of Cristobal, their son, who succeeded Juan de Oñate as the first elected governor of Nuevo Mejico. Isabel was a granddaughter of Hernán Cortés and a great-granddaughter of Motecuhzoma II. Although Isabel de Tolosa never visited the northern domains, the commemoration would honor the role of women in the framing of our history and the mingling of the cultures that compose Northern New Mexico.

This year the National Park Service celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act. This year also marks 420 years since the arrival of the first Spanish settlers in Northern New Mexico under Juan de Oñate, and thus the 420th anniversary of the Camino Real. The camino contains the tracks of our ancestors, connecting communities and Native settlements. It represents the joining of the honorable civilizations of the Aztec/Mexica, Tewa, Tano, Keres, Athabascan and Genízaro peoples and the mingling in of Iberian roots — including Basque, Moorish, Jewish, and Roman — to create the uniquely New Mexican Indo-Iberian cocktail that has enabled us to survive and to thrive. ¡Salud!

Thomas A. Romero is executive director of the Northern Río Grande Natural Heritage Area. Descended from early-17th-century Spanish settlers, he was born in Santa Rosa and raised in Santa Fe. He resides today in Tesuque. He has worked as a management consultant throughout the United States and in Latin America, has been on the board of El Museo Cultural since 1998 and has worked with numerous community planning and service organizations.


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