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Spanish Religious History of Colorado and New Mexico

By Tim Hazell

Spanish occupation of America paralleled the advent of colonization and religious conversion occurring in Mexico, with similar expectations of priest-ruled cities and gold for the plundering. Spaniards called these mythical centers Cibolas and were bent on converting thousands of natives, spreading the word of God and looting untapped wealth. Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico had always been points of convergence for native cultures. Petroglyphs and remains of settlements date back to the Anasazi presence in the Chama Valley, 10,000 BC to 1300 AD, as well as Tewa, Navajo, Ute, Commanches, and Apaches. Hunter-gatherers left shrines, gardens, rock art sites, and maize terraces behind. Their foundations are located on lava-topped mesas. These formations and traces of walls suggest use as passive solar heat sinks and devices for trapping moisture.

Spanish nobility formed the top of the social pyramid, with full-blooded Pueblo Indians at the bottom. Trobadores (poets) of New Mexico were particularly adept at composing extemporaneous verse, albados or religious hymns, adivinanzas (guessing word games), and decimas. The latter were popular poems were structured with an introductory quatrain called a planta, followed by four ten-line stanzas, ending with a line from the planta. Here is a sample of Ramito decima, “Up There in the Heights.”


For a stove I use a fireplace

Which I stoke with kindling,

Since my house is small

I have no television.

In my narrow room

I live as well as lawyer does.

Mister, I can hear on my tin roof

the sounds of pigeons.

and I live up there on the hill

better off than a rich man.


Slaves or “genizaros,” kept in bondage for years or until their owners died, formed a distinct ethnic group. Because of rigid Spanish caste systems, genizaros were considered socially “dead” and remained so even if freed. Ostracized from community, their unique religious celebrations were maintained in isolation. Genizaros lived communally, spoke a dialect of Spanish and were members of the Pious Confraternity of Our Lord Jesus Nazarene, integrating Catholicism and native beliefs. Rituals of the Hermanos Penitentes (Penitent Brotherhood), were characterized by acts of mortification, cross-bearing, and a symbolic crucifixion on Good Friday.

Today, New Mexico’s varied cuisine incorporates distinctive Spanish and Navajo influences. Give this robust pork and chili dish a try!

New Mexico Pork Chops and Chili


6 large tomatoes, cut into chunks

3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped (more to taste)

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. sugar

3 tbsp. vegetable oil

3 lbs. pork chops, cut into 1-inch pieces, bones reserved



Blend tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, salt, and sugar in a food processor until a slightly chunky salsa. Heat oil in a large skillet. Fry pork pieces and bones until crispy and caramel colored, about 10 minutes. Pour salsa over the pork; reduce heat to low and place a cover on the skillet. Cook until the pork pieces are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard any pieces of bone. Serve with rice, refried beans, and warm tortillas.


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