When I started this journey on the 10th of March of 2014 I understood that I was undertaking both a physical trip along the Old Spanish Trail to consider the legacy of the early Spanish explorers in the contemporary landscape and beginning a parallel journey of reflection upon my own identity. I was born in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, and have always felt deeply connected to the language and cultural traditions celebrated throughout the region, even though my childhood was spent elsewhere. After living many years in La Rioja, Madrid and Wales I began to feel somewhat dislocated from the concept of a home, part of a generation that belongs to `here and there´ and often to ‘nowhere in particular’. My roots feel so disseminated that I am no longer sure where I belong to anymore. Despite this, it seems essential to remember where we are from so we can create channels of understanding with other people within and without our own cultures. I had never felt any urge to know more about who my ancestors had been but hoped that undertaking this project would offer me an insight into why so many people have such a clear and intense passion for discovering where they came from and how this knowledge helps them to define who they are.
Growing up in Spain I was not taught much about the Spanish influence on the historical development of the United States. The history books of my childhood focused on the endeavours of Cristobal Colón, Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, their discovery and exploration of Central and South America. I wasn’t familiar with Juan de Oñate, Diego de Vargas, Pedro de Peralta o Junípero Serra until much later. Visiting New Mexico for the first time a couple of years ago it was a shock to observe such prominent Spanish heritage in the language, religious beliefs, art and other traditions celebrated throughout the state. For example, the small villages of New Mexico are called “pueblos” the same as those in Spain.
Meeting new people during my travels has been the biggest blessing of the project as I have experienced glimpses of many different lifestyles and have slowly been gaining a greater understanding of the Southwest and the origins of the Spanish influence in the area. I have to admit that the puzzle is not complete as my time for exploration has been short but I feel confident that I have gathered enough pieces to form an accurate impression.
I decided to travel along the Old Spanish Trail, following in the footsteps of trader Antonio Armijo, who in 1829-30 completed the first recorded return journey between New Mexico and California. I started in Santa Fe, where I spent two weeks preparing the logistics for the trip whilst also seeking out the descendants of Spanish settlers who still proudly celebrate their heritage. I visited pueblos such as Truchas, Cundiyo, Chimayo, Galisteo, Española, Ojo Caliente, Regina and Gallina. Almost all of the descendants that I met were over 50 years old, this age group being the most interested in their genealogy. The younger generations seem to have different priorities and are less concerned with defining where they are from, upholding traditions or even learning the Spanish language. I interviewed many of the descendants I met in an attempt to understand how they feel about their identity, hoping to gather and preserve oral stories before they are lost or diluted over time.
At the end of March I spent a few days in Abiquiu, which was an important last stop for traders and explorers before heading west. It was here that I first realised the significance the Spanish colonial outposts had for many people. Today, Abiquiu is famous as the home of the artist Georgia O’Keefe and is visited by many tourists keen to engage her life and work. However, there are many more layers of history still being explored by the local community, who continue to undertake research in the hope that one day Abiquiu can be recognised as a Native Pueblo and not as an Hispanic community as it currently classified by the US government. Even though most of the locals are proud of their Spanish ancestry many feel that being known as an Hispanic Pueblo is not enough to truly reflect their social and cultural identity. On the 31st of March we began our road trip, leaving the plaza in Abiquiu and driving west. My companion was photographer Matt Wright, who documented the landscapes we crossed from the 1984 RV we travelled in.
With Armijo´s brief diary in hand, wherever possible we followed the route that he originally traversed. We kept as far from the freeways as we could and camped in the wild as much as possible in the hope of experiencing something of what it might have been like to travel within these impressive and sometimes imposing landscapes, as Armijo did in 1829. Despite rejecting the signs and infrastructure of contemporary New Mexico, it was almost impossible to imagine the hardships that the original caravan party of 60 men and 100 mules must have faced.
We travelled northwest from New Mexico and spent a single night in Colorado, by Ute Mountain where we woke up to some leaks in the RV caused by the snow. We then crossed the state line into Arizona near the Four Corners, arriving to Glen Canyon where we visited the area known as the `Crossing of the Fathers´, which today is submerged beneath the waters of Lake Powell. After a day of rest we continued onto Kanab and eventually St George in Utah before descending into Nevada. We camped at Valley of Fire then continued on to Las Vegas where we met up with the President of the Old Spanish Trail Association, who offered a wealth of information about the history of the trail, the organisation and its plans for the future.
For me, the hardships we experienced so far were related to the lack of commodities we have grown accustomed to being readily available, such as electricity, water, gas, internet, fresh bread or coffee. Even with the modern convenience of a motor vehicle, some days were not easy as Orwell, our modern day mule, had very little ground clearance or power which made certain elements of the journey difficult as we tried to access some of the less developed paths that Armijo would have used.
One of the first places we visited in California was Resting Springs, near Tecopa, a small desert oasis with a rich heritage as a vital resting place for the traders, Indians and trappers who passed through this tough environment. It was here that I was fortunate enough to meet with some of the descendants of the first traders to leave New Mexico and settle in California, looking for better land and a less hostile climate.
Upon reaching Los Angeles we visited San Gabriel Mission, once the key destination in California for travellers from the east to trade blankets for horses and mules. I interviewed some of the Padres and some of the descendants of the original settlers that founded El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781. From these men and women I was able to gain a clearer understanding of how Spanish heritage is celebrated in California today and what traditions still remain as the yearly nine miles walk of Los Pobladores or the Blessing of the Animals, for example.
In Culver City I interviewed Julie Lugo who told me, “I am not here to take any credit or any blame for what my ancestors did.” This made me think about the impact the first settlers must have had on the development of the Native American Pueblos, claiming territories and building an empire that sometimes exploited the local resources or communities it encountered. But moving forward from here, this thinking helped me to consider that history is there for us to learn from and that by researching our own roots we can achieve a better understanding of global events. Appreciating how contemporary life has been shaped by the last three centuries helps us relate to past events on a more personal level. Learning about our past helps to heal wounds and hopefully encourage cultures to respect each other and coexist with one another.
Most of the people I encountered in New Mexico and California defined themselves as Americans who are really proud of their Spanish heritage. Most of them also celebrated the fact that, as a result of inter-racial marriages during the last three centuries, they not only carry Spanish blood but also have Native American, Mexican and a variety of European genetics. Some have pursued extensive genealogical research and traced their family tree back 400 years to Spain. Others didn’t have a special interest in this field but spoke Spanish and felt the influence of traditions introduced to the Southwest by explorers, soldiers and missionaries since the 1500s. Today, Spanish is the second most common language spoken in the US, mostly attributable to immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries. There are many long established Spanish speaking communities across the Southwest and after meeting so many Spanish descendants my overall impression remains that both cultures are helping each other to embrace the Spanish language, increasing the number of people speaking it throughout the states.
This project has allowed me to experience a physical journey across the Old Spanish Trail, historically known as the most arduous pack mule trail across the Southwest. But many more journeys, some of them more metaphorical, have collided during the past two months; the journey across history, before and after the Spanish got to the Americas, the journey through the lives of the people I met during my travels and also my personal journey of self-discovery through the perceptions of people who feel proud of their Spanish heritage.
Even in Spain we are not really aware of the impact that our culture had, and continues to have on these states, it seems that for many years to come there will be people in New Mexico and California proudly celebrating traditions introduced by colonial settlers, keeping them alive for the day we are ready to learn about these links that join both countries.
I would like to thank everyone that I met during the trip for sharing their experiences and guiding me on my travels. In the coming weeks I will be editing and posting more video interviews.