Chapter 2: Las Colitas, New Mexico
New Mexico was primarily settled by Spanish travelling north from Mexico along the Rio Grande River valley. Although the first Spanish expeditions were primarily Conquistadors, later groups were searching for a new life and focused on establishing a home in this vast new territory known as New Spain. These were often diverse groups, consisting of Spanish from Spain, Spanish-Indians from Mexico, Jews who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and others. As these earliest settlers migrated north, they encountered the numerous indigenous pueblo populations who had lived in this area for millennia. The inevitable intermarriages resulted in a further mixing of cultures as these people continued north.
They passed through Jornada del Muerto, a 100-mile stretch of central New Mexico with searing heat and little or no water. As they continued north, these early groups encountered beautiful valleys along the smaller streams and rivers and began to establish permanent settlements. Water was plentiful and soon the valleys were dotted with productive agrarian communities.
An essential tenet of Spain’s colonization of New Spain was to convert the indigenous populations to Catholicism. To this end, Franciscan Priests were an integral part of each expedition. The Spanish Monarchy instituted a program of land grants to encourage people to establish permanent residence throughout the new territory. Another critical objective of the land grants was to keep unwanted people from settling in the lands claimed by Spain. As more people came, this duty was assumed by the Territorial Governor. The size of these grants was designed to support a specific number of people, typically a few families, with farming and livestock. It was generally no more than a subsistence existence, but the people felt the pride of land ownership and an overwhelming sense of freedom and self-sufficiency.
The physical characteristics of many of these small villages were similar and incorporated much of the pueblo culture. There was a central plaza which was the center of all daily activity. The village was typically fortified by walls as a means of defense from the nomadic tribes of Apache and Comanche from the Plains. The pueblo peoples had developed effective farming techniques based on prudent water use for this difficult environment. A community water system, called an acequia, was a central and important part of the community. Even with relatively primitive methods, they were able raise sufficient sheep and cattle to provide for the community
The present day city of Española, New Mexico was settled in approximately 1598 by the Spanish military explorer Juan de Oñate as a capital for Spain in the New World. By 1750, the city was known as La Vega de las Vigiles after the prominent Vigil family who were among the initial settlers.
This situation was typical of New Mexico in those early days. An individual or group of families could petition the Governor and be awarded a section of land for his immediate family and members of his group. This male became the leader or Padrone (Padrino) of this small community. There were many reasons for establishing a separate community. Often, the leader of one family simply could not get along with others and set off with his immediate family to establish a new community. Communities were often formed to get away from troublesome influences, including an over-zealous Priest or to escape persecution.
These small villages existed for decades without much influence from outside. They became more insulated. They were wary of outsiders. Others came; Pueblo Indians seeking protection from the nomadic Plains Indians, Jews seeking protection from the Inquisition which had followed them to Mexico, French trappers following the rivers south, etc.
By the middle of the 19th century, westward expansion across the United Sates had become a powerful force and Spain and the United Sates eventually went to war over this vast territory. The railroad was another powerful force at this time and as it pushed westward along the existing Santa Fe Trail, it entered New Mexico. There was considerable fighting and bloodshed until the United States Army finally prevailed. The Army then established a network of Forts through the territory, presumably to protect wagon trains heading west, but also to discourage any further uprisings.
Soon after, merchants arrived bringing the latest farming equipment and tools. Since many of the people in these small communities had operated on a barter or community-based economy for decades, they never had any need for money. In order to purchase a modern plow or shovel, the merchants accepted a parcel of land in trade. Because land was plentiful, the communities somewhat willingly participated in this new commercial arrangement. Soon, much of their traditional land was gone.
Historically, the Padrone would take care of everything and provide for everyone. But, the young men in the villages became restless and angry and resentful of the new-comers who had “stolen” their land. This perspective of a legacy of conquest and subjugation began to play itself out in the behavior of the males in the community. Reliance on the Padrone for everything had a profound unintended consequence. With a lack of education and training, there were few opportunities and the young men in the community became increasingly frustrated and angry. Eventually, this would manifest itself in a culture of domestic and sexual violence against women in community, including wives and daughters.
The village of Colitas was typical of many communities in northern New Mexico, established by a few families seeking a greater degree of independence and control over their lives. The Salazar family was the founding family for the Village of Colitas, having split from the Vigil family in Española. Despite their best efforts to remain isolated, they were frequently drawn into the various conflicts that characterized the State’s history well into the 20th century. Each episode added to the frustration of the men in Colitas and their sense of being conquered and subjugated by some “outside” power or influence.
The Salazars remained in firm control to the present day and the role of Padrone had been passed from father to first-born son for many generations. The citizens became accustomed to Padrone Salazar providing for everyone and everything. Through a vast network, he had powerful political and family connections throughout much of northern New Mexico. In particular, he had powerful connections in Santa Fe which resulted in a considerable amount of Federal and State money flowing into Colitas, all of it through Papa Salazar. In return, he was able to deliver an entire voting block whenever needed by a particular politician to secure re-election or support for a pet project. In his private moments, Papa Salazar considered himself to be like the Medicis in Florence.
A negative consequence of this concentration of power was that the citizens of Colitas developed the perspective that they were simply entitled to this largesse. There was really no need for an education or to exert any initiative because a long line of Salazar Padrones had made sure that everyone was provided for. Those who worked at all had jobs with some State Agency where their only requirement was to show up, at least most of the time.
The current head of the Salazar family had three sons, Pedro, Emilio and Lucero. Pedro had been groomed from an early age to succeed his father and was serving as a member of the City Council. Emilio was serving a four-year sentence at a prison in Texas for distribution of heroin and methamphetamines. The youngest son, Lucero, was still in High School. Much to his father’s displeasure, Lucero was a rather passive person, likely in reaction to the domineering personalities of his father and older brothers.
Lucero quickly discovered that his quiet and passive demeanor had its benefits. Walking home from high school one afternoon, he noticed a young girl sitting on a park bench and she was crying. His first reaction was to keep moving and not get involved. But, as he passed near, he recognized her from one of his classes and he could see that her face was swollen more than would be caused by crying. She softly called his name and her eyes begged him to stop. When he sat down, she threw her arms around his neck and began sobbing heavily.
“Oh, Lucero, please help me. Joaquin said he saw me talking to another boy today and he slapped me. When I said I hadn’t talked to any other boys, he called me a Slut and a Liar and he slapped me again. I tried to get away, but he grabbed me and then hit me with his fist. I don’t know what to do. I love Joaquin and don’t want him to be angry with me.”
Lucero Salazar didn’t know what to do. He knew Joaquin and about his violent temper; he did not want to get on his bad side. But, Maria was desperate and maybe he could just sit with her until she stopped crying.
“Please just hold me a while, Lucero. I feel so safe with you.”
Lucero absolutely did not want anyone to see him sitting with Maria, much less holding her. That would get back to Joaquin and he would have to pay the price. “Wait a minute,” he told himself. “I am a Salazar and no one will mess with me. My brother and cousins will protect me. No one is stupid enough to bother me.”
So, he gently put his arms around Maria and held her for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, she stopped crying.
“Oh, Lucero, thank you so very much. You are so kind. I did not mean to trouble you, but it meant so much to feel safe in your arms.” As she rose to leave, she leaned over and kissed him.
And, so it began.
Maria lived with the constant conflict of most the young girls in Las Colitas. There was unrelenting pressure to get married and bear children, one consequence of centuries of living under strict Catholic doctrine. There was also the peer pressure; no girl of high school age wanted to be known as not having a steady boyfriend. For these girls, it meant tolerating the abuse which was accepted as “just part of the way things were”. Most of the women of Las Colitas experienced abuse at some point, by a husband or boyfriend and occasionally by a father or brother.
Maria’s positive and non-violent experience with Lucero Salazar quickly spread among the girls at Las Colitas High. It was whispered that he was safe and not abusive; he would just hold you and let you cry until the immediate hurt passed.
It didn’t take long for the boys to get wind of this new development in the social order of things. Most did not see Lucero as a threat to their masculinity; he was considered “pretty much of a wimp”. Regardless, Lucero was a Salazar and no one dared risk the wrath of the Salazar family. Some of the boys threatened their girlfriends and forbade them to talk to Lucero, but most just ignored the situation. They remained confident in their ability to dominate and control their women.
For his part, Lucero quickly recognized that his role in the social environment at Las Colitas High School had changed and he relished his new-found status. His reputation grew and more girls sought him out for solace. He made himself available and began to encourage them. He knew that most of the girls were used to being physically abused, so he began to gently caress them as part of his comforting words and gestures to which the girls responded positively. One afternoon, one of Maria’s friends was sitting with Lucero and asked if they could lie together without any clothes. “I need to feel safe when I am most vulnerable,” she said. Lucero did not hesitate to accommodate her wishes.
As graduation approached, Lucero’s father told him that he was enrolled at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico where he would study to become certified as a teacher at Las Colitas High School. There wasn’t anything Lucero could do against his father’s wishes, so he resigned himself to his fate. When word leaked out that he would be leaving town, Maria and her friends decided to throw a going-away party for him. Most of the boys had planned to spend the weekend camping in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The girls knew that the boys would be too drunk to return to Las Colinas until late Sunday evening, so they had the weekend free. Virtually all of the girls that Lucero had comforted over the past year were present and they took turns expressing their appreciation in ways that he could not have possibly imagined!
Lucero wasn’t much of a student and not prepared to do the work required to get an education at Highlands. He soon discovered that the women in Las Vegas lived in essentially the same abusive conditions as Las Colitas and many other towns and villages in the area. Fortunately for Lucero, his reputation had followed him and he quickly found that he was spending much of his time comforting fellow students and some local women. By this time, Lucero realized that he could take advantage of most women as long as he played the role of a caring and comforting male.
He was entering his third year of study at Highlands when he decided that he didn’t need an education or degree; he was a Salazar and that would be sufficient to secure his future. His father wasn’t pleased with his decision to drop out of college, but they reached somewhat of a compromise and Lucero joined the general faculty for Las Colitas Public Schools.
There were advantages to his role as an Assistant Coach in the Athletic Department and as a Guidance Counselor. The high school girls who were in difficult relationships frequently came to his office to pour out their hearts and seek comfort. Lucero was always more than willing to oblige. After only a few years, it was not uncommon for the mothers of the young girls to seek him out as well. Lucero realized that he would never be Padrone for the Village, but he was living a comfortable and gratifying life and thought he was set for life. It would be several years before his actual behavior came into question and he would face serious legal action.