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Colorado’s Oldest Town:
San Luis Celebrates Spanish Roots
Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, is just 60 miles from Taos. Nestled in
the San Luis Valley of cattle ranchers and potato farmers, a town of fewer than
1,000 souls doesn’t invite a crush of visitors. Most tourists speed down the
ribbon of highway that slices the high desert with chamisa shrubs on both sides.
A cobalt blue sky, wider than any ocean, with a backdrop of snow-capped Mount
Blanca and the San Isabel National Forest, reveals a spring gift. As snow melts,
water will trickle into rivers and quench the thirst of an arid climate.
On their way to New Mexico, tourists anticipate the blend of cultures, the
pottery and turquoise of Native Americans with an overlay of Spanish guitar
music and blue margaritas. Without a second thought, they’ll cruise down the
San Luis wide thoroughfare unaware that this Colorado town is what they are
hoping to find in Taos: authentic Spanish America, honest and unique. San Luis
was birthed under the Spanish Empire. Over 150 years ago, farmers were sent
north, following the Rio Grande in search of green grass for their cattle. Farms
are passed down in families, cattle still graze on a communal pasture that
originally was a Spanish land grant, and townspeople speak both English and
Spanish with equal facility. The same names on mailboxes are etched on crosses
in the graveyards.
Although San Luis can boast that it’s Colorado’s oldest town, the wide
main street with a scattering of shops disappears in the blink of an eye. The
heart of the town isn’t obvious. You have to spend a day to understand that
San Luis is ancient by contemporary standards. The heart of the town lies in the
Sangre de Christo church.
San Luis’ strongest draw is The Stations of the Cross, which invites
tourists to climb a gentle hillside and wind up a narrow path to a chapel on top
of the hill. This is the spot where tourists grasp the soul of San Luis. At the
top, the village lies below—short, squat buildings the color of sand with the
spire of the church central.
Along the path are bronze sculptures by Huberto Maestas, a native son who has
translated Christ’s last day into twelve bronzes. On any day, a line of
visitors can be seen trudging up the hill. Some carry rosaries. Most simply walk
slowly and silently up the hill to the small domed church. Not all are
religious. Some simply want a break from car travel and meander up the hill. The
Stations are free with the entrance located on the main street. "Have you
seen The Stations?" is the question citizens will ask if you talk to them
about their town.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, anyone who visits San Luis should
settle into one church service. The congregation is hospitable, will hold your
hands during a prayer and wish you peace. It won’t matter who you are or where
you came from. The parishioners are too polite to ask. On one Sunday morning, a
young man originally from Mexico who is studying to become a priest is
delivering the homily. He’s astonished by American culture, he says, but is
trying to understand the American squandering of time. He has read in a magazine
that by the time the average American has reached the age of 50, "at least
ten years has been spent watching television," he says. "The other day
I heard one parishioner, a woman, tell Fr. Pat that she would no longer watch
the Mexican soap operas," he says. They all end the same way, she lamented.
"Fr. Pat told her that at least the Mexican soap operas have an
ending," he recounted. He admonishes his flock not to waste years of their
life in front of TV. "Prayer and family," he suggests, should fill
The church is packed with families for the Sunday morning mass. Although a
Victorian neo-Gothic altar stands in place, a more recent series of santero
paintings is placed in front. The traditional New Mexico sacred art transforms
the church from English to Spanish. A solitary guitar player strums chords with
the notes of a piano as backup. The congregation knows each word and song by
heart, chanting in unison from song to prayer, English to Spanish.
The Reverend Pat Valdez is the official priest, the son of a family long
established in the valley. Like his parish, he is adept at both English and
Spanish. Hymns bounce between the two languages, a staunch English traditional
hymn followed by a Spanish hymn in a recognizable minor chord. The parish prays
together--health for the ill, relief from sufferings, prayers for our soldiers,
help for a personal struggle. Hands are held in prayer and neighbors are greeted
with wishes for peace.
After the service, the talk outside is about extended family that has
returned for a day from Denver or Cheyenne—jobs are scarce in San Luis and
many of the nearly grown children will leave for larger cities. But today, some
have returned and there’s news to reveal and meals to be prepared. "Aqui,"
one visitor says and adds, "here," in the singsong Spanish to English
phrasing that is typical of San Luis residents. Three pesky dogs are shooed away
by a man with a disapproving glance, as if the dogs have caused trouble in the
The parish house where the priest lives sits next to the church. Across the
street is El Convento, a former convent for nuns who once taught school in San
Luis. The structure is adobe on the first floor, with spacious rooms and high
ceilings. The second floor of four bedrooms and baths includes furniture built
by local artisans. Photos of the last nuns, nine in all, line the hallway
alongside photos of their students. Looking directly into the camera, girls
stand together with permanent wave hair and plaid skirts. The school now in San
Luis is public and the nuns have disappeared. El Convento has been transformed
into a bed and breakfast operated by the parish.
Only one bathroom for all of them originally," says a local woman
who is scrambling eggs for breakfast. She relays town news: controversy over the
possibility of a charter school, the excellent girls basketball team, the toll
of cancer and Alzheimer’s among parish families, a pride that her
grandchildren are serving as acolytes at this evening’s mass.
The litany of ordinary life is recognizable in any American town. But in El
Convento, the ghosts from the past preside comfortably with tourists. Judging
from the photos, not much has changed in San Luis in recent years—perhaps in a
hundred years. Buildings are recognizable. What once was a school now is a
senior services center. Adobe farm homes look much the same, although vehicles
now are pick-up trucks rather than horse-drawn carts.
New businesses have supplanted old, but most of the main street commerce is a
smattering of truck and car repair shops, a few restaurants, an all-purpose
grocery, a liquor store, sheriff’s office, courthouse that dates to 1880, two
gas stations and an ice cream soda shop right out of the 1950s.
Emma’s Hacienda has stood for years on a corner next to a small orchard. In
the autumn, at the end of the green chile harvest, a chile roaster is set up
nest to Emma’s. Green chilies roast as the aroma sifts over the town.
Residents cruise by, pull over on the roadside, and buy boxes of roasted
chilies. Emma freezes them and they become the essence of her green chile
slathered over cheese enchiladas. Although Emma serves thick hamburgers, her
enchiladas are the stars of the show, paired with beans, rice and thinly sliced
iceburg lettuce. Sauces come in green or red, green from the fleshy young
mirasol chile, red from the dried, ripened ancho, and each packs a punch. Red
and green sauces flavor enchiladas delivered to tables covered in red and yellow
oilcloth topped tables.
There’s enough traffic now to warrant a new motel in town. El Convento,
with only four bedrooms can’t accommodate all the tourists who find themselves
stranded late at night. So the San Luis Inn Motel, just behind a gas station has
popped up. Augustine and Dora Padilla are the owners, who obviously run the gas
station, too. The inn is new and clean without much adornment. But one framed
document stands out. It’s a statement of thanks by the South Korean government
for Augustine’s service in the Korean War. And on the door of the first room
downstairs is a plaque that names one of his visitors: George T. Sakato, a
Congressional Medal of Honor vet who stayed at the inn.
Like so much of San Luis, where time stands still, the Korean War could be
yesterday. Augustine looks at the document and a surge of memory softens his
face. Perhaps he’s reminded of our soldiers in another part of the world
today. But there’s work to be done. A day’s worth of snow has piled up
outside and Augustine plans to plow the parking lot of the motel.
San Luis is surprisingly cold in the winter and blistery hot in the summer.
With an altitude of 8,000 feet, it qualifies as a high altitude desert. Spring
and autumn are enchanting, especially when the chamisa blooms. "You picked
the worse time to visit," Fr. Pat exclaims after a sparsely attended
evening service. "This is the time of the year when we pull into ourselves
and stay in our houses." True, not many people are on the sidewalks
although there’s a steady stream of scattered walkers up to the Stations. But
afterwards, that’s all the more reason to head to Emma’s and warm up with
red, or green, chile.
Town of San Luis website: www.sanluiscolorado.org
El Convento Bed and Breakfast, 512 Church Place, 81152; 719-672-4223
The San Luis Inn Motel, 138 Main Street, 81152; 877-672-3331 or 719-672-3399