The Matrioshka of San Luis Valley

I spent last weekend in San Luis Valley, 3-4 hours drive south-west from Denver. The Valley, roughly the size of Connecticut or Northern Ireland, covers a good size of Colorado and New Mexico and is the result of the bifurcation of the Rocky Mountains between Sangre de Cristo (east, picture 1) and San Juan (west) Mountains. It holds an extraordinarily beautiful landscape, with gorgeous sand dunes (picture 2) surrounded by snowy hills, including Blanca Peak, one of the tallest mountains in the state (more than 14,000 feet). San Luis Valley is also the enclave of some of the most important historic points of Colorado, such as Fort Garland (picture 3), in charge of the defense of the Valley at the time of the American Frontier, and the town of San Luis (picture 4), the oldest living town in Colorado, founded in 1851 by settlers that departed from Mexico.

Last weekend, I could not but get completely amazed by the sweeping environment. But there was something else. Over the last 150 years or so, the inhabitants of San Luis Valley have kept very particular features. Because of the mountainous geography, they remained relatively isolated for a very long time. As a consequence, this people maintained certain customary practices of the past, practices that evolved and ultimately disappeared in the rest of the country. For example, for many decades, people in San Luis cultivated their products with ‘acequias’, an old agricultural technique brought from Spain and North Africa by the Spanish colonisers. Even more astonishingly, the people of San Luis Valley have historically kept a particular form of Castilian Spanish, a communication tool with roots in the 17th-18th centuries that did not receive much influence from the evolution of the Spanish language in Mexico or by the language commonly used by the Hispanic community in the United States. A final special particularity is that in 2002 a small Amish community settled in the Valley, seeking a peaceful and relatively remote space to keep their traditions and way of living.

John Coakley (2008) explains the so-called ‘Irish question’ with the metaphor of the famous Russian doll matrioshka. This author states that while the UK contained a smaller doll, Ireland, this one also contains an even smaller one, namely, Northern Ireland, and finally, Northern Ireland holds a smaller doll inside, the Catholic population, thus far still a minority compared to the Protestant majority. Consequently, an omnipresent feeling of national (rather than religious) minority is in place: Catholics consider themselves minority in Northern Ireland, and so do Protestants in the whole Irish framework. Jackson defined the problem as that of a “Double Minority” (from Hunter 1982, 15).

I could not stop thinking about the matrioshka and the feeling of being a minority within a minority. It definitely suits the local San Luis population: a rather peculiar Spanish-speaking minority within the Hispanic Latino minority in the US. How can the minority-minority survive in a McDonald’s-based globalising world? What can the minority-majority do in order to keep San Luis Valley alive? What must the majority and the whole of the American society do in order to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the people of San Luis? I hereby wish to do my bit: I want to acknowledge the existence of a precious piece of gold in the south-west of Colorado.

Koldo Casla


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