In her 13th year, Daniela Garcia told her parents that she wanted her Quinceañera celebration to happen on the date of her birthday. Daniela’s 15th birthday was going to occur on a Saturday, and in Roswell that’s the day that most Quinceañeras take place.
“Roswell’s Quinceañeras are different from the ones I remember growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico,” Marisa recalls. “In my hometown, they usually held it on Friday evening. They’d have a late mass and a light dinner and a dance. Here, they spread it out over the whole day.”
Roswell’s Hispanic culture stands unique in many ways. But it does not stand alone. Most traditions remain and they are easily recognized by people from all across the Hispanic nations. But, like most everything in Roswell, its Hispanic culture has evolved like no other.
“The culture in the Roswell community is a blending of Northern New Mexico and Mexico,” Ray Burrola says. Burrola grew up in the Chihuahuita area of Roswell and he has been a student of his hometown’s history for decades.
Many people moved from the north, following the Rio Grande, or, as it was originally called, the Rio Bravo. Some of those folks settled in what is today Lincoln and the Hondo Valley. “Historically, Northern New Mexico was isolated for long periods of time,” he explains. “The culture, the language, even some of the old archaic Spanish is still maintained in Northern New Mexico.”
As populations along the Hondo River grew, they became too dense for the water supply. As a result, some moved further east and downstream. The first settlement near what is now Roswell was called San Jose, Plaza De Missouri. It was named for the final destination along the Santa Fe Trail. The Missouri Plaza, as it came to be known, was located along the Hondo River about 15 miles west of Roswell and many of the Plaza’s settlers had worked along the trail as freighters. It’s easy to imagine that they chose the name in the hopes it would be their final destination. Perhaps because they felt it was the place where they would settle down and build their families. That wasn’t to be the case, however.
Inhabitants of San Jose, Plaza De Missouri were forced, by nature, to move. They went further east and settled a place they called Rio Hondo. The first barrio in Rio Hondo was called Chihuahuita. It’s still called that today. Rio Hondo was settled around the year 1866. Almost 300 years had passed since Don Juan De Oñate had created an isolated Hispanic enclave. The Norteño culture of New Mexico is still largely defined by it. Their descendants brought that isolated, ancient Spanish culture to the Pecos Valley.
As Chihuahuita grew, the Artesian wells and grasslands of the area remained inviting. Barrios arose nearby. “People began to branch out of the Chihuahuita area,” Burrola said. “They began to settle three other barrios. One, called El Alto, was located near where the old airport was on West College. Another, located near Second and Union, was La Garra (literal translation the claw, it’s also a local idiom for old clothes and rags). Yet another, Saragosa, was established near Deming and Lea Streets. One final community known as El Barrio De Los Ricosn was located where many plantation style homes are still standing on Lea Street.”
By 1871 Van C. Smith had settled in the area and filed a claim with the federal government for a post office. A new post office in nineteenth-century America was generally named by the first postmaster. If the name of the new post office didn’t conflict with any nearby post offices it was generally granted. Smith named his post office after his father, Roswell Smith. From that time forward, mail was posted to the community of Roswell, Territory of New Mexico. The culture of Rio Hondo had been much a mirror of the culture of the Norteños. Having been born there, the Hispanic culture remained largely self-contained by its residents. Smith’s post office, related business ventures, and immigration would change that. After the name change, Rio Hondo was lost to history. Not even surviving in folklore, information can only found by historians with access to old diaries.
“The community remained pretty stable until the buffalo soldiers came in during the civil war,” Burrola said. “A number of Irish people came to the southwest. These Irish immigrants came seeking Catholic friendly lands in the American Southwest. Then we had another movement in the 1870s and 1880s of people from Mexico and moving into New Mexico. The Irish residents gave Hispanic families surnames like Brady.”
Nineteenth century Mexican culture arrived and was 300 years changed. Roswell’s Hispanic culture has grown into a unique expression of its heritage. Even today Roswell’s Hispanic cultural changes are evident to those who have lived a lifetime in it. “When I came here 25 years ago,” Marisa Garcia said, “the newcomers, from Mexico, held a very close bond and wanted to maintain our identity. That has changed now. We have a lot more acceptance. Now it’s not a problem if the Mexicans who were not born here interact with those who already live here. It’s changed because our kids interacted. New families interact more easily now than before. Most of the people immigrating to Roswell used to come from Chihuahua. Now we’re getting immigrants from other Mexican States and places in Central America like Guatemala and El Salvador.”
Roswell’s Hispanic population is more than 55 percent of the total population. Their culture is Roswell’s culture. Their history is Roswell’s history. Their voice is soft, humble, and confident.