Stories from the Past, Rural Cuba, New Mexico, 1769-1949
In October of 2007, the late Betty Jane Curry, then acting editor of the Cuba News, contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a series of articles on the history of Cuba. We agreed that they would be limited to the period before World War II and the few years immediately thereafter; a time when Cuba was transformed quite rapidly from a village that had gone largely unchanged for nearly two hundred years to a community with all of the amenities of any other town of its size anywhere else in the country. The articles would be called Antes (pronounced AHN’ tace and meaning before, or in the past).
In accepting Mrs. Curry’s invitation to write for the Cuba News, my commitment was to relate stories about events, people and folklore of this area. I especially wanted to write about whatever it was that made antes such a special and memorable time, recalled with passion by so many people even today. I believed that if the articles were to be well received, I had an obligation to assure local readers that this would not be a gossip column. Furthermore, under no circumstances would I knowingly publish any information that would cause embarrassment or injury to any family or individual’s name. Having known people of several generations in this community over my lifetime, I felt they needed this assurance in order to gain their cooperation and contributions to this effort.
The first Antes article was published in the November 2007 issue of the Cuba News. Articles have appeared in every issue of this monthly newspaper since then. During this time I have been supported continuously by members of the community. Local people have provided details, and entire new stories, photographs and, most importantly, strong and consistent encouragement for my efforts. Together, we have been able to reconstruct a far more complete and comprehensive picture of our ancestral home and the people who have made it the unique place that it has been. With their help, my own understanding of this dear place has been expanded far beyond anything I would have imagined at the outset of this project.
I was born in the town which is the center of the story of antes. My ancestors have lived here or in nearby communities for at least five generations. I am familiar with this history from personal experience and have maintained a long and close connection with my community for more than seventy years and feel strongly that this history needs affirmation.
From very early in my childhood I became increasingly curious about the meaning of my mother’s family name, which was DeLaO. It literally means of the O and even for northern New Mexico it is an unusual name. I would repeatedly ask my grandfather what the O stood for and he would always give me the same response: he did not know. This was an answer I was not willing to accept. Being a child, I still believed that there were answers to all the questions that arose in my mind and that an adult would have these answers. As I grew older, it became a personal, private and passionate goal of mine to learn my own history and the history of my community by whatever means were available to me. Furthermore, I believed that this history needed some outward expression. Ultimately, this book is the product of my passion for this history.
I recall a time, perhaps in the third grade, reading in our history book about the early English settlements in New England. As I read this, I knew even then that the history of those Pilgrims and Puritans had very little to do with me. I knew I was not a Pilgrim, nor were my classmates or my family.
Some chapters later, we started reading about the Conquistadores in the southwest. I started to pay more attention. I was able to relate to the familiar place names and people’s names that I could recognize as being like our local names. As well, I became aware that I was a part of this story. Only later did I realize that the history of the southwest began well before the history of the Pilgrims in New England. I decided to follow these early historical fragments until the whole picture emerged of who I am and how the people around me lived and how our community came to be as it was.
As I grew up I became increasingly proud of my history. However, my passion and pride got me into a lot of trouble in school. I did not survive a single Spanish class in junior high school or high school. The reason for this had to do with my consistently defending our northern New Mexico dialect from teachers who were trying to teach standard Spanish to students who shared this New Mexico dialect. Furthermore, either directly or by implication, they were telling us that our Spanish was inferior to that spoken elsewhere. Perhaps if these teachers had said that New Mexico Spanish evolved differently from Spanish spoken elsewhere, I might have been more open and accepting of their efforts. Instead, I was simply transferred out of the classes.
In college, I studied Spanish and loved every class I took and excelled, especially in literature. Fortunately, my first Spanish professor was a young woman who, although born in California, was a descendent of the Pino family of New Mexico. This family included Don Pedro Bautista Pino, New Mexico’s first delegate to the newly created Cortes Constituyentes (constituent assembly from all of Spain’s colonies) reporting to the King of Spain in 1810. This professor was able to help me understand the relationship between my Spanish and the Spanish of the rest of the world. She also added to my understanding of the unique history of the northern New Mexico Spanish dialect.
During the years I lived away from Cuba, I returned many times, maintaining contact with the people and the practices of my community. In 1972, during my collegiate experience, I was awarded a grant from Mills College to do an oral history project here in Cuba. I spent the entire summer conducting interviews with numerous elderly individuals still living in the community. Furthermore, over the past thirty-five years I have been researching and collecting materials related to Cuba with the specific intent of writing its history.
My materials up to now include approximately fifty recorded tapes of the interviews which I conducted in 1972 along with many photographs which people have shared with me over the years simply because they knew I had an interest in such materials. I also have my own photographic collection and reams of notes on the general topic of the history of the village of Cuba and the surrounding area. Over the years, I made academic visits to Mexico and Spain where I pursued my interest in the history of the Spanish colonial period of Mexico and New Mexico. As well, I have had academic training and the experience to conduct serious and responsible historical research.
In 1980, my husband and I left our community college teaching positions and returned to Cuba to manage the family cattle ranch and to teach in the local schools. Since that time I have continued to add to my storehouse of verbal accounts and photographs for the period before World War II: the world of antes.
As I have listened to stories about my community, I have learned that we are a community of interrelated families who have helped each other in good times as well as in the worst of times. This interdependency allowed us to survive into the modern world with a measure of dignity and the will to determine our own destiny, whether right here in Cuba or wherever else we might live today.
As for my question regarding the origin of my mother’s name, according to Origins of New Mexico’s Families by Fray Angélico Chávez, José Santiago DeLaO arrived in New Mexico in approximately 1807 as the armorer of the Presidio of Santa Fé. José was the son of Tiburcio DeLaO and Maria Josefa Herrera and had been born at the Presidio of Guajoquilla in New Biscay. This Presidio was located between Chihuahua and Durango, Mexico. These locations had been formed into a distinct region known as New Biscay. According to Fray Angélico Chávez, the DeLaO’s were among the soldiers and officers who decided to remain in New Mexico permanently rather than return to Mexico. Given Fray Angélico Chavez’ information, the O was already in place before the early 1800s. This O may have been an abbreviation for a place name or some other descriptor of those early soldiers. Whatever it referred to has been totally lost to history and had ceased to be known well before my grandfather’s time. It is no wonder that he did not know and could not tell me what that O stood for, despite my insistence.
We will probably never know how that name came into being but we do know that this family has had a long and interesting role in the history of New Mexico as well as a part in the history of the village of Cuba.
Today, Cuba remains a small town but it is definitely tied to the wider world. Our businesses are linked to the rest of the world by high-speed internet connections and we have a modern four-lane highway running through town that connects us to major population centers elsewhere. Our schools have produced students who have gone on to become doctors, engineers, mathematicians and other professionals. Many of our homes are filled with the same electronics as homes elsewhere and our children use their cell phones to text their friends. In these ways, we have become a community very much like many others across the nation. It is not our present or our future that make us different in any significant way from other communities. It is only our past that is different and it is particularly that part of our past that we call antes that makes us different from other places and unites us because we have this special history that is shared only by the people of northern New Mexico.
—Esther V. Cordova May
Cuba, New Mexico