The Rio Arriba is where I grew up in Dulce on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. I attended school at McCurdy HS in Santa Cruz near Chimayo about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. The Rio Arriba means the up river or New Mexico north of Santa Fe as opposed to the Abajo or Rio Abajo, the down river Albuquerque to Socorro. The two are very different. The Rio Arriba is mountainous, mostly over 7,000 feet elevation and the Abajo lower, a broad river valley around 4,000 feet. That means the weather is different. The Rio Arriba is colder and gets deeper winter snows, has a shorter growing season.
150 years ago there were only a few towns. Santa Fe, Chimayo and nearby Santa Cruz, Fernando de Taos, Ranchos de Taos and Cordova were just about the only Mexican towns. Las Vegas and Mora came in the 1830s after wagons began arriving from Independence, Mo. Abiquiu, Truchas and Trampas were genizaro towns. Genizaros were Indios cimarrones, wild or nomadic Indians, captured and brought into Spanish homes as slaves so they could learn to be good Christians. Eventually, they were freed and given grants of land on the borders, told to guard the province. The remaining towns either come later like Tierra Amarilla and Costilla, or are Pueblo Indian towns like Taos, San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Pojuaque.
The land was isolated, the most distant corner of the Spanish empire, but the people were free unlike the Abajo where there were haciendados ricos, rich hacienda owners, whose lands were worked by peones, debt slaves. The people claim to have come to the Rio Arriba in 1580 with Governor Juan de Oñate, the conquistador. The people and their language have been there ever since, if we don't count the years around the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. They preserve an ancient, even medieval, form of Spanish, and have added to it their own unique words to describe their special experience, and their own pronunciations.
They do not speak the same language as Mexico or even as the Abajo. They do not know the Abajo. It is a separate world to them. They fear the people from the genizaro towns calling them 'tough guys,' but they don't know why. No one recalls genizaro roots.
They also preserve a lay religion. The Spanish Crown sent Franciscan missionaries to the Pueblo Indians. Priests did not want to come to the Rio Arriba. It was too poor. The Spanish/Mexican people therefore had few priests. Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821. By 1831, they no longer trusted the Spanish Franciscans and they were expelled. For a while, there were only two priests between El Paso del Norte and Taos. The people fended for themselves. In addition to their medieval Spanish, the preserved a medieval cult that arrived with the conquistadors, the Penitentes.
In their secret moradas the brotherhood practices their cult, proscribed by the Catholic church since at least 1831. They flagellate themselves, wear crowns of thorns, and in the old days had one man drag a cross through town at Easter. He was tied to it, hoisted aloft and left there for the day. He often survived. They pray to Doña Sebastiana, Lady Death, a skeleton that rides a cart with bow and arrow. The society fixed elections and defended the brothers. They dealt with outsiders seen as trouble-makers. It is said that they waylaid travelers who often disappeared in the Rio Arriba.
Doug Hocking is an independent scholar who has completed advanced studies in American history, ethnology and historical archaeology. He grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and attended school among the Indios and paisanos of the Rio Arriba (Northern New Mexico). He retired from the military as an armored cavalry (scout) officer. His novels immerse the reader in the times, terrain and cultures of 19th century New Mexico. Doug lives near Tombstone with his wife, dogs and a feral cat. He writes both fiction and history and is currently working on a biography of Tom Jeffords and has two historical novels in print: Massacre at Point of Rocks and Mystery of Chaco Canyon. His articles have appeared in True West, Wild West, Buckskin Bulletin and Roundup.