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73. A Hilltop View
You are on "La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia," or the Hill of Piety and Mercy, standing next to "La Capilla de Todos Los Santos," or the Chapel of All Saints, overlooking the San Luis Valley, which is embraced by the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains. You are in southern Colorado. But from the names of the landmarks here, you could just as well be in Spain.
Welcome to San Luis, Colorado's oldest town, founded by Hispanic settlers in 1851, still inhabited by many of their descendants and still proud of its Hispanic heritage.
"The spiritual traditions evident in this Shrine reflected in the lives of the people of San Luis and the surrounding area have deep roots," according to the official Colorado website. "The Hispanic, first settlers of this area brought with them Spanish and Mexican traditions of communal ownership of land and water, a strong allegiance to their language and customs, and intense religious faith. We are proud to be their descendants, and we are committed to preserving our sacred heritage."
San Luis is a small community of about 750 mostly Hispanic residents. Not recent arrivals, mind you, these are Hispanic Americans who have been here for generations.
Their ancestors were part of a wave of Hispanic settlers who migrated north from New Mexico in the mid-1800s, established farming communities here and became the first permanent settlers of Colorado. The town of San Luis was born April 5, 1851 — the result of land grants issued by Spain.
"Once a part of four Spanish land grants decreed by the King of Spain, the town's adobe architecture and its classic Spanish town layout retain the texture of the historical and cultural influences which shaped the early communities of Southern Colorado," the state's website explains.
San Luis still hosts Colorado's first parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the state's oldest business, the Hispanic-owned R & R Market, is still open. But the town's biggest attraction — the focal point that draws tourists to this rural countryside — is the hilltop shrine in the center of town, as well as the distinctive 3/4-mile path that takes you all the way up there.
Together, both the hill and the chapel are known as the Stations of the Cross Shrine because as you trek on a dirt path around the hillside, you encounter a series of magnificent bronze statues depicting the last hours of Jesus Christ's life.
The 3/4-life-size sculptures make this walk to church a unique, fascinating and spiritual experience. The Stations of the Cross normally are displayed in framed fixtures inside Catholic churches, but these statues make you see the Passion and the Resurrection even before you enter the chapel.
It's Colorado's version of Golgotha, or Calvary, the skullcap-shaped hill outside Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified.
And when you finally reach the summit, you are surprised to find the shrine is much younger than it seems. It was built in the late 1980s, but its Spanish-Moorish architecture, thick adobe and whitewashed walls, two-steeple entrance, and domed altar re-create the majesty and antiquity of the Spanish mission churches of the American Southwest.
Next to the shrine, there is the Memorial of the Spanish Martyrs, a series of other statues honoring the Spanish priests who worked to convert the natives to Christianity and gave their lives for their beliefs.
"Dedicated in 1990, the Shrine was built as an act of faith and love for the parishioners of the Sangre de Cristo Parish," according to the church's website. "It is a place of prayer and solace open to members of all faiths and people of good will."
Created by sculptor and San Luis native Huberto Maestas, the statues are meticulously detailed, quite dramatic and — especially for Christians — a moving, spiritual experience.
At every Station of the Cross, next to each statue, there is a plaque - in English and Spanish — citing Scripture and telling the story of Jesus' last hours.
By the time you reach the Crucifixion, even if you are not a Christian, you appreciate the sacrifices Jesus made. And when you go past the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross, you find an additional inspiring statue — depicting the Resurrection. You have to see it, at least in pictures, to really appreciate it.
When the Great Hispanic American History Tour visited San Luis and trekked all the way up to the Stations of the Cross Shrine, I knew words would not be enough to explain the sentiments that inspired me to reach the summit. So I took a lot of photos. You can see them at http://www.hiddenhispanicheritage.com.
Of course, although a bit removed from major highways, San Luis was a mandatory stop for my tour. When you get there, you are greeted by a sign that explains the town is rooted in Hispanic traditions.
"Colorado's earliest non-Indian occupants were Hispanos," the sign explains. "Migrating north from present-day New Mexico in the mid-1800s, these colonists battled the Ute Indians for control of the San Luis Valley while the United States and Mexico warred over the lands of the Rio Grande. The region ended up in U.S. hands, but this valley remained a Hispano enclave. ... Today San Luis boasts Colorado's oldest continuously used irrigation ditch, its oldest building, and its oldest families. The village's culture, social structure, language, and communal form of agriculture remain firmly rooted in Hispano tradition."
The Hispanic heritage of the San Luis Valley may not be known in the rest of the country, but here they boast about it.
Next week, the Great Hispanic American History Tour again picks up the trail of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, with his search for a civilization called Quivira — all the way up to the plains of Kansas.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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The Great Hispanic American History Tour
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2. The Great Hispanic American History Tour
3. On the Trail of Conquistadors
4. Beyond St. Augustine
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