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“You Would Never Hear People Complain”: Elfido López Recalls Rural Mexican-American Life in the Late 19th century

by Elfido López

The arrival of the railroad in the Southwest in the early 1870s transformed the area’s economy and the lives of its residents. Long-time Mexican residents of the area were quickly drawn into the region’s expanding wage economy. In this selection from his handwritten memoir from 1937 Elfido López recalled his childhood on his family’s modest homestead and his father’s decision to move the family to a small railroad town, and a life of wages, in southern Colorado in 1876.

I was born in Trinidad, Colorado on January 11, 1869. My father’s name was Damacio López. He came from New Mexico and was born in Santa Cruz near where Espanola is now. I don’t know in what year he came to Trinidad but it must have been in 1866 or 1867. The first baby born to my parents was a boy named Miguel López. He only lived about two years and then I was born.

My father’s father was Spanish and his mother I believe had some Indian blood in her. I knew both of them and they were good people.

My mother’s father came from Spain and her mother also. I did not know either one of them. All I know about them is what my mother told us. She said that her father was a school teacher. His name was Juan DeArce, but mother always said that his name was Juan DeArcia. We have found out since that his name was Juan DeArce and that he was First Secretary in Santa Fe under Governor Perry. This is in history so I have found out. I have not seen the history but I am going to get a copy as soon as I can.

My mother’s name was Lareta DeArcia as she called herself but she could not read and I found out that her right name was Laretta DeArce. In those days among the Spanish people it was not thought necessary to teach the girls to read and write. It was only necessary to teach them not to talk to boys at a dance and it was the order of the parents that a girl never refuse to dance with any man who asked for a dance. I think it was a good idea.

I remember that my mother used to tell us kids about the people in her time. Most of them were rather poor but they never let anyone do without something to eat. She said the people used to tell the neighbors to come and get food when they needed it and they would go to the neighbors and get food when they needed to. In those days a man that had a wagon and team was considered a rich man. There were quite a few that had 6 or 7 wagons and 8 or 10 ox teams and in the fall of the year the ones with wagons would ask the others to go with them to about where Colorado is now to kill buffalo. They killed buffalo with a spear on horseback. They would run into the buffalo herd and stick the spear in behind the buffalo’s shoulder. Each man would try to kill 3 or 4. Other men would be on hand to do the skinning and cut up the mean and take it to camp and make sesinar or jerked meat. They dried the meat on ropes strung between posts. The next day they would kill more buffalo and sometimes the men would get killed themselves and a horse had to be a good one to catch a buffalo. When they got enough meat they would start for home in New Mexico. The poor men that went with wagons would get 2 or 3 sacks of dried meat and bing bone from the hind leg. They would take the bone home to season the food. This bone was called El Gueso Gisandero and the woman of the family would cook a pot of beans with the bone in it, and then lend it to another woman who did not have a bone for her beans. The next day it would go to another woman and so on. Maybe it would be 8 or 10 days before it would get back to the owner. Then it would make the rounds again. My mother said she knew of one bone that went around the neighborhood for two years. So I guess you could call that sure enough hard times but mother said she never did know of anyone to starve to death.

For shoes they made mocassins and they had very few clothes and sometimes they would have 3 or 4 patches in almost the same place. Usually they didn’t have money to buy thread and so they would tear a flour sack and pull out threads and twist 2 or 3 together to sew with. The children had to work more than play. The children were taught to respect the older people. When my father would send me on an errand and I happened to meet an old man that wanted me to do something for him I would do it. When I got back my father would say why didn’t you come quick and I would tell him about the old man and he would be pleased. I think it is good for children to work and keep busy as this keeps them out of devilment. The children today do not keep busy enough and do alot of mischief. Also if they had more to do they would learn how to work.

When I was 2 years old my father and eleven more men went to Red Rock to file on homesteads. They had ox teams. Of the twelve men only six could afford to buy shovels, the other six made shovels out of wood. The shovels were needed to make a irrigation ditch. They had no way to survey the ditch so they just started digging. The men that had good shovels broke the ground and the ones that had wood sholvels threw the loose dirt out. The ditch was very crooked and about 9 or 10 feet deep and 3 feet wide. They would let the water run behind them and bank it up and dig in front. Then they would let the water run ahead in the ditch to see if they needed to dig the ditch deeper and in this way they made their ditch and it took them four months.

After finishing the irrigation ditch they had to plow their fields. They had no plows, but they made them out of forks of trees. The plows have only one handle, and the points were made out of pieces of iron that the men had sharpened on a rock and nailed to the wood. It was very hard to plow with these plows as they would go every way but straight. They did manage to farm in this way, and they raised good crops of wheat, melons, beans, pumkins, chili, and almost anything they had to plant.

Each man would not plant more than 3 or 4 acres of wheat as they had no way to cut the wheat except by hand scyths. I still have a scar on my finger that I got trying to learn to cut wheat. When the wheat got ripe the men would get together and cut one field at a time and all of the women would gather to cook for the men. The women would grind blue corn for tortillas as they had no wheat flour. All of the cooking was done on fireplaces as they had no stoves. Tables were buffalo hides spread on the floor. They did not have many dishes mostly only saucers and teaspoons. Some of the spoons were made out of wood. After you got through eating there weren’t many dishes to wash. I remember the women were very happy, they would sing songs and talk and just be jolly.

After they would finish cutting one man’s wheat they would go to the next until they had finished the last one. The people would always work together and they never thought that they were doing too much for each other. When a child went to another house the women always gave them something to eat. It was that way with all of them. They did not really have much of anything but they always had something to eat.

You would never hear people complain about anything. Whatever happened seemed to be alright with them. They had dances and some of the-women had no shoes and others had mocassins. They danced just as happy as they do today but the girls couldn’t talk to the boys while they danced. I remember going to dances. I never talked to the girls, and they never talked to me as the parents of the girls would tell them not to talk before they left home for the dances. Also the girls were told not to refuse to dance with anyone that asked them as that was the custom, and we all got along very well.

To thrash the wheat some of them used goats and sheep and there was always plenty of children. They would fix a place near the wheat stack which they called “era”. This place was levelled good with hoes and then water was put on to get it good and wet. They would stomp the mud down and let it dry hard and sweep it clean with cedar brooms. One man would get up on the stack and pitch the wheat on this hard place and all the children would make the goats and sheep go around and around the stack until the wheat was thrashed. They would throw the straw away and put on more wheat until all was thrashed, and then they would wait for the wind to blow. This was the way they thrashed the wheat in those days.

In the fall of the year they would take their wheat to Trinidad and if I remember right the mill used to be about where John Marty has his grain house now. At the mill there was a ditch with lots of water in it and a big wooden wheel. The water would turn the wheel and the wheel did the work. The mill man took so much wheat for payment of grinding. I do not know how much he took but I do know he took wheat for the grinding payment for the men didn’t have any money at that time. We camped the wagons where the Nichols hide house is now close to the river. There was good grass right there and lots of trees and bushes.

I remember the first time my father took me with him to grind wheat. We camped close to the river, and I did not sleep very much on account of so many buggies going to El Moro and back. They had lights on the corners of the buggies. The lights were the prettiest sight I had ever seen and it is still in my mind today and will be there until I am gone. I didn’t sleep much that night. I had never seen anything like that and it sure looked good to me. After this first trip I went many times with my father to sell watermelons. We had good size melons and some small ones. The big melons sold for 25¢ and the small ones for as low as 5¢. We could not sell all of them in town so we would go on up the river and trade them for wheat. They had a rneasure for the wheat called Almude; it was about a foot square and about 4 inches high. My father would trade so many melons for so many measures of wheat. Sometimes they would say level full of wheat and some times “heaped full.” We would go by the mill in Trinidad and grind our wheat on the way home. This way we managed to have flour on hand until the next year.

When my father first moved to Red Rock he said that when he turned the oxen out to graze they would sometimes lay down in the high blue stem grass and he would have a time finding them. He would cut enough hay in the summer with a scyth to feed the ox in the winter time. We had a good size meadow and my father would clean it out by setting it on fire. . . .

When I was six or seven years old my father moved to West Las Animas as they used to call it but what is Las Animas now. He went there to work on the railroad grade. There were several hundred men working. My father had 10 or 15 cows and after we moved to Las Animas I herded the town cows for $1 a head a month. We also sold some milk. There must have been 15 or 20 head besides my father’s cows. I herded them on foot and bare footed. I didn’t think anything much about the work but I did think alot about my $1 a head. I would go through town in the morning picking up the cows and come through town in the evening leaving the cows where they belonged.

At this time Las Animas was the end of the railroad. It sure was fun for me to see the trains. I would see them come from the east and go right back. I could not figure out how the engine could turn on that narrow track. I wanted to find out so I followed the railroad up and found they had a round house and they would run the engine in that place and push the track around by hand. It sure looked easy the way they would do it.

There are lots of wagons with ox teams coming to Las Animas to haul freight to New Mexico. Some wagons had as many as six teams of oxen.

At about this time the people of Las Animas were making the town jail. Freighters hauled the rock from a place called Tar Box Arroyo. The jail is still there but they don’t use it for a jail anymore. I went back to Las Animas about a year ago. The town isn’t anything like it used to be. I could not find any house that I used to know. It is a whole lot begger [bigger] now and there are lots of big buildings.

We lived in Las Animas for two years and then we went back to Red Rock to our old home. My father had more cows now and a little store. My father also had the Post Office (Bent Canyon) and he made a good living. I herded my father’s cows on foot until my father bought a black pacing mare. She was a dandy but wild. My father had about 30 or 40 head of cows at this time.

When I was 21 years old I married Miss Rebecca Richards at Higbee, Colorado. She was 18 years old and a sweeter woman never was and I think alot more about this than she thinks I do. We met when I was about 12 years old and she came to visit some friends close to my home. I lost my handkerchief and she found it and wrapped it up in a piece of paper with a little red ribbon very nice and wrote a little note saying she had found it and was returning it. I could not read at all so I just copied her same note and sent it back to her. I tho[u]ght I was doing something pretty good and that was the beginning of our corresponding. So from then on I tried my best to learn how to write. I can’t spell much but I make people understand me alright.

My wife’s father was W. G. Richards and he came to Higbee about the same time that my father came to Red Rock. He was one of the old timers and he had a big family of 7 boys and 4 girls. They were good people. And speaking of families my father had 6 boys and 5 girls.

A while after I got married I took down with pneumonia and after I got well I could not work for over a year. I lived on credit and after I could work the doctor bill and all came to $500 and at $30 a month it took me 3 years to come clear.

At that time it was hard to get work except in the summer or about seven months out of the year and working this way I could make just about enough to live on the rest of the winter. It so happened that H. B. Brown from Trinidad where he used to own a hardward store had a cow ranch in Plum Canyon. He gave me $30 a month the year around to work for him. I boarded myself and when he was at the ranch he gave me 50¢ for three meals. After about a year he sold out to William Green who was the father of W. H. Green, County Commissioner. I worked for the Greens about five years a $30 a month and boarded myself. Out of the $30 I had my wife and 2 children and we kept having more children. We raised 8 children all together. We always had comers and goers but we managed to save $15 a month. We did not live high but we lived pretty good on $15 a month. I would go to town with $75 in the spring and would buy enough supplies for all summer and then I would go again in the fall and buy enough for the winter. In the spring I would buy 12 or 15 yearling heifers. This way I got up to 250 head of cattle and I had $800 in the bank. Then the bank advised me to buy more cattle with their money and this was the worst mistake I ever made. After I took their advice against my wife’s advice I just worked for the bank all the time until they closed me out. I will tell any man to keep out of debt. If you have a cow don’t put her against a note. As long as you have anything the bank will encourage you to use their money but when you havehard luck and go down they will say well we can’t see how we can let you have anymore money. I would of been in good shape if I had stayed with my 250 head that I had clear and that I made at $1 a day but I let them talk me into a loan and when I really needed money they wouldn’t let me have any. They are not there for anyone’s benefit but their own. What I made by working for $1 a day they got quicker than I could think. It was nobody’s fault bu[t] my own. But just the same that is what they will do.

Now I am 68 years old and my health is not good. I’m just like any other old man.

We raised 8 children and there are seven living today. The oldest died when he was 20 years old. I always tried to teach my children right to be truthful and not steal. I will tell any man or woman to be careful who they let their children run with. I was a boy once and I know by experience that when I was with a good boy I was just as good as he was but when I was with a bad boy I was a little worse than he was. I never did anything so awful bad that I couldn’t tell about it but still I know that I did do some wrong.

Well I’ve had good times and bad times in this world but I would not trade my reputation for the First National

Bank of Trinidad.

I could write a whole lot more that I’ve not told but I will quit for now.

Source: Elfido López, “Autobiography,” 1937, Elfido López, Sr. Collection. Courtesy, Colorado Historical Society.