For centuries, the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Animas, Gila, Mancos, Navajo and San Juan River, have been at the center of Latino life in these basin states.
In 1598, Juan de Oñate and a group of colonists trekked from Zacatecas, Mexico to the confluence of the Río Chama and the Río Grande to found the colony, San Juan de los Caballeros. Within a decade, these colonists moved their capital to what is now known as Santa Fe, New Mexico and continued to make their way over the Continental Divide into the Colorado River Watershed.
As they settled into the watershed, Latinos developed a complex system of acequias, or irrigation canals, that have provided the basis for both their agriculture and their political organization. Today, the acequia culture of in the Colorado River basin states is a powerful bond that ties people to the land and nurtures the enduring sense of querencia, that powerful love of homeland that continues to prevail within Latino soul.
PADRE SILVERSTRE VELÉZ DE ESCALANTE was a Franciscan missionary and Spanish explorer in the American Southwest. In 1776, he and Padre Francisco Atanasio Domínguez led an expedition through part of the Colorado River watershed seeking a trail to the missions of California. Establishing the eastern portion of what was to become the Old Spanish Trail, they left Santa Fe and traveled across the Colorado River in present day Utah, and were ultimately thwarted in their attempt to reach California and were forced to turn back to Santa Fe. Today, many landmarks are named after Padre Escalante including the Escalante River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
RAFAEL RIVERA was a Nuevo Mexicano who, at fourteen years old, signed on as a member of a commercial overland expedition led by Antonio Armijo that extended from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California in 1829. This was the first expedition to blaze the Old Spanish Trail, an important trade route established shortly after Mexico won her independence from Spain. They followed the trail from Santa Fe through Caracas Canyon crossing the San Juan River and passing near Durango and Cortez, Colorado. Water was always a rare resource, especially in the desert country along the lower Colorado River. At one point, young Rivera rode off on a solo scouting expedition and became the first known non-Indian to discover the vast spring in the grassy plains that became known as Las Vegas, Nevada and was recognized as an important watering hole along the Old Spanish Trail.