Happy 200th Anniversary, Arroyo Seco!
By Larry Torres
There are many folktales told in New Mexico about how some towns came to be. There are few, however, which can match the beauty of the tales surrounding the founding of the village of Arroyo Seco. Just 7 miles north of Taos, Arroyo Seco was begun when its people acquired rights to the lands under a grant made by Joaquín Codallos y Rabal, dated October 7, 1745. As a site, it was first recorded in a chronicle dated 1716. It was deeded at that time to General Lucero de Godoy by the Viceroy of Mexico. He never bothered to settle on the land
Settlement of the area began in 1804 when two brothers named Cristóbal Martínez and José Gregorio Martínez from Río Arriba County planted crops there before building their houses in 1806. According to the Spanish Archives of New Mexico, general land use began in 1815 when more people began to cultivate the lands which they irrigated from the Arroyo Seco Creek and the Río Lucero. By 1824 there was already an Hispanic community living there. Original settlement had began much closer to the mountain than where the present day village site is. The old "arroyo seco" itself was a gully stemming off El Salto Mountain. It was called "el Arroyo de la Luvia" (The Arroyo of Run-Off Water).
From its founding in 1806 to 2006 this belovèd village has seen much and it is celebrating its bicentennial anniversary this year. Of course, the area where the Martínez brothers first put down roots is nearer to the holy mountain of El Salto. It is so named for seven falls of water which cascade down and baptize the mountain and the valley below at different points. The site is still marked by the ruins of three torreones or turrets where the families would take refuge from the nomadic Indian tribes that criss-crossed the area.
One day, said the tale of the legendary founding of Arroyo Seco, as Cristóbal and José Gregorio left to till their field, they admonished their children to remain close to the torreón lest they be carried away by Utes or Arapahos. The children began to play and soon forgot their parents' warning. Suddenly, two shadows fell across the place where they were. They looked up quickly, only to find a man with a long, white beard and a younger man, possibly his son gazing down on them. The children were naturally startled since they knew of no other inhabitants in that valley.
"We live further down the valley." the old man told the children. "If you were to follow this little creek, you would soon find where we live." The children were amazed that anyone could live far from the protective walls of the torreón and so they asked, "But, aren't you afraid to be carried off by the nomadic tribes? "No." replied the younger man, "We have a little bird which warns us whenever they are close by."
As the children began to talk in earnest among themselves, they forgot the strangers. When they looked up again, both men were gone. That night, they told the story of the encounter to their parents who too became concerned over settlers in the valley who might need protection.
The following morning, the families armed themselves and began to follow the creek down from the mountain. Suddenly, one of the little boys cried out, " I see the little bird who takes care of the men!" As everyone looked up to the treetops, they indeed saw a little white dove which was flying ahead of them, from branch to branch. As they watched the dove, it set down upon a stone which was sticking out of the ground.
The Martínez families approached the stone and marveled at the fact that there seemed to be some sort of light emanating from underneath it. When they lifted the stone, they found an old bulto carving underneath. Eagerly the children pointed and exclaimed, "Look! That's the old man and the young man. And look! There's a picture of the little bird above them." Their parents could only gape in wonder for the picture was a holy image which showed God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. They fell to their knees on the spot and decided to dedicate the entire valley to The Most Holy Trinity because The Trinity itself had chosen the valley as its home. The image is still kept in the local Catholic church.
The Church of the Most Holy Trinity was established there and completed by the 1834. The building itself was built in a style similar to that of the earlier mission churches of New Mexico with a single nave with a choir loft over the front entrance and a square sacristy off to the right of the sanctuary. It was constructed of adobe brick with sturdy, thick walls 5 feet thick at its base, tapering off to a three feet at the top. Over the walls was a ceiling of rough, flat boards laying across heavy pine vigas. These rest on hand-carved wooden corbels.
The original building had a flat roof and a dirt floor. Its current pitched roof and wooden floor were added circa 1915. The graves of those buried under the floor were repatriated outside of the church building and the bones of the faithful now rest in the churchyard.
It boasts of an altar screen that goes back to the founding of the church itself. The motifs uncovered in it indicate that it may have been done by The Arroyo Hondo Santero. Because of its deteriorating state, it was overpainted in 1861 by the famed santero, José de Gracia Gonzales who seems to have used his own wife as a model for the faces on it.
Arroyo Seco is now a picturesque place almost equidistant between the villages of Taos and Taos Ski Valley. It has been the home to many interesting people, from historians and politicians to cinema actors and hippies. It is place steeped in wonder, mysticism and tradition that attracts throngs of people to its annual Fourth of July parade. But to the myriads of tourists who bring their trade to the shops, restaurants and bar, it is a place to relax in a small-town atmosphere and merge with the spirits of its past.