Piro People Celebrate Centuries-Old Culture In Modern Las Cruces
Written by Bud Russo
Photography courtesy Natalia Melon
Sitting around the kitchen table, Natalia Melon and her brothers, Guillermo and Frank Portillo, talk of their Piro ancestry.
“There are more than a hundred of us here in Las Cruces,” Natalia says. That, in a manner, conflicts with what anthropologists report. They say, after the Piro left Socorro in the early 1700s, they disappeared. Not vanished, but died off or married into other families. The Piro, they claim, are no more.
“But,” says Natalia, “we’re still here.”
Prior to the Spanish colonization of New Mexico, the Piro people lived in villages throughout the middle Rio Grande region from what became Socorro to Belen, and east to the Manzano Mountains. Their cousins, the Tompiro, occupied pueblos at Ábo, Quarai, and Jumanas (Gran Quivera). Their population ranged between 11,000 and 16,000 people, and they were traders. Those in Estancia Basin, east of the mountains, gathered and traded salt. All of the people in the region traded with plains Indians—meat, hides, and bone utensils—and pueblos up and down the river—corn, beans, pots, and woven goods. That may have been the life-way of these people for centuries.
Guillermo says, “The history we know tells us our ancestors were living in the river valley after about 900 A.D.” But their history is much deeper. For an agricultural people to succeed, they first had to learn agriculture. Earlier people who farmed the river valley lived in pit houses. Even earlier ancestors were hunter-gatherers, who roamed the land as far back as 5,000 years ago. “That could well be,” Guillermo says. “We just have no records.” That history is lost in the mist of time.
Two events changed the Piro’s lives: the arrival in of the Apache, nomadic people who were hunter-gatherers but often found it easier to raid pueblo settlements, and the Spanish. It’s questionable which was more injurious to the puebloans. The Piro at the Senecu pueblo had befriended the Spanish dragging their nearly wasted bodies out of the Jornada del Muerto, their food and water depleted. Refreshed, it was the Franciscan priests job to convert the “heathen,” and so they began to Christianize the Piro. Like many of the pueblo Indians, they absorbed the new religion into their culture, albeit keeping their traditional ceremonies, rituals, and customs.
Life wasn’t so bad, until around 1650, when the Spanish decided they needed the Piro to head south to help convert the Manso living around El Paso del Norte (today’s Ciudad Juárez).
Guillermo says, “They made slaves of us and hauled us to El Paso del Norte. If someone didn’t go or didn’t try to convert the Manso, the Spanish cut off a foot. That’s how they convinced us to help.” There they tried to maintain farms, to placate the Manso, and to build the church the Franciscans wanted. The church was begun in 1659 and was completed three years later.
Over the next two decades, drought drove the Tompiro from their pueblos near today’s Mountainair. They migrated to El Paso del Norte. Then the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 added to the flood of people surging south. In 1682, Don Diego de Vargas began retaking New Mexico, but succeeded in only capturing several hundred Tiwa people at Isleta Pueblo.
These, too, were brought back to El Paso. Most of the indigenous people settled around the Mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the church they had built.
Life in the desert Southwest is harsh. The people struggled to grow enough food to make a living. “So, when Señor Ascarte, a rancher in the area offered work for people,” says Frank, “many Piro accepted the offer.”
By then it was the 1840s, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo has been ratified, and the U.S. controlled the lower Rio Grande valley. Some families moved as far north as the village of Doña Ana. Most stayed closer to the ranch, on land that became Las Cruces. When the town’s lots were laid out, they incorporated the homes of the Piro already living there. Most of the Piro found themselves living along San Pedro Street. They traveled to the ranch to work and also to farms they kept.
They also began dancing on December 12 at St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church.
During the dances, which celebrate a successful hunt as well as spring rain and a bountiful harvest, the cacique, or war chief, would use a switch-like stick called a bara to strike the dancers legs. It wasn’t injurious but symbolic—a sign of respect and a reminder of why they were dancing.
In 1910, a writer from back east thought the use of the bara was cruel and promoted the “barbarity” of the act. The church then denied the Piro the right to dance before St. Genevieve’s. At that time, Eugene Van Patton, who had married a Piro, arranged for the tribe to get a land grant in the tiny village of Tortugas.
The village chose that name, Las Cruces Historian Pat Becket reported in a Las Cruces-sponsored video about the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, because of an ox-bow in the river at that point. There were, he said, hundreds of turtles there. The mountain to the east, the one we know as “A” Mountain, was also called Tortugas. Seen from north or south, you can see how it resembles the reptile.
Now the festival was conducted at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Tortugas, and it would seem all would be well with the Piro. To no avail. Because of the dense Hispanic population, the church wanted to include more Hispanics in the dance and expanded the festival from one day to three. The Piro objected.
“We are Indians,” says Guillermo.
“This was our sacred dance, and we did not want anyone who was not Piro to be part of it.”
There were other objections. Natalia says, “They changed the dresses women wear, and that was unacceptable.” Piro women wear a white blouse and a black dress adorned with ribbons of different colors circling the bottom of the skirt. Each color represents the color of one of the Piro’s corn clans. Other colors represent the four seasons and four cardinal directions. The colors are duplicated with ribbons in the headpiece the women wear. They’re not there for decoration. There is great spiritual significance to them.
So, in the 1960s, the Piro refused to participate in the festival and haven’t since. Their sacred dances are still danced—sometimes in front of the San Jose in Picacho (they no longer use the bara and the priests have relented), sometimes other venues, but always in their traditional dress, always following traditional steps, and always only by Piro.
Today’s distractions — the Internet, digital games, cell phones, and other diversions — make it difficult to maintain the ancient traditions and culture of the Piro. “My dad taught us about our customs and dances, and we have taught our children,” Natalia says. “Everything we talk about we learned from my dad. He is the one who would tell us who we are and explained our history to us.” Still, fewer of the Piro speak the language of their ancestors. The pressures of modern life make it increasingly difficult to preserve the old way of life. “But,” says Natalia, “We’re still here and we intend to be here for a long time to come.”