Responding With Weapons to Racism in Colorado Territory

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The American West was filled with people with pistols and places to hide, and many vigilantes’ violence and escapes made them legendary. California’s Joaquin Murrieta is one of the most famous, but Colorado Territory had its own, though nowadays, few remember them. For 5280 magazine, Robert Sanchez narrates the bloody tale of Felipe and Vivián Espinosa, two Hispano settlers whose presence in Colorado’s San Luis Valley predates American ownership of the region, and he reexamines their motives. Seven thousand Spanish descendents moved into the San Luis Valley before territorial annexation, but as soon as Mexican ownership was transfered to the United States, the white settlers and legislators started creating problems, and some Hispano settlers retaliated. History either erased the Espinosas and their Hispanic communities, or they framed the brothers as what Sanchez describes as “Spanish-speaking, sociopathic killers without an origin story—or, at least, not one based entirely on facts.” That racist framework is finally being rewritten.

The Chicano Movement of the 1970s gave rise to a new narrative, reimagining the pair as Hispano protagonists fighting on behalf of an oppressed people. Songs and at least one screenplay have been written about the pair. The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa, a novel published in 2014, sought to untangle the brothers’ faith and familial past as a way to understand their murderous motivations. Wild West Exodus, a British tabletop game, includes a version of the brothers, with Felipe described as a “rogue, desperado, thief, mariachi, and to many, a bold freedom fighter.”

Historians have finally begun to examine that record, investigating the plight of civilizations wiped out or marginalized by settlers. “These citizens were made to feel like they were foreigners, and the historical record traditionally treated them that way,” says Virgina Sanchez, a genealogist and historian who has studied life within southern Colorado settlements and is the author of Pleas and Petitions: Hispano Culture and Legislative Conflict in Territorial Colorado. “The Espinosas are an important part of that history if you’re using them to understand the deeper, day-to-day hardships and prejudices that faced non-Anglos trying to survive within their own country.”

Nick Saenz, an associate professor of history at Adams State University who has studied Hispano settlement in southern Colorado, argues that while the Espinosa brothers are “like folk heroes” within the San Luis Valley—if not outright celebrated, then happily accepted—it’s a disservice to history if the narrative focuses only on the murders. “This is really the story of two distinct groups of people, with different languages and cultures and ideas of what this land should be, and they find themselves smashed together in the same place at the same time,” Saenz says. “More than anything, this is a story of survival. Ultimately, one side got to tell that story.”

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