I’ve long considered the variant of the Spanish language spoken in New Mexico to be one of our country’s great cultural treasures. The local speech is rich in pronunciations and vocabulary that are unique, having evolved in place over more than 400 years.
I find especially fascinating those regional words whose meanings are closely connected to our history. Collecting and studying such New Mexicanisms gives us small glimpses into a way of life now largely gone.
Take the old word coi, borrowed from the Tewa language north of Santa Fe. In the 18th century, it was part of everyday speech here. Coi was the name Spanish-speakers used for the first story, or floor, of multilevel Indian pueblos.
In the early days, remember, the first floor had no windows or doors. Outside ladders gave access to the roof and to the stair-stepped stories above. This arrangement allowed for the drawing up of ladders in case of attack, whereupon the pueblo became an effective fort.
The coi could be entered only through a trap door in the roof, as kivas are today. Its dark chamber was not suitable for daily living, so it served the residents as a storage area, particularly as a granary.
By 1870 or so, the pueblos were no longer subject to attack, so doors and windows were opened in their first floors, and the interior space converted to apartments, like those above. The word coi dropped from use and within a generation was forgotten.
Another term, having a somewhat similar history, was genízaro, referring to Indians, captured or ransomed, who were assimilated into New Mexican society. The royal government allowed them to establish their own communities on the frontier. Belen, Abiquiú and San Miguel began as genízaro towns.
Hispanos looked down upon them as being crude and rustic bumpkins. A mother might admonish her naughty child: “Hijito. No seas genízaro,” (that is, “Son. Don’t act like a genízaro.”) The meaning of that archaic expression would not be understood at present.
One of the most New Mexican of all words is cíbola, preserved as a place name in Cíbola National Forest and Cíbola County. Coronado in 1540 knew the cluster of Zuni pueblos as the Province of Cíbola. Strangely, cíbola (or cíbolo) also became the regional term for buffalo.
The Spanish language did not have a word for that New World animal, so when it was encountered on the northern frontier, pioneer folk called it simply a “vaca de Cíbola,” or a Cíbola Province cow. By the 17th century, cíbola alone had come to mean buffalo, and buffalo hunters were known as ciboleros.
The reddish-brown American elk also presented a problem. Spanish lacked a name for this creature, too. So here in New Mexico, it was called an alazán venado, signifying a “sorrel deer.”
Elk were considered so exotic that the king ordered New Mexicans in the 1780s to capture several and ship them to Spain. They finally arrived and were placed on display at the Retiro Park in downtown Madrid.
Punche is a New Mexicanism still used today. It is a native tobacco long grown in the Rio Grande Valley. Colonial settlers produced large quantities for the Indian trade. Corn husk cigarettes made with punche were pretty strong, but the plant also had value as a folk medicine, which is why a few old-timers continue to raise a bit of it, and the word survives.
In standard Spanish, the term for dusty or dust cloud is polvareda. But in New Mexico it became “corrupted,” as language scholars say, when the local people transposed the two final consonants to produce polvadera. (Actually, the new word sounds better to the ear.)
A small village north of Socorro is called Polvadera. According to legend, the first settlers were debating what to call their new community when the Lord spoke to them, saying that if it did not rain by Aug. 10, the land would become a desert.
As it happened, the rains did not come. Hence, village fathers decided that it was appropriate to name their creation Polvadera (Dusty).
Sadly, our New Mexican Spanish is slipping away. Many young people do not speak it at all. Once lost, this treasure will be impossible to recover.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican on Saturdays is publishing reprints selected from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.