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The Manitos Project: Recreating a sometimes blurry history
Photo courtesy: Arellano Family

By Ernest Gurulé

Sherlock Holmes is the name that comes to mind as the master of sleuthing, picking up the most obscure clues as he successfully solves crime. Santa Fe historian Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez is also a skilled investigator, but his bailiwick is more anthropology than criminology. What this historian wants is to more fully and comprehensively tell the story of the people who have occupied the scores of small towns and villages of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado for centuries. It’s The Manitos Project.

“The objective is to create community-based archives that can showcase all kinds of legacies that will reflect communities in Colorado and New Mexico,” he said in a recent conversation from his Santa Fe home. It is a huge undertaking, one that will span the multi-century history of the region from the late 17th century to the present. The job of recreating this historic tapestry will be funded by a nearly million-dollar grant from the Mellon Foundation.

This is no simple task, said Dr. Rael-Gálvez. “We recognize that many of these communities and the families that lived in them, the people, they lost a great deal.” These losses came about for a variety of reasons, including the early on cruelty of new arrivals inflicted on indigenous people, internecine and bloody rivalries and, ultimately, to the diaspora that caused conceivably millions to simply leave.

Through oral history, photographs, artifacts, and anything else that may help complete the picture that, finally, a far more comprehensive story of one of America’s most important and often overlooked histories can be told and shared.

Much like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Great Depression that dispatched hundreds of researchers to the South to record the stories of former enslaved men and women and their ancestors, Dr. Rael-Gálvez’ grant will do the same only using modern digital tools.

His plan is to actually have sit-down interviews to recreate, orally and photographically, important stories that shaped the land and the people, and help reassemble a remarkable mosaic of lost history. Teams will scan pictures, paintings, record voices, reproduce important documents, examine old diaries, and pull together the obvious and obscure to objectively tell the truest story of the region. Ideally, retell the stories of the people from Acoma to Zuni and beyond.

Dr. Rael-Gálvez undertaking will also incorporate contributions made by people with stories that are now appearing in Facebook communities. “Over the past five or ten years,” he said, “there have been Facebook groups that have cropped up with the same objective that we have with this project.” One is known as The Families of Costilla and Amalia.

The modern day population of Costilla is tiny, he said. “But the (Facebook) group numbers in the thousands…and they’re from as far away as New Zealand. They’re everywhere!” For the uninitiated, Costilla is one of New Mexico’s oldest villages. It is located approximately forty miles north of Taos and borders the Colorado-New Mexico state lines. Locals may give directions to Costilla as ‘the intersection of state roads 196 and 522.’

The Manitos ‘army,’ will, at least in its current incarnation, be paid to visit the most obscure villages as well as journey to urban centers, including places like Pueblo to archive this history. Members will be speaking with community historians and creating memory laboratories---places in rural libraries---where people can visit to bring in their personal artifacts.

An element of the Manitos Project will be something Dr. Rael-Gálvez called ‘ghost stories.’ “It’s storytelling that is an important part of the culture, just like language. It’s stories that have been passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “Whether they’re actual or are what are called folklore or legend,” he said, they will be included.

While much of the work of The Manitos Project’s lies ahead, its foundation has already been set. “We started to prototype a lot of these projects,” said the Santa Fe historian. Dr. Rael-Gálvez credits the work of Juan B. Rael (no relation), an academic, who had collected volumes of history, “ethnography and folklore of the 30’s and 40’s that will be part of the project. His work contains more than 500 stories and has been recorded in a two-volume set. What Dr. Rael-Gálvez said is so important about Rael’s work is “he listed the story tellers and where they were from.”

One thing that may complicate the assembling of this history is COVID-19, said Dr.Rael-Gálvez. Setting interviews and in-house visits won’t be nearly as easy as they might have been before COVID. But the pandemic, he said, will certainly shade a part of this centuries-long story.





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