San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town, was once the place where business got done for the families spread across the high desert valley. People from nearby towns---Blanca, Chama, Fort Garland---all made the trek there whether it was for mail, to shop or to see friends and relatives. Usually, all could be accomplished in a single stop at the town’s post office, said Renee Gallegos, granddaughter of the woman who ran the place for nearly four decades.
Erinea ‘Nea’ Garcia Gallegos served as the Valley’s Postmistress, today an outdated term, but an official designation when she was appointed to the position by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. The job title belies the weight of the work, in both official and unofficial context, said her granddaughter. The long time postmistress did so much more than greet customers and sell stamps. She served not only as a government official with postal duties but also as friend, confidant, hermana, tia, or prima to scores of locals. That’s just the Valley. It hasn’t changed.
She took her job seriously, making sure she looked professional each day, said Gallegos. “She would wear a skirt but always put on her official shirt,” she said. Most important, though, were her customers, most of who were friends and neighbors. Periodically, a stranger might come by.
The days, often long, would find her behind the counter tending to customers. But that was just part of the job. The unofficial parts included things not in the job description. She translated correspondence for those who read only Spanish. She helped write letters for others and drafted money orders, a regular duty in small towns when there was no nearby bank. She sent telegrams, the era’s mode for quick delivery and, from time to time, she would share in a customer’s grief when a letter arrived announcing a local son would not be coming home from the war. It wasn’t often, but over the course of three wars as Garcia Gallegos was, it was part of the job.
Everything that had anything to do with moving the mail in a one-person shop was what she did, loyally, regularly and with no complaints. Nothing was overlooked. “She even did her own cleaning of the post office,” said Gallegos.
She was energetic and very smart, said Gallegos. “She read newspapers and was up on world events,” she said. She was also up before sunrise most days preparing for work, getting the day organized and tending to her children---she and husband Maclovio had seven. Learning and education were part of who she was. And because of it, she encouraged and inspired each of her children to go to college. Each did.
After graduating from high school in Antonito, a class of nine, Garcia Gallegos did something few women and especially Latinas did in those days. She went on to college at Adams State and Western State Colleges (now universities) and the University of Utah. After graduation, she taught in Conejos, La Jara, San Luis, and other Valley towns. She later became a school principal. But despite her love of education, she left the profession in 1932 and in 1934 accepted the appointment of postmistress and stayed on until retiring in 1973.
The Gallegos family roots run deep in the Valley. They can be traced back six generations. Great-grandfather, Jose Maria Jacquez, led the original settlement into the San Luis Valley in 1852. Her grandparents on both sides later settled land that was part of the Mexican land grant. Both her grandfather, Jose Victor Garcia, and father, Amarante Garcia, also were committed to public service, each serving in both territorial and state legislatures. Her father also served as a judge and sheriff. Her other grandfather, Julian Espinoza, was an officer in the U.S. Civil War.
In a not unheard of small town tradition, the post office also shared a common wall with another business, the town’s barber shop which was coincidentally owned by Gallegos Garcia’s husband. A small window allowed communication between the two operations. “You’d get your mail, get a haircut and get a shave. Women would migrate there, too,” said Gallegos. Other regulars included the family’s children and later grandchildren. For them, a visit to the post office or barber shop was a play date. “She would let us play with the ink pads,” one part of the tool for creating postmarks. “It was always exciting for us.”
After retiring in 1973, Gallegos’ daughter, Pepita Gallegos-Martinez, took over running the place. Gallegos said it’s kind of interesting that the post office was run by a mother-daughter combination for a good portion of the last hundred years.
In an odd twist of fate, Gallegos also found herself a women of letters and all things postal. Her work study job in college was in the campus post office. At the now shuttered Loretta Heights, “I did everything from bringing in mail, putting it in boxes, attending the counter, money orders, everything.”
Things haven’t changed much in today’s San Luis, but the building that once housed the Valley’s post office and barber shop is gone. “The land started flooding,” and the decision was made to tear it down, said Gallegos. But the family’s old home, now renovated, remains and has been designated a historical landmark.