Language is ever-changing. This constant evolution is caused by a number of factors, including the way it’s taught, what other languages it makes contact with and how distinct social groups alter it by creating slang and jargon. All of these factors contributed to the formation of New Mexican Spanish, but contact with outside languages — or the lack thereof — played a particularly large role in its preservation through the years.
A Brief History Of Colonial New Mexico
In 1598, Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate arrived in present-day New Mexico. Other Spaniards had passed through the area, and even stayed there for a short time, but Oñate’s expedition was considered the official colonization of New Mexico.
It was a small colony to begin with, based in Santa Fe, but in 1601, a number of the settlers fled the colony due to dissatisfaction with the lack of supplies and communication with other settlements. This left an even smaller colony in New Mexico.
Starting in the 1670s, the Spanish governors of the colony were cracking down on the religious practices of the indigenous Pueblo people who lived there. Arrests and executions of the Pueblos led to a large uprising in 1680, which quickly became deadly. The Hispanic colonists eventually fled to El Paso del Norte (modern-day Ciudad Juárez). The Spanish didn’t retake control of Santa Fe until 1693, when some of the original settlers, and some new ones picked up in El Paso, arrived there.
Daniel Villa, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University with a PhD in Spanish linguistics, has been studying New Mexican Spanish for most of his career. He says the Pueblo rebellion and its aftermath were instrumental in how the dialect developed:
“The people that went back to recolonize northern New Mexico was not exactly the same group that fled. You had a number of families that came from different areas of northern Mexico that joined in. So, the way that they spoke had an impact on the Spanish that was taken back up.”
The colony pretty much kept to itself from that point until Mexico gained independence and the Spanish colonial period came to a close. This relative isolation helped preserve the dialect for years to come.
How Did New Mexican Spanish Form?
New Mexican Spanish, as the name indicates, is simply a variation of Spanish. The Spanish language consists of Vulgar Latin from Spain’s Castile region mixed with the Arabic dialect spoken by the Moors.
When Spanish was brought to the Americas, it was impacted by the various indigenous languages it came into contact with. In terms of northern New Mexican Spanish, this was primarily the languages of the Nahua people of Mexico, also known as the Aztecs.
Additionally, Villa explains that the variation of Spanish spoken by the New Mexican colonists gradually became its own “clearly identifiable dialect.”
“They began to develop a kind of Spanish, which, while still being Spanish, has things that give it a flavor that mark it as distinct from all other Spanishes in the Americas,” Villa says.
The Pueblo uprising of 1680 was a pivotal moment because, according to research conducted by Villa and Israel Sanz of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, the new settlers picked up in El Paso del Norte had a significant influence on the variety of Spanish the original New Mexico colonists spoke. These new settlers came from a variety of backgrounds in Europe and the Americas, and their way of speaking further developed New Mexican Spanish.
New Mexican Spanish Today
While the dialect has changed over time, as all language does, New Mexican Spanish still exists as its own distinct variety of Spanish, spoken in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
There doesn’t seem to be any data on how many people speak New Mexican Spanish today, but based on anecdotal evidence, it still has a presence in the region. Villa himself, whose family bought a house in northern New Mexico, attests to this, “If I go to the AutoZone car parts store or the Walmart, or go in the morning to get a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, I can hear northern New Mexican Spanish … it’s not gone yet.”
However, some scholars in the area say the dialect’s numbers are dwindling. New Mexico historian Marc Simmons laments this trend: “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.”