Vecinos en la Frontera: Interaction, adaptation, and identity at San Miguel del Vado, New Mexico

Kelly Lee Jenks
Anthropology, University of Arizona
December, 2011


Identities are forged through interaction, as people simultaneously seek to distinguish themselves from--and are influenced by--other populations. This dynamic is especially pronounced along frontiers, where multiple societies engage in sustained contact. Centuries of interaction between Spanish colonial and indigenous populations in New Mexico blurred the traditional social categories of caste and race, prompting the colonists to conceptualize themselves in new ways. In the late eighteenth century, Hispanic New Mexicans began to self-identify as Vecinos (literally, "neighbors"). This term described a civic rather than ethnic identity, characterizing individuals as residents and members of a Hispanic corporate community. This social category was particularly relevant in the multiethnic settlements along the eastern frontier, where Vecinos regularly interacted with Plains Indian nomads, Pueblo villagers, semi-nomadic Apache bands, and American traders and immigrants. One such settlement was San Miguel del Vado, established around 1794 as part of a community land grant in the Upper Pecos River Valley. Situated just east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains beside a ford (" vado ") in the river, this settlement served as a gateway between New Mexico and the Great Plains, hosting Plains Indian and American traders during the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods and American immigrants after the United States conquered the territory in 1846. These interactions shaped Vecino identity within San Miguel del Vado, motivating residents to distinguish themselves from outsiders while introducing foreign goods and concepts. Vecino identity was expressed and reinforced through the structure and routine of daily life within Hispanic villages; therefore, it can be interpreted archaeologically through an examination of spatial organization and the material remains of daily practices. Similarly, distinctive regional or temporal patterns within these data can provide insight into the different forces shaping Vecino identity across space and over time. In this way, this dissertation utilizes archaeological data to explore the expression and evolution of Vecino identity at San Miguel del Vado, and to place this site within a regional and historical framework. These archaeological data are supplemented with historical sources and interpreted using a framework derived from archaeological theories of culture contact, identity, and practice.