A dialect from the state’s earliest Spanish-speaking settlers has endured for over 400 years in the state’s remote mountain villages. But its time may be running out.
In a small village in northern New Mexico, some residents still speak the oldest Spanish dialect in the country.
By Simon Romero
Photographs by Desiree Rios
April 9, 2023
QUESTA, N.M. — When the old regulars gather at Cynthia Rael-Vigil’s coffee shop in Questa, N.M., a village nestled in the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they sip lattes and lavender lemonade and gossip in Spanish.
Someone from Mexico City or Madrid sitting at the next table could be hard-pressed to follow their rare dialect. But Spanish speakers from four centuries ago might have recognized the unusual verb conjugations — if not the unorthodox pronunciations and words drawn from English and languages indigenous to North America.
For more than 400 years, these mountains have cradled a form of Spanish that today exists nowhere else on earth. Even after the absorption of their lands into the United States in the 19th century, generations of speakers somehow kept the dialect alive, through poetry and song and the everyday exchanges on the streets of Hispanic enclaves scattered throughout the region.
Even just a few decades ago, the New Mexican dialect remained at the forefront of Spanish-language media in the United States, featured on television programs like the nationally syndicated 1960s Val de la O variety show. Balladeers like Al Hurricanenurtured the dialect in their songs. But such fixtures, along with the dazzling array of Spanish-language newspapers that once flourished in northern New Mexico, have largely faded.
Spots like Ms. Rael-Vigil’s coffee shop, where the dialect’s melodic sounds can still occasionally be heard, are few and far between. In places like Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, the dialect is being eclipsed by the Spanish of a new wave of migrants, particularly from the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
At the same time, there are questions about whether the rural communities that nurtured New Mexican Spanish for centuries can themselves last much longer in the face of myriad economic, cultural and climate challenges.
“Our unique Spanish is at real risk of dying out,” said Ms. Rael-Vigil, 68, who traces her ancestry to a member of the 1598 expedition that claimed New Mexico as one of the Spanish Empire’s most remote domains. “Once a treasure like this is lost, I don’t think we realize, it’s lost forever.”