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When R&R Market opened its doors in 1857, Colorado did not yet exist. The general store in San Luis, a few miles north of what is now the New Mexico border, was built a year before the first cabins in what would become Denver, and four years before the Civil War.
Since then it has stayed in the same family, through eight generations. But as proprietors Felix and Claudia Romero grew old in recent years, it appeared the little grocery store in the remote San Luis Valley town might end with their retirement, leaving locals with a 32-mile round trip drive to buy fresh produce.
Then, at the end of February, Colorado’s oldest continuously operated business passed out of family ownership to a nonprofit with plans to make it the communal property of San Luis.
The Acequia Institute hopes to turn R&R Market into a worker-led co-op, and make it a cultural and community health hub that could help rejuvenate one of the state’s earliest and most unique Spanish-influenced communities, and provide a roadmap for other rural communities looking to build self-sufficiency.
“We learned a long time ago to love our neighbors to survive”
R&R Market, soon to be renamed the San Luis Peoples Market, was bought by the Acequia Institute, an organization devoted to preserving traditional farming and irrigation practices in the area. The sale was completed with the help of a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, which will also help pay to transform the market.
Devon Peña, who leads the institute, has grand plans for the market. He hopes to develop it into a community cooperative grocery store stocked with produce grown by local farmers. He envisions a mill to produce tortillas, a commercial kitchen for use by local entrepreneurs, a restaurant and deli, and a space for education and events. The store would function as a crucial component of a larger strategy to revitalize traditional lifestyles that for decades have faced pressures from the outside world that have left San Luis struggling against poverty and poor health.
“This community is here because we learned a long time ago to love our neighbors to survive,” Peña said. “People call Costilla County the poorest in Colorado, but we’re only cash poor. We’re rich in land, culture, and agricultural knowledge. We’re reawakening something here, and people are supportive.”
The effort is one of many similar projects around Colorado seeking to improve community health, said Sara Overby, a program officer with the Colorado Health Foundation.
The foundation works to break down barriers to healthy food in remote or impoverished areas, with grants to build “food sovereignty” by bolstering local food producers and shortening supply chains, Overby said.
“We need to look at how society is organized,” she said. “By ensuring people have access to good, locally grown food, we can not only improve physical health, but grow the immeasurable health impacts of having a community with pride and hope.”
In Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, the Colorado Health Foundation is supporting work to build a grocery store where produce grown by local farmers is sold. The southwestern Colorado town of about 1,200 residents has been without a grocer since the 1980s, Overby said. Similar efforts are underway in Grand Junction, Pagosa Springs, and on the Eastern Plains.
Much of the energy around the projects grew from watching grocery stores stripped bare early in the pandemic, and seeing supply chain troubles since then, Overby said.
“I get tired of hearing how everything’s terrible and we’re all going to die,” she said. “How can we work together to strengthen our communities, to lift each other up? The future will be challenging, but people need to eat.”
A community’s health
Communal work is in the DNA of San Luis.
San Luis, with a population of about 650, was founded by New Mexican settlers in 1851, shortly after the land became American territory at the end of the Mexican-American War.
The town and several nearby communities were founded according to centuries-old Spanish Colonial practices, in which settlers lived communally. Colonists shared resources like grazing lands and timber. Irrigation was allocated with democratically managed canals called acequias, a system with roots in North Africa and later imported to Spain.
Many of the area’s traditional land management practices survive today among descendants of the settlers, whose ethnic heritage was a melting pot of Spanish-descended and Indigenous peoples. Costilla County still has 23,000 acres of farmland irrigated by acequias, with every adjacent landowner holding an equal vote in their management, a contrast to most Colorado water rights that grant greater privileges to senior rights holders. San Luis is adjacent to La Vega, a communal grazing area.
It’s a life locals have fought to preserve. They waged lengthy court battles to enshrine timber gathering and grazing rights on the flanks of Culebra Peak, an area known as La Sierra, once part of massive Mexican land grants promised in perpetuity to settlers’ descendants but now part of a sprawling privately owned ranch.
Other pressures are more broad based. The decline of the family farm economy, accelerated by the lack of access to La Sierra, spurred young people to leave for better-paying work in cities, Peña said. Costilla County’s population plunged, and now hovers around 3,500, less than half its peak of 7,500 in the 1940s, according to census data. The poverty rate is among the state’s highest, with 43% of children living in poverty, nearly four times the state average.
We are not a culture of self-aggrandizement. It’s about thinking less about your rights and entitlements, and more about your obligation to your family and community.
– Devon Peña
Without a younger labor force, the older generation struggled to maintain farms. Those who held on switched to cash crops like hay, alfalfa and cattle, disrupting traditional diets of locally grown food like beans, corn and squash.
The result was disastrous for community health, Peña said. As locals came to rely on more processed food, diabetes rates soared, affecting nearly 1 in 10, among the highest rates in the state. More than 40% of adults are obese, nearly twice the statewide rate.
R&R Market became the only year-round source for fresh produce in town, with locals otherwise facing a 32-mile round trip to Fort Garland. A Family Dollar opened in San Luis a few years ago, carrying more processed food but no produce.
“As we stopped providing food for our own families, people turned to high-sodium, high-fat foods,” Peña said. “Every family has a diabetes case. We need to return to heritage cuisine. Food is our medicine.”
Last year, the Acequia Institute started a pilot project to pay local farmers $2,000 an acre to grow healthy foods like kale, chard and beans, which Peña said is better than rates for alfalfa and nearly 10 times the income for an acre of hay. Six local farmers signed up for the program, and Peña hopes to sign up many more in coming years.
“I thought I would get skepticism, but everyone I talk to about this gets excited,” Peña said. “I tell them, ‘You know how to farm. You know more than alfalfa.’”
The San Luis Peoples Market will provide an outlet for the produce, Peña said. The market will also house a traditional volcanic rock mill to grind corn to make tortillas, which Peña hopes to sell on the Front Range and beyond.
The gentrification paradox
The market and farm program will be joined by another link in the chain of cultural restoration: the Move Mountains Project, which pays local teens to learn traditional farming techniques and provide labor on family farms.
Educating the younger generation is crucial, said Shirley Romero-Otero, who leads Move Mountains. Now 66, she has fought since her early 20s for access rights to La Sierra, winning court battles that have provided more than 5,000 people with keys to gates in fences around the ranch to harvest timber and firewood for personal use and graze livestock.
“My grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will have these rights,” Romero-Otero said. “It’s imperative they understand the significance of what we fought for so they won’t be bought off. Landowners and speculators might offer you top dollar for your land and water, but what’s the price of your legacy?”
Still, Romero-Otero said cultural rejuvenation projects could lead to a bigger problem: gentrification. Part of the reason San Luis has been able to hold onto elements of a traditional way of life is because it has stayed off the radar, she said.
“We have vultures circling,” she said. “The Peoples Market story is going viral, and we know there are land speculators watching. We tell people, if you’re going to sell your land, keep it in the family. Don’t sell to someone who wants a summer home or property to develop.”
Peña, who is heading the Peoples Market project, said local organizers must walk a fine line to preserve San Luis.
“We don’t want to become a ghost town, but we also don’t want to be another Taos,” Peña said, referring to the wealthy town 66 miles south of San Luis in New Mexico, which was once a sleepy acequia farming town. “Down there, all the locals got priced out.”
Key to girding against gentrification, Peña said, is reviving another lost element of traditional life in San Luis: a revolving credit fund.
San Luis was once home to a chapter of the Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos, a nearly extinct mutual aid union that provided low- or no-interest loans to locals. The group’s initials, SPMTDU, can still be seen in faded print on the sides of buildings it once occupied throughout the valley. Peña is in the process of launching a new version that would be available to local families hoping to buy land or start businesses, offering zero-interest loans and financial literacy classes.
“With the right institutions in place, and with the right mindset, we can create a middle space between ghost town and Taos,” he said. “This can work in a place with a cultural memory of a different way of thinking. We are not a culture of self-aggrandizement. It’s about thinking less about your rights and entitlements, and more about your obligation to your family and community.”
For Felix Romero, who ran R&R Market for 52 years and became the final link in its 165 years of family ownership, the Peoples Market is a step back toward a past he has watched slip away. He did his part to preserve the old ways, extending credit to families who couldn’t pay for food, and even bartering for labor or garden produce during hard times.
What the people of San Luis have is something precious, something worth saving, Romero said.
“As Americans of Spanish and Native heritage, we’re part of a greater legacy,” he said. “We have dreams and visions that can’t be measured in dollars. We are a people whose success is measured in honor, integrity and work ethic. It’s a consciousness interwoven with our creator and this land.”
The spirit of mutual reliance is present in many people, waiting to be reawakened, Peña said.
Prior generations of American farmers benefited from the community and political organization known as the Grange, he pointed out. “Euro-Americans have a big pond between them and their origins, but they have the idea of the commons in their past, too,” he added. “Even in cities, the pandemic caused a growth in mutual aid networks.”
People of color and those in marginalized communities have long faced pandemic-like crisis conditions, Peña said, and learned to adapt.
“We’re taking the risk of working together in a polarized time,” he said. “I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing. Sometimes it takes crisis and trauma to work together again.”
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.
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