By Marc Simmons

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The word villa in Italian signifies a large country residence or estate. With that meaning the term has passed into English usage and now is widely understood. In Spanish, however, villa is something entirely different. In that language it means a town. More specifically, in colonial days, it referred to a legally chartered town with a title, rights and privileges of government granted by the King of Spain.

Such a municipality was allowed to use the phrase villa real (royal town) in its full name, and that honor was much coveted by Spanish citizens. If a community grew in size and importance, it might become a ciudad real (royal city), with added prestige and privileges.

During the colonial era, four villas were established in New Mexico. They were, in the order of their founding, Santa Fe, El Paso, Santa Cruz and Albuquerque.

Prior to the Mexican independence in 1821, none of these villas was promoted to the rank of ciudad. Few documents exist about the beginnings of any of them. Neverthe-less, a sketchy but interesting picture can be drawn about how each came to be founded.

The first and oldest town was the Villa Real de la Santa Fe de los Espanoles (The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of the Spaniards). We believe that Gov. Pedro de Peralta saw to the laying out of the Plaza and streets in the spring of 1610. The new residents would have attended a public ceremony and at the conclusion shouted, as was the custom, Viva el Rey! Long live the King! And it can be assumed that Gov. Peralta certified the founding as having been legal and proper.

This is a guess, because all official papers, including the municipal charter, were destroyed at the time of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. Originally, copies must have been sent to Spain, but to this day they have not been located in the archives.

As the capital and as the only villa in New Mexico prior to the revolt, Santa Fe gloried in its pre-eminence. From that early period derives the quaint custom of local citizens calling themselves not Santa Feans but rather Los Villeros (that is, The Towns-men). That designation still is used by some old-timers today.

In 1680 when Santa Fe was besieged and destroyed by the Indians, the 1,000 Spanish survivors fled south to the El Paso Valley. There they set up a government in exile, which lasted until the reconquest of upper New Mexico in 1693. The refugees also founded a new villa, La Villa Real del Paso del Norte, on the site of the present Ciudad Juarez. In the following century, El Paso grew to become the second most important community in New Mexico. So much so that the lieutenant governor moved there from Santa Fe, to handle all the official government business in the lower province.

New Mexico's third villa was established on April 21, 1695, when the reconquistador Gov. Diego de Vargas marched north 20 miles from newly refounded Santa Fe and placed settlers in possession of the Villa Nueva de la Santa Cruz de la Canada.

Located off the east side of of the Espanola Valley, this villa remained the smallest and least-known of the rour. It was also the only one that did not grow into a major city in the 20th century.

The last of the quartet, Albuquerque, was the creation of Gov. Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, a Spanish nobleman, who escorted 35 families down the Rio Grande from the capital in 1706. The people were settled on the east bank of the river and became pros-perous farmers and ranchers.

In naming the new villa, Gov. Cuervo seems to have been currying favor with his boss, the Duke of Albuquerque, who from his palace in Mexico City was serving as the viceroy of New Spain. From that historical happenstance, Albuquerque in this century adopted the nickname "The Duke City."

Recently, residents of two of the old colonial villas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, have erected large and dramatic equestrian statues of their founders, Pedro de Peralta and Francisco Cuervo y Valdez. This public art serves as a fitting reminder of the time when Spain's flag floated over New Mexico and the King's word was the law of the land.

See Marc Simmons's "Massacre on the Lordsburg Road: A Tragedy of the Apache Wars" (Texas A&M University Press.)

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