NEW MEXICO'S literary tradition begins with the orally trans-
mitted myths, legends, and rituals of the Indians who were
native to the soil when the Spaniards came and who still inhabit
it. This primitive literature, unrecorded until the nineteenth century,
extends far back in time and is still an integral feature of contemporary
In the sense of the written or printed word, New Mexican literature
began with the old Spanish chronicles of exploration and conquest.
These basic sources of history rank among the great original adventure
books of the world. In human interest and genuine literary flavor,
these straight-forward tales of priests, conquerors, and soldiers seem
today as fresh and modern as when they were written—especially so in
New Mexico, where so much of the landscape and terrain through
which adventurers journeyed remains unchanged. Because of the barrier
of language, less has been known of these Spanish narratives than of
similar early chronicles of the eastern colonies, but fine English transla-
tions of the most important New Mexican narratives have been made
and are now available in book form.
One more purely creative work of this early Spanish period is the
first known poem conceived on the soil of what is now the United
States. This is the famous Historia de la Neuva Mexico by Captain
Don Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá—an epic in thirty-four rhymed cantos,
celebrating the conquest and permanent settlement of New Mexico in
1598 by Don Juan de Oñate.
Villagrá, himself a member of Oñate's expedition, shared in its
hardships and glories, as recounted in his poem, culminating in the battle
of Ácoma, 1599, in which he took an important part. His book,
addressed to King Phillip III of Spain, was published in Alcalá, Spain,
in 1610. An English prose translation by Gilberto Espinosa has recently
been published by the Quivira Society.
Another phase of early Spanish literature in New Mexico is repre-
sented in the religious plays, traditional songs, ballads, and folk tales,
brought from Old Spain and still surviving among the descendants of
the early colonists.
Little distinction exists between the Spanish and Mexican regimes,
as far as literary influences are concerned, since the old traditions, rooted
in Spain, continued to flourish on the new soil.