Ignacio Middle School students walked into social studies to see a cowboy in their classroom – only instead of modern garb, he wore the traditional short-waisted coat and pants of the Hispanic cowboys, or vaqueros, in the Southwest.
The vaquero, Colorado State Heritage Artist Angel Vigil, came to Ignacio last week to tell stories about the region’s past, making history a reality for students and community members.
The Ignacio Community Library brought Vigil to town Thursday to launch national Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Vigil presented to three middle school classes and community members at the library. For audience members, the free program helped them connect Colorado’s history to their own lives.
“Libraries today are aiming to direct people toward resources to help them learn,” said Andrew Hutchinson, the library’s adult services specialist, who organized the event. “So let’s bring this person who has historical knowledge ... and put them in front of kids and the public to teach.”
Unlike Hollywood’s version of cowboys, many were former slaves, freed after the Civil War, or Spanish or Mexican vaqueros. The event was a way to honor Ignacio’s Hispanic community and to help community members find new connections with the Southwest’s history, Hutchinson said.
Vigil is an award-winning storyteller and author of six books. He performs stories focused on different themes, like stories and legends of the Spanish conquistador, Aztec Indians and the Hispanic Southwest. In Ignacio, he performed “El Vaquero, America’s First Cowboy.”
Vigil never knows which stories he’s going to tell until he sees the audience.
“I like to sense the moment,” he said. He gauges what people are interested in, their ages and the cultural makeup of the audience. “Then I just pull the stories together and craft something just for them.”
For Vigil, presenting to the students was an opportunity to show them that history is exciting and that understanding the past can help them understand how things work now.
“I love working with young people. ... They’re at a formative stage in their life,” Vigil said. “If I can give them a moment of positive experience, I think that’s always good in a young person’s life.”
Horsehair ropes, a traditional braided-leather rope, metal spurs, bison hide and more were passed around the classroom during Vigil’s presentation to the sixth grade social studies class.
Students learned about the economy by feeling smooth beaver fur as Vigil talked about the boom-and-bust fur trapper trade. They learned about migration and human structures while listening to stories about Native American tribes and Spanish, French and German settlers.
They also shared their own experiences riding horses, or even being thrown by them, as Vigil taught them about the history of vaqueros in the Southwest. Spencer Cone, the sixth and eighth grade social studies teacher at the middle school, saw students who rarely participate jump at the chance to twirl the lasso and catch their own feet.
The classroom became quiet as Vigil wove a tale about shooting stars that become jewels, ending the fable with a life lesson about the perils of greed.
“Two students came up to me and were like ‘This was awesome!’” Cone said.
Touching actual artifacts and seeing someone in a traditional vaquero clothing – which originated in Spain in the 700s – helped them experience history in a new way, he said.
“Bringing in someone like this ... really ties in and makes history feel a bit more alive and meaningful, showing us where we come from and what we are still doing,” Cone said.
“That’s my job as a teacher and my goal every day.”