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The perpetual senator

LAS ANIMAS COUNTY— It was no wonder people called Casimiro Barela the Perpetual Senator. He served in the Colorado Senate for no less than 40 years. On top of that, he had also been the state representative from his district in Las Animas County before his election to the senate. Barela was born in March 1847 – just over 167 years ago – in what would become the Territory of New Mexico one year later when the treaty ending the Mexican War was ratified. His first trip into Colorado Territory came in 1864 when he accompanied his father, a freighter, with a wagon train of goods over Raton Pass. He must have liked what he saw, for three years later he and his parents returned to the area and settled 20 miles east of the little town of Trinidad. The family named its new village after themselves, Barela. Barela had been educated by priests, who had found him to be an outstanding student with leadership qualities. His only failing was a quick temper. He was an eloquent speaker, very persuasive, and, in time, became equally adept in English. In his new home, he went into the freighting business as well as stock raising. In March 1867 he returned to New

Mexico to marry Josefita Ortiz. In 1869, at the age of 22, he was elected justice of the peace. The next year he was appointed county assessor and later served as sheriff and county treasurer. Among his other endeavors throughout his lifetime, he owned a blacksmith shop, served as a postmaster and became involved in banking. He invested in railroads and real estate. One year he ran for state auditor, but that was one election he lost. Within five years of his arrival, Barela had made a name for himself. He had purchased 1,200 Texas Longhorns and his herds kept growing. In later life he was known for his excellent quarter horses and even raised polo ponies. In 1871, he went to Denver as the territorial representative from Las Animas County. During the 1870s he built up his modest adobe plaza, La Porvenir, into a modern castle complete with a drawbridge, turrets and reflecting pools. The gardens were extensive. In 1875, Barela was involved in writing the constitution for the proposed State of Colorado. Of the 49 delegates charged with this task, Barela was one of but three of Hispanic heritage. At his insistence, the new laws were written in English, Spanish and German. When Colorado became a state in August 1876, Barela was elected the first senator from Las Animas County. He was still shy of his 30th birthday. Josefa had borne nine children by the time she died in 1883. Only three of these had survived, however, Leonor, Juana and Sofia. Barela once again returned to New Mexico and married a wealthy widow named Damiana Rivera. To honor her and her family, Barela founded a new town and named it Rivera. By the mid 1880s Barela was said to be one of the three wealthiest men in Colorado. He owned up to 5,000 head of cattle, 15,000 sheep and hundreds of horses. By 1885, the town of Barela claimed a population of 220. Its post office operated sporadically between 1874 and 1886, 1887 and 1896, and between 1902 and 1931. In 1888 the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth Railroad built a right of way just outside of town, thus assuring the town its future as a shipping point. The railroad later became the Colorado and Southern. About this time coal mining companies were staking their claims around Las Animas County. Unfortunately, not all were fair or honest and numerous Hispanic families who had been on the same land for several generations found themselves homeless when the companies discovered loopholes in their land deeds, if any, and evicted the residents. Barela tirelessly fought for these families’ land rights. Barela was very much aware of and against all types of discrimination, and championed the rights of those he felt were being shortchanged. He was an early and eloquent supporter of woman’s suffrage, for instance. He also strove to protect the rights of stock raisers like himself, who were increasingly in litigation with new homesteaders. Barela also supported the campaign for statehood for New Mexico. To help publicize his favorite causes, Barela founded two Spanish language newspapers, Las Dos Republicas in Denver and El Progresso in Trinidad. With his newspaper and other interests in Trinidad, Barela spent much of his time there. He and his parents and siblings eventually owned quite a bit of agricultural, residential and commercial land there and in the vicinity. They donated the land for the Trinidad Catholic Cemetery. In 1892, when the town of Aguilar was platted, Barela was a partner with Jose Ramon Aguilar in its founding. Throughout the late 1880s the vacant land in eastern Las Animas County had undergone great population growth. Homesteaders and their new towns filled the voids during this land rush. As the legislature contemplated forming new counties on the eastern prairies, Senator Barela himself in 1889 introduced a bill to create a second county from Las Animas, which he favored calling Baca. And so it was. Barela found a kindred spirit in Theodore Roosevelt with his progressive ideas. To support him, Barela switched membership from the Democratic to the Republican party in 1901. Some historians speculate that Barela won his senatorial seat in 1902 because of this affiliation. In 1907, Barela was a proponent when Columbus Day was created as a national holiday. By 1916 Barela had served as state senator for 40 years. That fall, however, he lost the election, and retired from active politics. Barela had long advocated better relations between the United States and Mexico. He had become the Denver consul for Mexico and Costa Rica to assist Spanish speakers understand the English language and American ways of life. As consul and longtime friend of the country, in 1920 Casimiro Barela was invited to the inauguration of Mexican President Obregon. During his trip to Mexico City he developed pneumonia, and he died soon after he returned home to Colorado. He is buried in Trinidad Catholic Cemetery. The perpetual senator is honored by being one of 16 whose images are immortalized in stained glass portraits inside the rotunda of the Colorado Capitol building.