Monday, February 13, 2012

Chavez Roots Part II: Valverde de Llerena

My Grandpa Louie used to have a Chávez Coat of Arms hanging in his den. I wonder if he knew the story about its origin, the five “llaves,” or keys that were bestowed upon two Portuguese men, Garci and Rui Lopez, in the form of a symbolic escutcheon, or shield.

According to the legend, the Lopez brothers formed an army in 1160 to take the Villa of Chaves from the ruling Moors. The Villa of Chaves, which is in northern Portugal at the border with Galicia, Spain, was founded by the Romans several centuries earlier; went through many centuries of war; and, along with the entire Iberian Peninsula, came under Moorish rule. As the story goes, the Lopez brothers successfully drove the Moors out of Chaves, and as a result, Spanish King Alonzo Henriquez made them both knights and gave them the Chaves name.

Some 400 years later, in the late 1500s, a handful of citizens of a small Spanish village on the southern end of the peninsula, set sail for the New World. At least two Chaves men from this village, Valverde de Llerena in Extremadura, made their way to New Mexico. The first Chaves man was killed at Acoma. The second Chaves native of Llerena, Don Pedro Duran y Chaves, was recruited as a soldier in Mexico City to be part of the second consignment of colonists to go to New Mexico in 1600 – two years after Don Juan de Onate made his way north. Ten years later, Duran y Chaves was present during the establishment of the Villa of Santa Fe.

There has been debate about the identity of Pedro Duran y Chaves, who is considered the first progenitor of the many Chaves families in New Mexico during the next 400 years. It is clear that he was born in Valverde de Llerena, as he declared years later. What is not clear, is his own family tree in Spain. Even if his parents and grandparents can be established, the parish records from the 16th Century were apparently lost or destroyed.

Valverde de Llerena is currently a small municipality of about 850 people in the province of Badajoz in Extremadura, Spain. It sits near the foothills of the Sierra Morena, not far from Seville on the east and Portugal on the west. It was settled in 1240, and King Phillip made Valverde de Llerena a Villa in 1560, shortly before Pedro Chavez y Duran was born.

I envision Valverde de Llerena in the 16thCentury as a sleepy rural village much like Belen, Atrisco, Cebolleta or Cubero – New Mexico villages settled by or with Chaves descendants a century or two later. To this day, flocks of sheep can be found at the outskirts of Valverde de Llerena, which reminds me of my Chavez ancestors herding sheep in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Traditional Spanish Matanzas are still celebrated community events in Valverde de Llerena, as they are in rural New Mexico.

 The late Fray Angelico Chávez, who I wrote about in my last post as the source of much of what I am writing today, visited Valverde de Llerena in 1952, as he explored his roots in Spain. In his book, My Penitente Land, Chávez described how he couldn’t find the Chaves surname as he traveled through Spain – until he reached Llerena.

“When I gave my name, and told them why I had come, several villagers began introducing themselves as my namesakes,” Chávez wrote. “It turned out that Valverde de Llerena, the birthplace of my name-ancestor by at least half a dozen lines, still had many families with the surname more than three centuries after Don Pedro Gomez Duran y Chavez had left home to seek his fortune across the ocean sea. But to the good folk crowding about me it could not have been more than a generation ago, the way they accepted me as a relative.”

Chavez, a Franciscan priest at the time, was invited to celebrate mass for the feast day.

 “In my flowing Spanish cape I must have seemed to them like some visiting prelate from the Indies; but I myself, while fully realizing where I was, felt no different from the many times I had presided over similar festive processions in different New Mexico towns. Back in the church, as the acolytes or monecillos – a word used only in Extremadura and New Mexico – were lighting the altar candles for the service of Benedictions, the pastor announced to the faithful that I would speak ‘four words’ to them, which is the Spanish equivalent for a sermon as short or as long as one cares to make it. Since by now I had already found out that these good people’s Castilian was like my own, I felt no embarrassment or hesitation as I told them of all my extremeno forebears and of a new homeland they had found across the world so very much like their own birthplace. In fact, I had never been so eloquent in the tongue of my fathers.”

Fray Chávez, who spent many years as an archivist for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, was very familiar with the spelling of the Chaves name, as its common usage evolved from “Chaves” to “Chávez” during the 1800s in New Mexico.

“’Chaves’ comes from the Latin plural claves for keys – as displayed upon the crest – which in Galician Spanish (and Portuguese) had evolved into chaves while in Castilian Spanish it turned into llaves,” Chavez wrote in his book, CHÁVEZ, A Distinctive American Clan of New Mexico. “Although the surname is not patronymic, meaning ‘the son of’ as in Rodriguez or Martinez, the zet had already been added in Portugal long ago. It also became the common spelling in neighboring Mexico, and from there it made its way here in modern times.”

Fray Chávez, in his book about the Chávez Clan, passes along an interesting story about one of the 19th Century descendants who supposedly inherited some unique artifacts from his forefathers. Manuel Antonio Chaves, who served as a lieutenant colonel during the Civil War, owned a signet ring of pure gold bearing an escutcheon of five tiny keys, along with a document telling about the origin of the Chaves name. The heirlooms were apparently handed down through about seven generations from eldest son to eldest son. Manuel Antonio Chaves lost the signet and the historical document was never discovered. But the story, including the brave antics of the Lopez brothers who inherited the Chaves name, continues to live on.


  1. Hello!
    Mis padres son nativos de Valverde de LLerena.
    En la foto antigua de la matanza esta mi Madre y mi Abuela( Con los apellidos Gómez)y n la foto de la matanza en color estan miembros de mi familia pero por poarte de mi padre.
    mi email es

    1. También está la tía Antonia de Los Blazquez, y varios de la familia Dorado.
      Curioso que la foto acabe publicada en una

    2. página de México, bueno la verdad es que son las fotos que tiene colgadas el primo Pepe en la web de Valverde

  2. hola
    me llamo Jose Chavez Gomez mi familia biene de michoacan mexico estoy en el proseso de acumular informasion de mi familia. perdon mi espanol no es muy bueno para escrebir vivo en chicago usa

  3. Thats Very Intresting, I'm From Brazil, Where Chaves/Chavez Family is Also present and by the story you told and my own research about my family i realize its the same famiy. If you want more information please contact me on

  4. AMAZING! There's my grandmother, my mother on center! aunts + uncles!
    How small the internet is... XD

    (yes, and the 2 comments are from my sister & brother)

    Greetings from Spain!

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