Inspired by the river nearby, settlers called the area Atrisco, derived from a Náhuatl word - Albuquerque Journal

Inspired by the river nearby, settlers called the area Atrisco, derived from a Náhuatl word

An Art bus stop at the intersection of Central Avenue and Atrisco Drive SW. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note:

The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

A busy street west of the river takes its name from a settlement that existed before Albuquerque was even an idea.

Atrisco Drive, and the Atrisco Land Grant for which it’s named, are a monument to the first wave of European immigrants to arrive in New Mexico. The grant and the history of its heirs lives on today through the The Atrisco Companies and the Atrisco Heritage Foundation. Albuquerque Public Schools opened a high school on the West Mesa in 2008 and named it Atrisco Heritage in recognition of the area’s settlers.

Atrisco Drive starts at Arenal Road in the South Valley and travels north, breaking as it passes over Interstate 40 and Coors Boulevard, finally ending close to the Petroglyph National Monument. A drive along the road offers a glimpse of modern-day dwellings, but the area was once home to a colony of people who arrived with Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate. These pioneers settled along the western banks of the Rio Grande in 1598 and used the land to farm and raise livestock.

“They were the first non-Native settlers to come to this state,” said Peter Sanchez, chief executive officer of The Atrisco Companies. “They were the original immigrants to come to our lands. This was 10 years prior to English landing on the East Coast. It’s important to understand the beginnings of our state and how people began to come to our state.”

His convoy included mostly Spaniards, but there were also Mexican Indians, Greeks, Africans and Sephardic Jews.

The name Atrisco comes from the Native Náhuatl word “atlixo” or “aixco.” Several possible meanings are attributed to the words, including upon the water, on the water, near the waters and the surface of a body of water.

Some suggest that the settlers named the area after their homeland in the Central Valley of Mexico, which was then New Spain. The meaning or reason for the original name may vary, but what is clear is that the early Atrisco people were influenced by their proximity to the river.

“It’s a Native term about being near the river,” he said. “That name did not exist in Spain at the time.”

These people made their lives there at the behest of Oñate, who traveled to New Mexico to establish small Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande in an effort to claim the territory for the king of Spain. Sanchez said the geography of the South Valley made it an ideal location for a settlement.

“It was the largest grass flatland area from Los Lunas to Bernalillo,” he said. “It was prime property for growing crops and things like that. The west side of river was chosen because of the sun.”

Nearly 100 years later in 1692, Spain granted the colonists a 67,000-acre land grant that spanned from the Rio Puerco in the east to the mesa in the west.

The 1680 Pueblo Revolt had stalled Spanish settlement in the area, but it once again came under control of the Spanish when Don Diego de Vargas succeeded in reoccupying the territory of New Mexico. By 1760, more than 200 people had come to live in what was now known as Villa de Atrisco.

According to The Atrisco Companies’ historical records, today there are 50,000 land grant heirs linked to those first settlers. The way of life started by their ancestors began to die out. The grasslands in the middle Rio Grande Valley were depleted by the early 1900s. The industrial revolution also changed the way Americans labored. Farming was no longer the only industry.

The majority of the Atrisco Land Grant was incorporated into Westland Development Co. Inc. in 1967, and the heirs became stockholders. It was a move rebuffed by many heirs, who could trace their roots in the area back 400 years.

One of those was famed author Rudolfo Anaya, who received the shares from his parents. He criticized the move, saying the ancestors would not want them to sell the land and instead had intended it to be used for the social good of the community and future generations.

“The value of my inheritance as represented by my shares means nothing to the stockbrokers of Wall Street,” he said in a 1967 Albuquerque Journal op-ed piece. “The value of my shares means everything to me. They are a thread I hold to my history. I would not give them up. I will not put my history and culture for sale on Wall Street.”

Ultimately, in 2006, the Atrisco Land Grant landed in the hands of commercial developers. Some heirs still call the South Valley home, living on the land claimed by their ancestors so many years ago, but Albuquerque, Atrisco’s larger neighbor to the east, eventually gobbled it up, bringing with it the pressure for commercial growth and development that is seen there today.

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”


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