SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s a week-long event that draws together generations of northern New Mexico Hispanic residents, some who can trace their roots to the 1600s.
For centuries, northern New Mexico Hispanic residents have held an elaborate festival in Santa Fe to honor Spanish conquistador Don Diego De Vargas, who reclaimed the city following an American Indian revolt. There is music, dancing, a parade and the reenactment of De Vargas’s “peaceful reoccupation” of what is now New Mexico’s capital.
But after 301 years, an emboldened group of Native American activists said it’s time to change a celebration centered on the conquest of New Mexico’s Pueblo tribes. They say the annual Santa Fe Fiesta ignores the horrors inflicted on the indigenous population during the colonial era.
“I would like to see fiesta celebrated as a reconciliation of all the different groups of people who make up Santa Fe today, and less Eurocentric (and) less focus on settler colonialism on conquest,” said Elena Ortiz, of group Spirit of Po’pay that is planning to hold a protest at the event that begins Friday. “We should welcome all community members.”
Hispanic residents say the fiesta is more about honoring their Spanish heritage and paying homage to their Catholic faith. “We’d like to just make it something that’s just peaceful now,” said Santa Fe Fiesta council member Cecilia Tafoya. “I think so many people were hurt both on the Native American and on the Spanish side of it.”
The city has hosted some annual celebrations of Vargas since the early 1700s. According to the story, Vargas came to Santa Fe 12 years after Spanish settlers were forced out due to the Pueblo Revolt. He returned with a wood-carved Virgin Mary known as “La Conquistadora” and negotiated the return of Spanish rule with Native Americans, who sought to keep their villages and some of their traditions.
Members of the Pueblo tribes became Catholic and adopted some Spanish traditions, but some fought against the Spanish rule and later were forced into slavery.
The re-enactment of the entrada, or entry, is the climax of the week-long celebration that also features the burning of a six-foot puppet. The annual burning of Zozobra, a towering figure stuffed with shredded paper, is meant to help drive away the doom and gloom of the previous year.
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales had once served as the entrada’s Vargas. He said he understands concerns from Native Americans who want the event to be more inclusive. “It needs to be told from both perspectives,” said Gonzales, who has met with tribal leaders.
Last year, a group of advocates held a silent protest during the entrada. This year, Ortiz said Native American activists and their allies will hold a similar protest.
The dispute is a similar clash that is being played out across the nation’s most Hispanic state amid pressures to rethink its past.
In 1998, a right foot was mysteriously severed off a statue of 16th-century Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate in Espanola, New Mexico. Next to the vandalized piece of art amid Onate’s fourth centennial was a statement that read: “We took the liberty of removing Onate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sister of Acoma Pueblo.”
The western New Mexico tribe had long blamed conquistador for severing the right feet of 24 captive warriors.
A few years later in El Paso, Texas, another statue of Oñate generated heated debate among Hispanics and Native Americans. That controversy was later captured in the film PBS POV documentary “The Last Conquistador.”
More recently, the University of New Mexico announced it was considering revising its half-century old seal that depicts a rifle-toting frontiersman and a sword-carrying Spanish conquistador. The move came after complaints from Native American students.
And during a July visit to Albuquerque, Mexican-American novelist Sandra Cisneros made national news when she said New Mexico should start a “truth and reconciliation commission” like South Africa to address its history of violence between the state’s Hispanics and Native Americans.
Pedro Romero, an accordion player in Santa Fe Plaza, said he looked forward to the Santa Fe Fiesta every year because of its history and the celebration of Spanish culture. Romero said he didn’t understand why some are planning to protest the event.
“There are things to protest going on right now in modern history that need more attention,” Romero said
Patrick Spencer, a Navajo jeweler who lives in Espanola and sells items at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors, said all the Spanish colonial knight decorations annoy him, but he’s not too offended. “It’s fine, man,” Spencer said. “It’s their thing.”