Can one of America's earliest civic celebrations reckon with its violent colonial roots?
Each September in downtown Santa Fe, a young man dons a silver helmet with a curling feather, and a gold-trimmed black velvet cape. Dressed as Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas and accompanied by his cuadrilla, he approaches a man playing the role of a Pueblo Indian cacique as the two reenact the Spanish reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692.
This entrada, as it’s known, is the culmination of Fiestas de Santa Fe, a week of festivities honoring the history of one of America’s oldest cities. In a city conquered twice—first by Spanish conquistadores, then by the U.S. Army—the memory is a fraught endeavor. This year, the voices of Don Diego and the cacique competed with the voices of about fifty protesters, calling for an end to the ceremony.
According to the Fiesta council, the entrada is a historically accurate representation of Spain’s bloodless annexation of Santa Fe in 1692. It is true that in 1692 Don Diego and his men reached Santa Fe from Guadalupe del Norte (now Juarez, Mexico), after they had been driven out by the Pueblo people 12 years earlier. That encounter was indeed peaceful. But one year later, when the Spanish came to stay, the Pueblo inhabitants denied them entry to the city. After days of fighting, the Spanish asserted their victory by executing at least 70 people.
As Fiesta commenced last week, reckoning with history remained complex and uncomfortable. Over the years, the celebration has become a rich and meaningful one for the New Mexican Hispano ethnic identity. At the same time, it’s also a point of pain for some in state’s Native American community, who accuse the Fiesta of glossing over the brutality of the past in favor of a simpler, sweeter version of the city’s origin story.
“There are real, material consequences to the celebration of the Fiestas and to upholding a false narrative,” says Jennifer Marley of San Ildefonso Pueblo, leader of the indigenous liberation coalition The Red Nation, which organized this year’s protests against Fiesta. “Those material conditions are seen in almost every native community. That’s where you see the high suicide rates, the impoverishment, the drug and alcohol problems. And this is due to a really gruesome history of double colonization” by Spain and the United States.
Of course, tradition is resistant to change, and that’s no different in Santa Fe. Fiesta first began in 1712 with a proclamation from the Spanish governor of the province of Nueva México, calling for an annual religious ceremony honoring the events 20 years prior.
Today’s festivities, however, find their roots in the 20th century. The original ceremonies had lapsed by 1760, and were revived first in 1912, and as an annual event in 1919. This came as part of a national movement in American cities to invent tradition through historical pageants. The movement’s aim was to use—and sometimes fabricate—history “to create social cohesion and a sense that cultures and communities were stable and continuous in the face of the very rapid urbanization and social changes” of the time, says professor Chris Wilson, a historian at the University of New Mexico.
Recognizing the tension over the celebrations, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzalez last year encouraged indigenous leaders to meet with the groups that organize Fiesta so they can find a resolution. That hasn’t happened yet.
Gonzalez’s appeal came after about 20 people protested the entrada, standing with tape over their mouths to represent the silencing of the Native voice. They held signs listing the numbers of Pueblo people killed by the conquistadors, or quoting Don Diego’s less peaceful words—one read “I would consume and destroy them all by fire or sword, holding nothing back.”
“We never wanted Fiesta to end,” says Jessica Montoya, who led last year’s protest and served as a princesa on Don Diego’s royal court in 2008. What they were asking for was a revision of the festival to more thoroughly acknowledge the violence enacted by the Spanish, and emphasize reconciliation. That request was inspired, she says, by Pope Francis’s plea for forgiveness from indigenous people oppressed by the Catholic Church.
An opening speech at Friday’s entrada included a slight nod to that effect, with a call for unity and acknowledgment of the history of oppression against the Pueblo Indians.
Gonzalez, who held a starring role in the festival in 1989 when he portrayed Don Diego, says he hesitates at the prospect of changing the traditions. Instead, he has proposed a permanent “Indigenous Peoples Day,” which would fall on Columbus Day.
“I want to be careful with the word ‘change,’” he says. “It’s not an opportunity to change so much as to broaden.” To him, the narrative of the entrada and Don Diego’s unfulfilled prayer for a peaceful reconquest “tells of a gentleman who was very religious, who was very worried about the conflict, who struggled with questions like ‘When do I use force? Can I do this without using force? What is our community going to look like afterwards?’”
But the tradition has changed before. In 1919, Fiesta was a 3-day event with each day devoted to one of the cultures of New Mexico’s celebrated—and contested—“tricultural community:” Pueblo, Spanish-American, and Anglo.
The Pueblo Indians who took part never looked fondly upon filling the role of those conquered by the Spanish, Wilson says. As an alternative, they developed an Indian market, and by the mid-1920s there ceased to be a Pueblo day in the Fiesta. The Anglo-American day, which commemorated the U.S. Army occupation of Santa Fe in 1846, “raised unsettling questions about the alienation of land grabs, and the imposition of U.S. authority,” Wilson says. “And besides, the romantic Anglos who had moved to Santa Fe wanted to be in a historic town. They didn’t want the presence of Anglos to be celebrated. So that Anglo-American day, also, by the mid-twenties fell away, which left the Spanish commemoration as the sole episode.”
Both Marley and Montoya, whose families have lived in New Mexico as far back as they can trace, question the identity politics at play in the celebration of Hispano heritage. “You see a lot of people who will deny their very recent roots in the pueblos for the sake of celebrating their Hispanic identity,” Marley says.
Elena Ortiz, leader of this year’s protest, says she believes that the rigidity of Fiesta’s defenders is tied to the larger wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. “It is evidence of a larger racism in this town against immigrant families by Old Santa Fe Spanish,” she says, a way of drawing distinctions between New Mexican Hispanos and Spanish-speaking immigrants from farther south.
Ortiz, whose father is from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, has been protesting Fiesta for more than 30 years. She has written letter after letter, sent her daughter to school in a Pueblo Revolution shirt, and filed a lawsuit with the ACLU against the use of public funds for a religious event. The mention of The Red Nation brings a thrill to her voice. “They’re young, they’re passionate, they’re angry—and they’re gonna make some noise. And I will stay out of their way.”
“For me, it’s been 30 years of poking the bear,” Ortiz says. “They’re comin’ right out, and they’re gonna get that bear.”