A raucous group of protesters at the Santa Fe Plaza on Friday disrupted the annual re-enactment of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas’ so-called peaceful reconquest of the city in 1692, reigniting a decades-old debate over whether the dramatization omits the harsh reality that Native Americans faced in colonial New Mexico.
“Slay! Slay! Slay like Po’Pay!” nearly three dozen demonstrators chanted, referring to the Ohkay Owingeh religious leader who led the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, as they walked around the historic square amid a large crowd of onlookers.
“When native lands are under attack, what do we do?” organizer Jennifer Marley, 20, of San Ildefonso Pueblo repeatedly yelled into a megaphone.
“Stand up! Fight back!” others in the group responded in unison.
Protesters carried a large banner that read “Abolish the Entrada — The reconquista was not bloodless” and wore T-shirts with “In the spirit of Po’Pay” emblazoned on the front.
At one point, Daniel Rey Diaz de Rodriguez, who played the role of de Vargas, and members of his cuadrilla had to dismount their horses, which were spooked by the megaphone and constant shouting.
Friday’s protest followed a much smaller and quieter demonstration during last year’s staging of the Entrada de Don Diego de Vargas, part of the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe. That protest prompted Mayor Javier Gonzales to call for a more “truthful” narrative of the city’s history. Two city councilors also introduced a resolution calling for a pre-Fiesta symposium on local history, including de Vargas’ role, but that effort quickly fizzled.
Organizers say the Entrada celebrates a moment of peace when de Vargas returned to Santa Fe 12 years after Spanish colonists were driven out of Northern New Mexico during the Pueblo Revolt. The dramatization portrays a bloodless and peaceful encounter with the Natives. But historians and others say the re-enactment, which is organized by the Caballeros de Vargas, a religious-based organization, lacks context. The dramatization, for example, never mentions the threat of force that de Vargas used to reconquer Santa Fe in 1692 or the years of bloodshed and brutality that followed.
Dean Milligan, president of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, downplayed the protest, saying it didn’t faze the actors on the Plaza stage.
“Everything was beautiful,” he said. “We went on with our script. There was no pause in it or nothing. They didn’t bother us at all.”
Dominick Sherwood of Nambe Pueblo, who portrayed Cacique Domingo, the Tesuque Pueblo governor who negotiated with de Vargas for the resettlement of Santa Fe, said he didn’t let the demonstrators distract him.
“I just totally blocked them out of my hearing, out of all my senses,” he said.
Sherwood, 21, said he was aware of the controversy surrounding the Entrada and made changes to the script, the reciting of which protesters and many others in the crowd couldn’t hear. Among the changes, he said, was language indicating the Spaniards had to respect the natives’ religious beliefs.
“I just wanted everybody equal,” he said. “The way I felt, there was some places where one religion was over another, so I just flipped it. I had other people help me, and we made the wording sound to where everybody was equal.”
Alaina White of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, a member of the Po’Pay Pueblo Dancers, was on the stage as protesters yelled.
“Why bring up the past?” she said in an interview later. “It’s not just our race that suffered bloodshed.”
But one of the protesters, Matthew Martinez, also of Ohkay Owingeh, said Native Americans are “a people that honors our past and our ancestors.”
“The past informs who we are today,” he said.
Martinez, an associate professor of Pueblo Indian Studies at Northern New Mexico College in Española, said the protest was successful because it brought attention to an issue that needs to be part of a larger community conversation.
“I understand that there was an initial conversation that happened between the mayor and Tesuque Pueblo,” he said, “but it really needs to go beyond that and in a public setting where there are some informed facts about basic history 101.”
Friday’s demonstration drew mixed reactions from the crowd, from thumbs-up to dirty looks and insults.
Leroy Vigil, a Santa Fe resident who went to the Plaza with his daughter to express opposition to the demonstrators, said they could complain all they want — at their own pueblos.
“This is our town,” Vigil said. “It’s not their town. You had your chance, and you lost it. You’re lucky that what happened back East didn’t happen here. We took your gold, and we gave you religion, and we took your women. That’s why you’re Vigil and Martinez and Gonzales and Gallegos.”
Vigil’s adult daughter, Jamie, told the protesters that the Spanish taught natives how to make jewelry, farm and weave.
Jamie Vigil carried a sign that read “You have Spanish surnames,” prompting a retort from an unidentified man in the crowd. “American slaves had their master’s surnames. I don’t think it was necessarily voluntary,” the man told Jamie Vigil. She responded that Native Americans had the option of changing their names.
Members of the Caballeros de Vargas watched in silence with their hands pressed together as if in prayer. Some in the crowd were angered when the shouting continued as members of the Caballeros carried the Marian statue La Conquistadora, which survived the Pueblo Revolt and was returned to the city with de Vargas.
Local activist Gloria Mendoza yelled “Que viva la fiesta” over the protesters’ chants. She said she believed the protest was organized by “outside people” and that Native Americans in the surrounding area don’t share the protesters’ beliefs.
“I didn’t see any Native American that is sitting under the portal come up and join them,” she said, referring to vendors who sell arts and crafts under the Palace of the Governors portal adjacent to the Plaza.
“We’ve opened our doors to everyone, and for a few people to organize a group of Native Americans to come over here and try to change something that’s been going on for hundreds of years is not fair,” she said.
Before the protest, organizers made it clear they weren’t going to be silenced, though they had agreed with police not to use the megaphone during the dramatization.
“Be as loud as you want,” Melanie Yazzie, co-founder of a group called The Red Nation, told protesters. “This is about us staking our claim in the rightful place where Native people, where Pueblo people belong. This is where they came from.”
Police, who had reached out to the protesters in the days before the event, designated a corner of the Plaza for the demonstration.
But protesters said they were exercising their constitutional rights.
Elena Ortiz, an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo member who has written two widely read opinion pieces criticizing the Entrada, called Santa Fe “Indian land.”
“We are going to claim it today whether they like it or not,” she said. “We can do it peacefully — and we have every intention of doing it peacefully — but we are not going to stop. They’re not going to put us in a corner.”
Yazzie, a Navajo from Arizona, echoed the sentiment.
“We can go wherever we want, especially the Native people who are in this contingent, especially the Pueblo people, so be strong,” she said. “We’re not doing anything wrong. We came here to enact justice, but we’re doing it in the most peaceful, respectful way. In many ways, they don’t deserve the kind of respect we’re giving them, but we’re doing it anyway.”
Eric Martinez, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, said he found the protest disrespectful. “No one can just be peaceful and have a good time,” he said.
Rosina Martinez, 77, who has been going to Fiesta events since she was a young girl, dismissed the protesters, saying they were simply trying to ruin a familial tradition. She said the Fiesta de Santa Fe is a religious celebration that doesn’t disrespect Native Americans but includes them.
“They’re our brothers and sisters,” she said.
Uriel J. Garcia contributed to this report.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.