A long-running annual pageant recalling the 1692 retaking of Santa Fe by Spanish conquistadors spurred raucous, roving protests Friday that wound through downtown streets and resulted in at least eight arrests.
The clash over the Entrada, anticipated amid heightened racial and ethnic tensions nationally, pushed a simmering conflict over Santa Fe’s own legacy of colonialism to a new level. Coming after city leaders had appealed for reconciliation between organizers of the Fiesta de Santa Fe and Native American activists, the fracas that unfolded on and around the Santa Fe Plaza seemed a big step back from diffusing a controversy at the heart of the community’s very identity.
Organizers of the dramatization moved back the scheduled start time to noon from 2 p.m. in a last-minute shift designed to avoid a protest that threatened to disrupt the event for at least the second year in a row. The time change was announced just 30 minutes before the costumed re-enactment started at noon.
Protester Elena Ortiz, a member of the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo north of Española, called members of Los Caballeros de Vargas, which puts on the annual re-enactment, spineless for moving the event up by two hours with little notice.
“It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Los Caballeros and the Fiesta Council are deathly afraid of us,” she said. “They had to do this behind closed doors in the dead of night. They’re cowards, and they’re liars just like their ancestors.”
Manuel Garcia, president of Los Caballeros, said the group had considered a time change, as well as a different location, since the planning stages of this year’s Entrada, but decided Friday morning to hold the event at noon.
“We do not want anyone getting hurt at 2 p.m., and we made this conscious decision based on our feelings toward the community and the people here enjoying the fiestas,” he said just before 11:30 a.m. “The Entrada is about one day in peace in the year of 1692, and we want every year of the fiestas to be about peace, and this is why we made the decision to move the Entrada to 12 [noon].”
At least two sources told The New Mexican that the decision to change the start time had been made days earlier.
“That was always an option, and today we acted on that option,” Garcia said afterward.
At noon, a lone protester — Lee Moquino — stood before the stage wearing an Indian headdress.
“You do not represent me!” Moquino, 32, screamed with his fist in the air as the Rev. Adam Lee Ortega y Ortiz, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, delivered an opening blessing. “You’re wrong, Father Adam!”
As the dramatization unfolded, Moquino’s cries could be heard from a block away and more and more protesters filed into the front of the fenced-off stage, yelling “abolish the Entrada” and “no pride in genocide.”
“I knew I had to take action until everyone else showed up,” Moquino, a Santa Clara and Zia Pueblo Indian, said afterward.
The protests were met by others in the audience with occasional shouts of “Viva La Fiesta!” or “Viva Los Caballeros de Vargas!”
As the event began around noon, the tense scene at the front of the bandstand contrasted sharply with the lunch hour routine playing out on the other end of the Plaza. Workers from downtown offices along with a stream of tourists sat on the grass and park benches eating burritos, Navajo tacos and other food from vending booths.
Jason Garcia, an artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, watched from afar. He said the pageant seemed different this year. He noted the caballeros did not ride in on horseback this year and were not wearing armor.
“It’s evolving, and that’s Santa Fe,” Garcia said.
But to Alex Lewis, who is Diné, the Entrada is very much a celebration of genocide.
“All we want is truth,” he said.
As the crowd of protesters grew after the dramatization ended, police asked demonstrators to move out of their location in front of the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza to a designated “free speech zone” on the northeast corner of the Plaza.
“The permit holder has asked us to ask you to move to the designated free speech zone for the safety of families and elderly persons that are attending the festival,” police Capt. Adam Gallegos told the protesters repeatedly. The permit holder for the event is the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, the nonprofit that organizes the annual celebration.
Protesters initially held their ground and instead decided to sit down on the street and refuse to move.
But about an hour and a half after the start of the Entrada, a small army of police officers successfully moved the group outside the Plaza behind metal barricades, blocking access to the Plaza from East Palace Avenue. Police riot helmets were laying nearby on the ground, and at least four police officers kept an eye on the group from nearby rooftops.
As more protesters joined the demonstration, the crowd marched up Washington Avenue and across Marcy Street to Lincoln Avenue in front of City Hall. The protest then moved back to the “free speech zone,” where weary protesters continued to chant.
Watching the re-enactment on the Plaza, Mayor Javier Gonzales reflected on how the public perception of the annual event has shifted since he portrayed Don Diego de Vargas in 1989.
“We grew up viewing Fiestas, and even the people who portrayed DeVargas, as a part of a celebration of the community and a religious celebration of the community and the religious part of our city’s history,” Gonzales said. “There was nothing as I was growing up — and I don’t believe even today — that was all about, ‘Hey you have to participate in this because this shows how we came and we conquered.’ It was never any of that. I think it was really just about community participation and celebration.”
But Gonzales said younger generations have changed the conversation surrounding the event, and he encouraged the community to have an honest discussion about any wounds created from the re-enactment.
Gonzales said he has had conversations with the event organizers over the past few weeks, and they communicated to him that the re-enactment is meant to highlight a moment in history “of peaceful resettlement and the fact that DeVargas was a very religious man.”
Asked if he agreed with protesters’ chants in the background, calling for the Entrada to be abolished, Gonzales demurred.
“Certainly it’s not for me to decide,” Gonzales said. “But as long as I’m mayor, I’m going to push for dialogue so that that conversation and what it looks like in the future is held by all parties.”
Gonzales struck a similarly conciliatory tone last year, but protest organizers argued the promises of dialogue were empty.
“What the mayor said last year was [expletive],” Elena Ortiz said.
Garcia, the Caballeros president, said he hopes the protests will cease. When asked whether there was a way to do the Entrada in a way that isn’t offensive to protesters, he said, “I believe the only way to do an Entrada that the protesters [don’t find offensive] is if they are wiling to meet and have a discussion. That is the only thing I can come up with as far as having a less disruptive Entrada.”
Garcia said his plan moving forward is to meet with members of Native American communities and “have the discussions with the Native American communities, not the protesters that only represent a fraction of those communities.”
Garcia also said he was sorry for moving the time of the Entrada at the 11th hour.
“Having made the decision to move the Entrada to noon was a very difficult decision on my part,” he said. “I take full responsibility. … The reason it was so hard for me is we put on the Entrada for many, many of the community members who were not able to be here and see it today.”
Justin Horwath contributed to this report.