Every autumn during the Fiesta de Santa Fe, men portraying European colonists march onto the Plaza on horseback, re-enacting the so-called peaceful reconquest of the city by Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas, a controversial figure in history who is both honored and reviled.
Every year, the re-enactment and the Fiesta itself ignite consternation and hand-wringing over whether what happened more than 300 years ago should be celebrated at all.
The debate reflects the dilemma that communities, such as those that celebrate Columbus Day, and even states, such as South Carolina, which permanently lowered the Confederate flag from its State House in July, face when commemorating parts of history marked with violence and bloodshed.
The debate resurfaced in Santa Fe this year but took a more vigorous tone, sparking a demonstration on the Plaza during last week’s re-enactment, known as the Entrada, as well as calls from city officials afterward for a more “truthful” narrative of the city’s history. Now, even some former members of the Fiesta court are raising questions about the annual celebration.
A day after the demonstration, Mayor Javier Gonzales, who portrayed the role of de Vargas in 1989, took to social media and urged a more accurate retelling of the Spanish conquistador’s actions.
“As proud as I was to participate in this important community tradition, I do believe it’s time that we be truthful about the actual events that occurred during the resettlement,” Gonzales wrote.
“De Vargas by all accounts was a religious man of peace but force was still used to resettle Santa Fe and the indigenous people were forced to adopt Christianity as their religion,” the mayor wrote. “To imply something other sends the wrong message that the Spaniards were welcomed. We can be honest about what happened, and through truth and respect of historical events, become even more united.”
In his social media posts, the mayor used the hashtag #truthmatters.
The Fiesta de Santa Fe, billed as the oldest continuous community celebration in the United States, marks Don Diego de Vargas’ “bloodless reconquest” of the city in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt 12 years earlier that had killed 400 Spaniards and forced some 2,000 settlers out of the territory. The overt suggestion — and belief among many New Mexicans — is that the settlers were welcomed back with open arms.
“The cry of ‘Viva la Fiesta’ … generates a curious blend of thanksgiving, revelry and pride in the hearts of Santa Feans who celebrate Fiesta annually to commemorate Don Diego De Vargas’ peaceful reoccupation of the City of Holy Faith,” the Santa Fiesta Council, which each year organizes the event, says on its website. Nowhere on the site is it mentioned that following that initial peaceful interlude came years of brutal war, executions and enslavement of Pueblo Indians by the Spaniards. At the same time came uneasy alliances as settlers and Natives worked together to fend off raiding bands of Navajos, Utes and Apaches, as well as pueblos still hostile to the Spaniards.
While historians agree that de Vargas reclaimed the city for the Spanish crown without any bloodshed, he did so, as former state Historian Robert J. Torrez wrote, “utilizing a masterful mix of diplomacy and a not so subtle threat of a siege.”
Author David Roberts writes in The Pueblo Revolt that it was still dark when de Vargas and his contingent of 50 soldiers, 10 armed civilians and 100 Indian allies approached Santa Fe in September 1692.
At first, the Indian sentinels didn’t believe the massed force was made up of Spaniards.
“The sentinels demanded that the intruders blow a bugle, to prove they were Spaniards. Vargas not only had the bugle sounded, but the war drum as well, yet at the same time cautioned his men to hold their fire,” Roberts wrote. “At last the Puebloans believed that genuine Spaniards had come to do them harm. Their response, however, was quite the opposite of the meek submission reenacted in the Fiesta de Santa Fe.”
In his journals, de Vargas wrote, “They replied that they were ready to fight for five days, they had to kill us all.”
Through an interpreter, de Vargas assured the Indians he came in peace and promised pardons, not punishment, for the revolt of 1680.
In her book, Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds, historian Elizabeth A.H. John wrote that the Pueblo Indians “swarmed to Santa Fe’s walls and rooftops to shout their scorn of Vargas’ promises of pardon. They remembered too much of Spanish rule: Apaches hunted down and killed after Spaniards promised them peace; the work of building houses and churches for the Spaniards … the floggings when they did not obey.”
After a stalemate, de Vargas sent four soldiers to block Santa Fe’s only water supply and gave the Indians an hour to surrender, Roberts wrote.
“If they did not,” de Vargas threatened, “I would consume and destroy them by fire and sword, holding nothing back.”
Despite preparing for battle, “slowly the resistance collapsed” and “two unarmed Indians came out and pledged peace of all the Puebloans,” Roberts wrote.
“Late that afternoon, Vargas had a large cross erected in the middle of the Santa Fe plaza. Without firing a shot, the governor had taken Santa Fe. And so far, he could well believe that he had accomplished a bloodless reconquest,” Roberts wrote.
Within months, de Vargas had won the allegiance of 23 pueblos and returned to northern Mexico to gather soldiers and a colonizing party, including settlers who had fled the Rio Grande Valley during the revolt, to return to New Mexico.
Historian and author John Kessell, director of the Vargas Project, which compiled and translated de Vargas’ journals, said de Vargas led an expedition to Santa Fe to see how the Indians would respond. Since the contingent was traveling without women and children, the Indians knew the Spaniards weren’t staying, he said.
“Since the pueblos know that he’s not going to stay this time, they let him go through the whole business of ritually recolonizing. ‘Oh sure, we’ll swear allegiance to the king. Big damn deal.’ But they know he’s not staying,” said Kessell, a professor emeritus of history at The University of New Mexico who is now retired and living in Colorado.
Also working in de Vargas’ advantage is that, unlike during the Pueblo Revolt, the Indians were no longer united, he said.
“Immediately after the Pueblo Revolt, they started squabbling among themselves,” he said. “They’d rather you not know that. But if they had presented a united front, Vargas would have had a hell of a more difficult time recolonizing.”
When de Vargas returned a year later with 100 soldiers, 70 families, at least 18 Franciscan friars and a number of Indian allies, the encounter with the Indians was anything but peaceful.
In fact, “it was bloody as all hell,” Kessell said.
By the time de Vargas arrived in Santa Fe in December 1693, only a handful of Puebloans — including the Zia, San Felipe, Santa Ana and large factions of the Pecos — remained loyal. On Dec. 29, the battle for the city began. The next morning, de Vargas and his Indian allies emerged triumphant. In reprisal, de Vargas ordered every warrior who had fought against the Spaniards — 70 in all — executed by firing squad. The 400 who had surrendered voluntarily, including women and children, were divided up among the colonists and sentenced to 10 years of servitude, according to Kessell and Roberts.
Similar scenes — with similar repercussions — would play out over the next three years as de Vargas and his Indian allies campaigned against recalcitrant pueblos. By December 1696, most had capitulated.
“When they came back with 1,000 people in 1693, that’s really when the pueblos dug in their heels,” Kessell said. “But at the same time, certain pueblos, including Pecos Pueblo, supplied fighters on the Spaniards’ side. So, it’s not black and white. That’s the story I would tell.”
Gilbert Romero, past president of the Fiesta Council, which presents the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, said the event celebrates the moment of peace between de Vargas and the Indians and a promise de Vargas made in 1692 to honor the Virgin Mary every year after he had asked for her help with a peaceful resettling of Santa Fe.
“I understand that there was bloodshed before and after and all that, but that’s not what we celebrate,” he said. “We celebrate peace. The promise made to La Conquistadora is what we celebrate.”
But de Vargas plays a central role in the community celebration.
“The problem becomes divisive when it honors a colonial history of conquistadors who don’t have the best history when it comes to celebrating and honoring the, quote, ‘founders’ of New Mexico,” said Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of the Northern Pueblos Institute and an associate professor of Pueblo Indian Studies at Northern New Mexico College in Española.
“If we’re going to continue to honor de Vargas, there needs to be the complete story,” said Martinez, who was born and raised in the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo north of Española. “It’s just the right thing to do, is to present that context.”
When asked whether any changes to the Fiesta de Santa Fe should be made, Romero said no. “I think this has been a tradition for a long, long time, and I think it should remain,” he said.
Romero said the Entrada, which sparked last week’s demonstration, is sponsored by the Caballeros DeVargas.
Manuel Garcia, who is in charge of the re-enactment, did not return several messages seeking comment.
David Ortiz, president of the Fiesta Council, said the group doesn’t have any control of the Entrada script. “All the activities during Fiesta will continue as they always have been,” he said.
City Councilor Joseph Maestas suggested that now may be a good time for the city historian, Ana Pacheco, to meet with the Fiesta Council “and review the re-enactments, such as the Entrada, to ensure that it is respectful and accurate.”
“I can’t tell you what changes need to be made,” Maestas said. “But if we’re overemphasizing a certain aspect of history and glossing over another part of history, then I think we should look at making some changes.”
Maestas said he was serving on the Española City Council when the right foot of a bronze statue of Don Juan de Oñate, the first European colonizer of New Mexico, was sawed off and stolen in 1998 as the state was celebrating the 400th anniversary of his arrival here. A letter sent to newspaper columnists claiming responsibility for the vandalism said the damage was inflicted “on behalf of our brothers and sisters at Acoma Pueblo.” Oñate is believed to have ordered Spanish troops to cut off the foot of dozens of Acoma men and the enslavement of many others after an uprising there.
The vandalism was not isolated. Statues of conquistadors installed in Santa Fe over the years have been spray-painted with epitaphs such as “murderer” and “killer.”
“I think that’s a clear indication that there’s some very sensitive emotions about celebrating or recognizing the conquest of Northern New Mexico by the Spaniards,” Maestas said.
Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, who portrayed de Vargas in 2000, said “there’s been a demonstration in some form or fashion” at the Fiesta for many years. In 2000, he said, a line of Native Americans stood in front of the stage during the Entrada.
“They just stood there,” he said. “It’s a pretty overwhelming kind of feeling. It’s even intimidating to some degree.”
In 1977, the state’s 19 Indian pueblos boycotted the Fiesta after the Fiesta Council president at the time, Gilbert Valdez, penned a letter asking Indian vendors not to appear at the event. According to published reports, the letter led Indian leaders to denunciate the Fiesta theme: the 1692 reconquest of de Vargas.
Pacheco, who traces her family tree back to de Vargas, said the Fiesta Council could consider including, possibly through lectures, “some kind of an educational aspect … about the bad treatment of the Indians.”
“But the actual re-enactment? What would you do?” she asked. “Would you have somebody pretending to cut off an Indian’s leg or something?”
Pacheco said it’s unfair that Spaniards take the brunt of the blame for the wrongs of the past.
“It pisses me off,” she said. “It’s always the Spaniards. ‘They’re so bad. They’re so bad.’ Is anyone trying to get Andrew Jackson off the twenty-dollar bill?”
Jessica Montoya, who helped organize last week’s demonstration during the Entrada, said the reaction has been mostly positive, though it has also triggered some “laughable and emotional” backlash from members of the Fiesta Council and former Fiesta royalty.
“I knew what was coming prior to our peaceful action,” said Montoya, who served as a Spanish princessa in 2008 after an unsuccessful bid for the role of Fiesta queen.
“What people don’t know is that I was actually brought to my faith through my experiences,” said Montoya, who identifies herself as mestiza Chicana. “Our hope is the results will continue to be one of adding to this tradition with truth at the front.”
Montoya shared on Facebook a “Reader View” published in The New Mexican that had been written by Elena Ortiz, a member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Ortiz called the Fiesta “a racist celebration that insults all indigenous people.” Former Fiesta queen Monica Padilla commented on the post, “Wow I think this is stupid.”
“You think that Native Americans who are offended by this celebration of slaughter is stupid?” asked another commenter, Alex Braun.
“I said this was stupid because the person who reposted this was part of the fiesta celebration for many years and now has an offense to this,” wrote Padilla, who served as La Reina in 2002.
“The facts being based on ignorance,” added Padilla, whose maiden name is Gallegos. “No one knows what happened years ago first hand and it is all about hearsay. The fact that anyone would believe that there was no bloodshed is naive. The actual celebration is about peace and the end of the bloodshed.”
Romero, the former Fiesta Council president, said he was “disappointed” by the demonstration, especially because some of the organizers “are our own Hispanic people who live here in Santa Fe.”
“If we’re celebrating peace, why bring war back?” he said.
For Martinez, director of the Northern Pueblos Institute, the issue is about presenting a more complete picture of the region’s storied history.
“These were people that, in their eyes, might have had some of the best intentions,” he said, referring to European colonists such as Oñate and de Vargas.
“But there’s a lot of violence and historical atrocities that happened that I think need to be acknowledged if we’re really thinking about honoring and presenting a holistic picture of who we are.”
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.