Members of Caballeros de Vargas decked in 17th-century garb — but without the swords and horses — converged on the Plaza for Friday afternoon’s opening of Fiesta de Santa Fe celebrations.
It was a subdued appearance for the group.
For a century, costumed Caballeros rode onto the Plaza on horseback for an annual Fiesta pageant. Known as the Entrada, the dramatization portrayed Spanish conquistadors retaking the city from Pueblo people in 1692, a dozen years after Puebloans had ousted Spanish settlers from the region.
In recent years, the reenactment began to draw protesters who fiercely decried it as an inaccurate portrayal of historical events that downplayed violence against Native people. Organizers, meanwhile, defended it as a long-held Hispanic tradition and demonstration of their Catholic faith. The clash led to the arrests of eight people two years ago amid a protest, prompting the Caballeros to abandon the tradition and rethink its Fiesta presence.
In 2018, the group participated in a celebration of peace and reconciliation on the Plaza.
On Friday, members of the organization quietly held a rope around a makeshift dance arena in front the Palace of the Governors. Inside the square, lined with a few dozen spectators, Pueblo teens put on the show.
The turkey feathers of 14-year-old Jojo Romero’s headdress flapped as he led three other young Native Americans through a dance called the Comanche.
The display was part of a revised Fiesta celebration aimed at showcasing Northern New Mexico’s multiculturalism and honoring people in the community who have worked toward peace, the Caballeros said last month in an announcement of the new event.
Former Tesuque Pueblo Gov. Rick Vigil, who provided an invocation at Friday’s ceremony in his native Tewa language, said groups are looking toward the future “as one family.
“Historically, many of the values of the Hispanic communities are similar to that of our Native way of life,” Vigil told the crowd.
Windsong Tapia, who portrayed the Fiesta’s Native American Princess, said she was eager to participate in the new event.
“When I was invited, I knew I wanted to represent my people and represent my culture,” said Tapia, a member of the Pueblo of Pojoaque. “We were here for a long time, and we’re all part of history. Santa Fe’s culture is with everybody in unity and in peace.”
Elise Elaina Lopez y Leyba, portraying La Reina de la Fiesta de Santa Fe this year, agreed.
“Our culture here in New Mexico is so unique and so different from anywhere else,” she said. “I want to be a part of something that celebrates all the different people that make Santa Fe what it is.”
The Fiesta kickoff began with an opening ceremony with mariachi music and remarks from event organizers and local politicians, including Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber, who helped lead the effort to organize last year’s celebration of reconciliation.
Later, Romero’s young dance group began its performance.
As the drum beat, Romero’s rhythmic screams rose above the voices in the crowd. For nearly half an hour, he bounced up and down the brick street in Native regalia.
“It’s definitely tiring. It’s basically 20 minutes of jumping,” said Romero, a freshman at St. Michael’s High School who first learned Native American dances as a 3-year-old growing up in Pojoaque Pueblo.
“The dance brings our tradition back,” he said. “Here, it brings cultures together.”
Thomas Baca-Gutierrez, president of the Caballeros De Vargas, said following the 2017 arrests, his organization met with the All Pueblos Council of Governors, Webber, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the Fiesta Council to determine how to move the tradition forward.
At the 307th Fiesta de Santa Fe, the group seems to have found a middle ground.
“Someday, we will be known as good ancestors,” Baca said.