When the 309th Fiesta de Santa Fe kicks off Friday, let us all breathe a sigh of relief. City residents once more can come together to reflect on their heritage, continuing traditions that have been in place since before they were born.
After 2020, when all Fiesta in-person events had to be canceled, lovers of Santa Fe’s unique tradition are happy to return to a least a semblance of normal.
The Fiesta de Santa Fe, after all, is considered one of the oldest continual community celebrations in the United States. It commemorates the return of Spanish Colonial settlers, led by Don Diego de Vargas, to Santa Fe.
Pushed out of New Mexico by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the colonists lived south of El Paso. As was common in that time, they prayed. De Vargas sent his supplications to God through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, in the form of a small wooden statue. This statue was precious to the exiles; she had been pulled from a burning church during the revolt, saved by the sacristana whose cared for her at risk to her own life.
That same statue, known over the years as Our Lady of the Annunciation, Our Lady of the Rosary, La Conquistadora or Our Lady of the Conquest, and today, Our Lady of Peace, still presides over her chapel at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis.
Every year, regardless of whether carnivals or food booths or parties take place, the descendants of those settlers honor her, just as they have done since 1712 when the original proclamation calling for a fiesta was issued.
In 2021, the mix of religious and community events is more subdued than in past years. Fiesta Council members prudently decided to hold off on two of the more popular events — there is no Pet Parade or Historical/Hysterical Parade in 2021. Worries about overcrowding and danger to unvaccinated children led to cancellation of those events. The decision recognizes the reality of these difficult times.
Over the summer, the series of Masses held in thanksgiving for the return of the settlers once more took place in person. Again, there were adjustments because of the pandemic. The many volunteers had to work extra-hard for the Masses, setting up outside Rosario Chapel in near-darkness so people could take part with less worry about the spread of COVID-19. No processions took place to and from Rosario Chapel — built near where de Vargas is thought to have camped before entering Santa Fe — in yet another nod to the reality of coronavirus times.
And that is how we return to “normal.” Gathering as safely as possible to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly disease, but not giving up completely the traditions that bring us comfort.
To people unfamiliar with Santa Fe, the combination of religious pageantry, pagan Zozobra, Fiesta royalty and old-fashioned fun can be a heady, sometimes confusing mix. Even to those immersed in Fiesta tradition, it can be difficult to acknowledge that Fiesta is ever-changing, with events altering through the decades.
The pageant that featured the return of de Vargas — the controversial La Entrada, eliminated a few years ago — was invented by Anglo community members as a way to make Fiesta more of a tourist draw. Zozobra, the burning marionette, came about because artist Will Shuster thought the religious events around Fiesta were boring.
But at 6 p.m. Thursday, vespers will begin Fiesta de Santa Fe commemorations, with the opening Mass of Fiesta taking place at 6 a.m. Friday outside Rosario Chapel. At La Misa del Pregón, the Fiesta proclamation will be read, prayers will be offered, and the event will be underway — shifting to the Plaza on Friday and through the weekend, ending Sunday evening with the closing ceremonies, a Mass of Thanksgiving and the candlelight procession to the Cross of the Martyrs to honor the 21 Franciscan friars who died in the Pueblo Revolt.
Through the centuries, in different ways, the people of Santa Fe have kept a promise to give thanks for home, community and their ancestors’ endurance in the face of hard times. Today, people also understand that their return is not universally welcomed. To the Pueblo people, whose home this was and is, the return of the settlers was nothing to celebrate.
Yet the brilliance of Santa Fe is that after a fierce revolt and a reconquest, the Native and Hispano people came together to forge a unique New Mexican culture. They learned to live together despite past conflicts.
It is that tradition Santa Fe should always embrace.