While the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe has now passed, the dust it always raises never fully settles. As I witnessed the growing voices that gathered in protest, particularly around the ritual of the Entrada — the return of Don Diego de Vargas — that depicts a very particular version of the late 17th-century “reconquest” of the region by Spanish authorities, following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, I recognized both the challenge and opportunity before us.
Contextualizing contemporary Fiesta
Contemporary Fiesta has actually evolved over time, reflecting less accurately the period of history it aims to depict and more the period in which it was invented. Thus, while the original 1712 proclamation called for an annual commemoration “with vespers, mass, sermon and procession through the Main Plaza,” the current Fiesta bears little resemblance to the 18th-century observation.
Today’s Fiesta was invented in 1911, reflecting the then growing national trend of costumed historical vignettes and pageants, and also was driven by the desire to increase tourism to the city. The idea to depict the “reconquest” was the brainchild of Episcopal minister James Mythen. It evolved under the leadership of the founder of the Museum of New Mexico, Edgar Hewett, and others who, upon arriving in Santa Fe, began a gradual reimagining that idealized a mythic past, place and its people at the expense of the actual and profound complexity of the population and their experiences.
At the heart of the protest around Fiesta is the story and how it is being told. The portrayal of a “bloodless” reconquest set in a moment of purported peace, however fails to recognize everything that led to that moment in 1692, as well as everything that followed. Further, like many pageants, the Entrada has been justified in the name of tradition, though it is not actually grounded in the full history and wisdom of the people it allegedly represents. Today’s interpretations must be challenged and re-examined, for they obscure and erase, and harm even those who witness or participate in them, not contributing in any meaningful way to deeper historical understanding.
Part of the dissent of Fiesta also revolves around the vocabulary used — celebration, bloodless, reconquest — language that fails to accurately recognize the contours of colonialism and its effects. Equally as troubling is the stereotypical representation of both Hispanic and Native Americans in which people are depicted as static and frozen in time. These offensive portrayals erase entire cultures, collapse others, and fail to account for the ethnic mixtures resulting from indigenous, European and African cultural convergence in New Mexico history.
Being proud of a cultural and ethnic background is not dependent upon a story of domination. For the Hispanos of New Mexico, there is a wealth of legacy from which to draw that includes great beauty and profound wisdom reflected in centuries of art, literature, agriculture, philosophy and architecture. The imperative before us requires a commitment to recover and transform the colonizing views of these histories, revisiting them, story by story, site by site and event by event. We all have the responsibility to create spaces for Santa Fe’s residents to begin to remember — to pull back the layers and to put ourselves back together again, whole.
Several issues are definitive as we work toward a collective vision for future portrayals of history: Certain interpretations of the past are not defensible and cannot withstand any standard of historical credibility; colonialism was not a positive good for anyone, including both Hispanos and indigenous people and their heirs; and the representation of these people, including the deeply flawed “tri-cultural” framework that has long defined the populations of New Mexico, obscures the complexity and diversity of these historic and contemporary identities.
Charting a path forward
Leading the recent development of city’s cultural plan, “Culture Connects Santa Fe — A Cultural Cartography,” revealed that Santa Feans live in a place where joy and pain coexist, where fractures are so endemic that we seem to accept them as normal. One recommendation that surfaced was “to address tensions that arise from historic trauma and ongoing inequities,” such as those arising from Fiesta. Doing so will require first acknowledgment and then redress, which may come in the form of a retelling.
I am confident we have the creative capacity to reimagine Fiesta to strengthen rather than divide us. No single event or discussion will address the challenge, but instead will require a dedication to process; and developing a framework for meaningful discussions about the past, including how intricately connected people are, in spite of perceived and real fractures.
In the spirit of imagining reconciliation, I propose the following ideas for consideration:
• Establish the Fiesta Reconciliation Commission: Historic trauma is not unique to Santa Fe. Some contemporary communities across the world have worked diligently to identify these harms and transcend them. Places like South Africa, or closer to home, Greensboro, N.C., have created Truth and Reconciliation Commissions comprised of a dedicated group of people who believe that healing is necessary.
• Resolanas de Fiesta: Hispanic communities throughout Northern New Mexico shared information and addressed internal and often long-standing tensions through resolanas (the word literally means a “place where the sun shines through”). This is a potential model for open and transparent dialogue in Santa Fe.
• Gathering stories: While there were many points in Santa Fe’s history punctuated by violence and conflict over the past 300 years, there have also been times of positive convergence and unity reflected in cross cultural marriages, inter-kin networks (comadrazgo and compadrazgo) and friendships. Gathering and disseminating these historic and contemporary testimonies could be profound.
• Tracing the degrees of connection: It is said that there are only six degrees of separation between people, though in spite of the divisions, I believe there are even fewer degrees in a community of our size. The goal of this project would be to chart that connectivity.
• Accentuating ancestry: In spite of more than a century of accentuating false notions that Native American and Hispano communities are homogeneous, they actually share common ancestors. Revealing this genetic connectivity through a community-wide family tree project would function to create new openings for understanding the past.
• Envisioning a future: Invite the public to participate in writing a letter from the future. Envisioning themselves as members of the Fiesta Council in 2021, five years from now, writers can reveal how reconciliation led to a Fiesta that brought the community together.
Because of years of loss and displacement for Hispanic communities in Santa Fe, there is a perception that by changing the “tradition” of the Entrada and its focus on the reconquest, they will once again lose something. Understanding this will be imperative to addressing transformation, likely necessitating a facilitator to work with stakeholders to identify core stories and issues that are inclusive, support building pride and yet still identify a counter narrative that is accurate.
While we have not yet begun to measure the depths of the cultural wounds in our community, I remain confidant that healing is possible. Over the coming months and years, we need to create countless acts that reflect our collective imagination and transformational power to recognize that reconciliation is possible.
A native son of New Mexico, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, Ph.D., is currently a writer and creative consultant. He has held several positions, including senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center and state historian of New Mexico.