I am a native New Mexican of many generations (my dad used to tell us, “We never crossed the border, the border crossed us.”). Like many native New Mexicans, I am of mixed racial backgrounds; mostly Iberian, but a lot of Native American (primarily Apache) and some English blood.
I am also a proud Santa Fean, having been born and raised here. For this reason, I am disheartened by the annual defacement of the Cross of the Martyrs and the more recent unilateral decision to remove the Don Diego De Vargas statue at Cathedral Park downtown (by the way, no tax dollars were spent by the design, casting and installation of the statue).
All of this, I believe, is part of a greater effort by some to downplay the presence of a large Hispanic population with its distinctive customs, culture and faith expressions. Many Hispanics of Santa Fe regard the removal of the statue in the middle of the night as an effort to erase that very presence of Santa Fe’s majority population.
This is what the statue of De Vargas stands for: the return of Hispanic presence after a deserved thrashing by the Pueblo Indians in the revolt of 1680. I am not making any effort to canonize De Vargas, being responsible for the post-1693 military reconquest of the Pueblos (a process definitely aided by the different Pueblos aligning themselves to De Vargas). By the same token, the leader of the Pueblo revolt, Po’Pay, was not a saint either, responsible during that revolt for the massacre of 400 innocent men, women and children, including 21 priests. As a footnote, Po’Pay ended up being removed as leader of the tribes because of his intractability.
The Hispanic settlers returned in 1693, but in all, they returned humbled by the experience of being expelled from the colony. After the hostilities ended in 1693, an accommodation was slowly realized between the two groups of people; the land rights of the Pueblos were recognized by the Spanish government. The Pueblos then had a remarkable amount of independence. They were also given the right to choose the leaders who were to govern them. Their Native religion was to be honored by the Catholic priests (that is why today you have Native American dances and rituals in honor of the Christian saints — only in New Mexico!).
Both Hispanic and Pueblo Indians benefited from the exchange of cultural items and faith stories. The Hispanics brought livestock, metal working, the wheel, horses and a variety of European dishes. The Pueblos contributed chile, corn (yea) and a deep reverence for the land as Mother.
The result has been a mostly peaceful coexistence that has gone on for centuries. To have mutual respect and reconciliation between two peoples, there has to be at least two parties involved. In New Mexico’s case, this had to be resolved between Native Americans and Hispanics. Even one Pueblo leader recently remarked, “The Spanish were mean to us, but I’m sure happy they discovered us first rather than the Americans.” Make of that quote what you want.
A young boy at his school was asked what Fiestas are all about. He thought for a moment and blurted out, “Fiestas means we’re all here.” That we are all part of Santa Fe as we know it is something that should be celebrated.
So then, what Fiestas means to me is not the conquest of one people by another or the defeat of one people, but the painful birth of what it means to be a New Mexican.