While the annual Santa Fe Fiesta has now passed, the dust it always raises never fully settles. As I witnessed the growing voices that gathered in protest over the past few years, particularly around the ritual of the entrada 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
To understand the significance of the controversies associated with Fiesta, it is necessary to look closely at how the historical narrative of the Santa Fe Fiesta has developed over time. Contrary to what many may believe, like any festival, contemporary Fiesta has evolved over time, reflecting less accurately the period of history it aims to depict and more the period in which it is 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. The introduction of the “Spanish Court” into the Fiesta, including a queen, followed in subsequent decades, and the establishment of its present-day parameters paralleled national methodologies used to teach about the past across the nation, in house museums and textbooks, all of which conflated and simplified history.
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 reexamined, 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 people that are 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. The people who lived in that moment at the edge of the 18th century would continue to evolve, their communities and individual lives continually intersecting, sometimes violently, sometimes lovingly.
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 development of the city’s cultural plan, Culture Connects Santa Fe – A Cultural Cartography, last year revealed that Santa Feans live in a place where joy and pain co-exist, 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 that are reflected in some of the components of the annual Fiesta. Doing so will require first acknowledgment and then redress, which may come in the form of a retelling.
Santa Fe has exceedingly difficult challenges ahead—and resolving the tensions around Fiesta is but one—though I choose to see opportunities that acknowledge the community’s contested past and propel us toward a more positive future. Our community’s work will require stamina because this type of work can take generations to navigate and foster. If a “tradition” can be invented in 1911 that celebrates “reconquest,” I am confident we have the creative capacity in our community to reimagine Fiesta to strengthen, rather than divide, us. This work will require an understanding that no single event or discussion will be able to address the challenge. This work requires a dedication to process and a framework or platform 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 Committee: Historical 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. 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 is a process that is continually necessary in a community.
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 some 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, four 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.
In many ways the imperative before us reminds us of our responsibility to each other in the community. More than ever, we need to identify and create countless acts that reflect the collective and transformational power in our communities and that recognize that reconciliation is possible. While we have not even begun to measure the depths of the cultural wounds in our community, mine is a fugitive faith grounded in the strength of Santa Fe, and confident that healing is possible.
A native son of New Mexico with both Hispano and indigenous ancestral connections, Dr. Rael-Gálvez is currently a writer, creative strategist and the founding principal of Creative Strategies 360°, which supports transformative work within communities, governments, universities and cultural-based organizations. Prior to this, he was senior vice president of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center; and State Historian of New Mexico.