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A changed Fiesta and its promise of peace

August 6, 2018

Fiesta de Santa Fe continues. This year, we trust, without the rancor and protests of the past several commemorations.

Such a hope is possible because the movers and shakers behind Fiesta, leaders in the religious and Native communities, as well as city of Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and former Mayor Javier Gonzales did the hard work of looking for a new way to commemorate the past.

For months, representatives of these groups came together to find a way to honor the perseverance of non-Native settlers without causing pain to the people who were here first. It appears they have succeeded.

Fiesta de Santa Fe, begun as a religious festival back in 1712, pays tribute to the return of the colonials after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Allowed to come back after 12 years in exile, settlers promised always to pay tribute to the patron of Santa Fe, the Virgin Mary, depicted as a 30-inch statue — the much-loved Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of the Conquest or, today, Our Lady of Peace.

The commemoration has grown over the years from the original Masses, sermons, vespers and processions to a communitywide celebration featuring the burning of Zozobra, parades, a party on the Plaza and most controversially, a historical pageant that depicted a peaceful resettlement. While there was a moment of civility in 1692, with the Natives and returning conquistador Don Diego de Vargas sitting down to hot chocolate, the subsequent return of settlers a year later was far from bloodless. The clash of cultures is seldom peaceful. That’s just reality, and the performance of the pageant became increasingly problematic.

To the Pueblo people of today, the pageant was offensive but mostly ignored. Protesters pushed the issue, resulting in a confrontation last year that led to overwhelming police presence on the Plaza, arrests and promise of more unrest to come. The time had come for change, not because violence was likely but because it became clear the pageant was hurtful.

Yet many descendants of those original Spanish settlers — rightly proud of the grit of their ancestors — did not want to give up their way of celebrating. Something had to give.

In a country where conflict and disagreement is ever more commonplace, reaching the agreement announced late last month to discontinue the historical pageant at the heart of controversy was no easy task. Change is hard. All involved deserve praise.

Regis Pecos of Cochiti Pueblo helped direct the conversations, while members of the Caballeros de Vargas, who put together the Entrada every year, had to put the broader community before their own interests. The group’s chief job is honoring and protecting the statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Peace, but presenting the pageant had become a task they took to heart. We should not forget, either, the protesters who refused to be silent; they brought about what will be an important transformation of this historical event.

For the Entrada to be retired, the members of the Caballeros had to agree — and they did, choosing the path of peace and reconciliation. They are promising a new event in its place, one to honor Our Lady of Peace in keeping with the original proclamation establishing Fiesta. After the hard work of agreeing to leave this flawed pageant behind, it might be worthwhile to take a break for a year before deciding what comes next. Meanwhile, Fiesta will continue, with its opening Mass, fun on the Plaza, and most hauntingly on Sunday of Fiesta, the candlelight procession to the Cross of the Martyrs.

Whatever happens, a historical pageant that was more myth than reality has been left behind, as it should have been. The contributions of Spanish settlers still will be remembered in September, as was pledged so long ago.

Importantly, the community at large can gather to pay tribute to the unique New Mexico culture born of this long-ago conflict and reconciliation. What we have in this state is unique — it was not achieved without pain and suffering, but it created a place where different cultures live side by side without bloodshed. That’s an example, not just for the country but for the world.

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