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De Vargas brought a better Spanish presence

August 26, 2018

Several views expressed recently about the Spanish return to Santa Fe in 1692 overlook important facts, perhaps deliberately or from shortsighted modernist understandings. They often were very selective, with more than a dash of current political correctness. Popular history now is often full of heart and self-righteousness, but with very selective interpretations.

The movements of history are more complex than some modernists acknowledge. Today’s 19 Pueblo nations in New Mexico and one in Texas, their people and their lands, have been recognized and honored now for generations. Driving the hour between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, you’re mainly in tribal territory — Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Sandia pueblos, plus nearby Cochiti and Santa Ana pueblo land spreads as well.

Pueblo Indian settlement near the Rio Grande began in earnest following the collapse of their ancestral centers to the west (Chaco, Canyon de Chelly, etc.) at around 1150. That migration happened about 400 years before the Spanish turned up in New Mexico.

Following the successful Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Spanish returned in 1692 with a markedly different attitude. Don Diego de Vargas had awakened to some essential human lessons. He realized there was wisdom in respecting and protecting Pueblo spiritual traditions. Kiva practices at Pueblo villages in New Mexico have been continuous ever since that time. Catholicism was still promoted by the Spanish, but Natives could do both. Don Diego de Vargas also honored Pueblo marriages and other Native rights and practices.

Several southern Pueblo villages breathed easier with the Spanish return. Plundering from late-coming Athabaskan Plains tribes (Apache, Comanche, etc.) had increased markedly during the 12 years of Spanish absence. Return of the Spanish presence offered welcome relief from these interlopers. Under de Vargas, Spanish reconquest came with a fresh perspective and the hope that both Spanish and Pueblo people might work for new respect and mutual benefit.

Northern Tewa Pueblos forcefully resisted the Spanish, but armed conflict was largely over by the beginning of the 1700s. Indeed, different people living near each other and honoring traditions across ethnic lines is one of the salient characteristics of New Mexico today and has been for a long time. In the truest sense, this began with the foresight of de Vargas.

These are powerful reasons for respecting his arrival in 1692 as a compelling element of our Fiesta de Santa Fe, America’s most enduring and inclusive community celebration.

Don Diego de Vargas may have been among the first of the Spanish conquistadors in our hemisphere to offer genuine respect for Native faith practices. Returning Spanish still wanted Pueblo people to embrace Roman Catholicism and many did, but it was now fine for Natives to practice their timeless spiritual traditions. Today in all Pueblo villages, you see long-active central kivas in the plaza (as well as a nearby Catholic church).

How disappointing to learn that a sudden modernist history movement just threw the peaceful Entrada out of Fiesta de Santa Fe! In so doing, our Fiesta loses the depth of its soul. I look forward to a day when our well-composed Entrada gentlemen and Our Lady of Peace again have an honored place — and again help make our historical understandings more complete and inclusive.

Tomorrow’s popular history likely will be more considered and inclusive than the present, rather shortsighted modernism. People may open their minds once more, as De Vargas did at a very important moment here in the 17th century.

Richard Polese has been a Santa Fe publisher and author for over three decades. Previously he was editor for the Museum of New Mexico Press and El Palacio Magazine, and served four years on the Santa Fe Public Schools board. Richard helped create the New Mexico Book Association in 1994, supporting our state’s authors, publishers and booksellers.

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