The first time crowned princesses and conquistadors with swords strapped to their hips arrived at Breanna Nettie Althaus’ elementary school, she was moved by the pageantry.
“I didn’t really understand it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how pretty it was,” the 16-year-old remembers of her first glimpse of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council’s royal court in kindergarten. “Ever since then, I’ve looked forward to seeing it.”
For years the council has sent men and women dressed up as Spanish soldiers, ministers and princesses to visit local schools leading up to the annual weeklong Fiesta de Santa Fe celebration in early September, encouraging students to participate in the fall festivities.
This year will be different. Though the Fiesta de Santa Fe celebration will still include many long-held community festivities, ranging from the burning of Zozobra to the Children’s Pet Parade on the Plaza, changes are coming to how Fiesta is celebrated both in and out of the classroom.
Critics of some traditional Fiesta events argue that children all over the city have grown up learning an inaccurate side of the city’s history — one that leaves out the blood and violence against Native people that historians stress came with Don Diego de Vargas’ resettlement of the area.
Earlier this month, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education voted 4-1 to limit Santa Fe Fiesta Council visits to classes that study New Mexico History (students in fourth, seventh and ninth grades) and end the practice of the group choosing students to portray Little La Reina and Little Don Diego de Vargas. In addition, the school district will maintain a year-old option for students to “opt-out” if they do not want to participate in the festivities.
This action came not long after the Caballeros de Vargas signed off on ending the Entrada — a religious and controversial re-enactment of De Vargas’ reconquest of Santa Fe in the 1690s that, until now, has occurred each year during Fiesta weekend since 1911.
For youth like Althaus, it’s hard to say how these decisions will affect the next generation.
“I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have, to be honest,” she said. “It’ll satisfy the people who have issues with it as it is, but then it will upset the people who like it. There is no winning in that situation.”
But for others, like 17-year-old Pablo Garcia, these changes are overdue.
“I always wished they weren’t there,” he said of the court’s visits to his school. “I have that perspective that [the conquistadors] came in and they started like ruining the culture of Native Americans. … I thought it was messed up that they were doing that and they were making a festival out of it.”
Santa Fe school board President Steven Carrillo called the decision to limit the council’s appearances in schools a compromise for the community. He understands it might be difficult for some.
“This is an issue that comes before the board every year,” Carrillo said. “What really factored into my decision is that this was a compromise, because there are people in our community, and constituents of mine, that don’t believe Fiestas have any place in the public schools at all, both because of the inaccuracies relative to history and the foundation of religion [coming into the schools].
“There’s always another side to the story,” Carrillo said. “Imagine, if you will, that you’re a 9-year-old African-American boy in fourth grade at Jefferson Davis Elementary School … in Alabama and it’s Confederacy Day. Robert E. Lee is going to ride to the school on a horse, followed by soldiers in a time-appropriate regalia and plantation women in their long, floor-length hoop skirts, and they’re going to parade in your school. How does that make you feel?
“And it’s a harsh way to say it, but that’s what it is for too many people in our community … even non-Native Americans … anyone who has an eye and an ear towards history can be offended by this.”
Santa Fe High School social studies teacher John Morrison said it’s important to put such pageants and celebrations in historical perspective.
“It’s the same issue that you hear with taking down the statutes of Confederate war generals,” Morrison said. “I don’t think they should be taken down; I think they should be kept in context.”
Morrison says that, as New Mexico History teacher, it’s difficult for him to teach that context, however, because the high school curriculum is confined to the 20th century.
He said that the stories behind the Entrada and other traditions related to Fiesta should be included in the curriculum in order to better allow these events to be teaching opportunities.
“We need to use schools and history to better understand the past,” he said. “I also think we need to understand history to understand change, and that’s really what we’re experiencing.”
But it’s a change that might prove difficult for some people, including students accustomed to the traditional sights and sounds of Fiesta.
“I always viewed the Fiestas as a part of our history and culture … and I think that’s why it’s important for it to stay a tradition in the schools. It combines a bit of fun with a lot of history,” Althaus said. “I quite frankly think it would be wrong to change it.
“No matter where you go, everyone has a different version of history,” she added. “I don’t think changing things will ever make peace.”
Carrillo said he hopes that Fiesta de Santa Fe can become “a positive celebration of 400 plus years of Santa Fe, but also a celebration that … recognizes history.”
“I hope that out of this we reconfigure the way we teach New Mexico history,” Carrillo said. “I think the teaching of New Mexico history has to be one where it compels a really honest conversation about everyone’s role in what shaped New Mexico and Santa Fe in particular.”
Wyatte Grantham-Philips, a 2018 Santa Fe High School graduate, will be a freshman at Northwestern University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.