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School board votes to limit Fiesta de Santa Fe presentations

August 10, 2018

After hearing nearly three hours of sometimes impassioned public testimony, the Santa Fe school board voted 4-1 late Tuesday to limit the Fiesta Council’s annual visits to public schools, among other measures aimed at responding to complaints about the way local history is depicted during the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe.

The new policy allows people costumed as conquistadors, Franciscan missionaries and other members of each year’s Fiesta Court to visit only those classes that study New Mexico history: fourth, seventh and ninth grades.

The school district also will maintain a year-old “opt-out” option for students who do not wish to attend Fiesta-related events in school. Another change does away with a practice that allowed Fiesta Council members to choose students to portray Little La Reina and Little Don Diego de Vargas.

“It’s a reasonable compromise,” said Superintendent Veronica García, who developed the proposals along with a diversity task force over a period of months.

The move to change the long-standing practice of public school participation in activities leading up to the annual September celebration, which focused largely on Santa Fe’s Hispanic roots, added to recent fissures in the community that have pitted those who see traditional observances as expressions of pride and heritage against some who argue for more inclusion and a broader view of historical events during the Spanish colonization of formerly Indian lands centuries ago.

While school board members spoke of their affection for Fiesta de Santa Fe, some also expressed concerns that the celebration’s strong religious roots might not be appropriate in a public school setting.

Many in the crowd of some 75 people expressed dismay with the new policy. Of 40 people who spoke on the issue, more than 30 either asked the board to reject the proposal or at least table it for another year so more discussion and input could take place.

While approving what they considered a compromise, the board majority agreed that more dialogue will be needed in the coming year.

Many of those who defended the role of the Fiesta Council in the public schools painted it as a tradition that speaks to the strength of the multicultural makeup of the city and honors the region’s past.

Others were clearly drawing lines in the sand in a battle to preserve long-held beliefs and customs in the face of heightened criticism and questions regarding certain events held during the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe.

An annual re-enactment of conquistador Don Diego de Vargas reclaiming Santa Fe in 1692 after Spanish colonists were driven out during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt had drawn vocal protests in recent years from activists who argue the reconquest was anything but peaceful and that de Vargas massacred Native people.

The event’s sponsor, the Caballeros de Vargas, recently announced it will “retire” the annual re-enactment known as the Entrada and replace it with another event.

Elena Ortiz, one of just three speakers who urged the board to keep the Fiesta Council entirely out of the schools, said, “This is not about culture or Hispanic versus Native Americans. It’s not about race. It’s about someone who represents genocide and whether or not we want to teach our children that this is acceptable and this is OK.”

The use of the word “genocide” drew rebukes from several speakers, including school board President Steven Carrillo, who noted that he is Jewish.

Supporters of the school visits said the board should not alter this policy just to please protesters who want current generations to pay for the actions of their ancestors. They said that Fiesta Council members have been visiting the schools for decades in royal costume, performing dances and songs, and encouraging students to attend Fiesta events, but they do not engage in teaching history lessons.

Santa Fean Audrey Trujillo, who said that as a child of the 1970s she experienced Fiesta Council visits to schools, remembered them as “a fun, beautiful cultural experience, a time for pride in our Hispanic heritage. It seems like a few voices are making decisions, and that needs to stop.”

Orlando Baca, who said he grew up in Santa Fe, said those advocating for an end to any Fiesta events in schools overlook the fact that “the Fiesta visits [to schools] are a lesson in community. It’s during Fiesta visits that many of our kids learn that they are part of a bigger community, something bigger than their families, something bigger than their school.”

Emotions ran high during the board meeting. At one point, after speaker Jason Jaime Lucero told the board that many longtime Santa Feans are not ready for any more changes to Fiesta customs, he used his cellphone to play the locally famous Fiesta song and dozens of people in the assembly stood up and began singing and clapping to the tune.

Only a few speakers said the board’s proposal was a fair compromise. At least one man questioned whether the board was courting legal challenges because the Fiesta Council presentations are part of a larger religious ceremony and thus have no place in the public schools — a point board several board members, including Carrillo, echoed later in the evening.

“It is foundationally a religious event,” Carrillo said.

But attendees already feeling pain from the Caballeros de Vargas’ recent decision regarding the Entrada, see the board action’s move as another assault on their history, culture and religion.

“The next move will be to eliminate Fiesta,” said speaker Virgil Vigil.

Their testimony and pleas did little to sway four of the board members. Board Vice President Maureen Cashmon said it’s difficult for the district to continue to host an event “that is hurtful to some of our kids.”

Only board member Rudy Garcia voted against the measure, repeating a comment he made Monday that he supports Fiesta Council visits as long as children are correctly learning New Mexico history.

After the vote, Capital High School teacher Marcos Gallegos told the board that its decision is going to make a lot of people in the community “upset” and that the board should now act to reconfigure how New Mexico history is taught in the schools, including the need to put more time into pre-statehood history lessons. Otherwise, he said, the board’s action will be for nothing.

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