Culture, Memory and Change |

Culture, Memory and Change |


“People shape the representations of the past.”

So writes cultural anthropologist and former New Mexico State Historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez in his 2017 project, Decolonizing New Mexico: Remembering, Reimagining and Recovering, conceived as an effort to “understand and address the various manifestations of historic trauma that have continued to divide the community of Santa Fe.”

Fiesta—and its associated celebration of the conquest and “peaceful reoccupation” of Santa Fe by Don Diego De Vargas—has been a point of contention in town for decades. Even a brief cruise through local social media groups demonstrates that strain, and illustrates that there are as many perceptions of the celebration’s meaning and implications for personal, historical and religious identities as there are Santa Feans. (For the record, I’m a born-here-all-my-life Santa Fean, but as a guera, Fiesta has never been a big part of my life.)

It’s been four years since the Entrada was abolished—or “lost,” depending on who you ask. If people shape representations of the past, how is Fiesta being shaped today? And who is doing the shaping?

SFR sat down with some Santafesinas who will celebrate—and some who won’t—to tell their stories, largely in their own words. (Fiesta officially opens with the 6 am Pregón de la Fiesta at Rosario Chapel on Friday, Sept. 9.)

* * *

Nicolasa Chávez is a 14th-generation New Mexican and the deputy state historian since 2021. Her great uncle, Fray Angélico Chávez, was also a historian, artist and poet, and was responsible for “one of the earliest genealogical studies of all the Spanish names in New Mexico,” Chávez says.

The New Mexican history of the Spanish side of her family can be traced back to 1598, when the Chávezes arrived with Don Juan de Oñate on orders from King Philip II to colonize the northern frontier of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and spread Roman Catholicism by establishing new missions, and to 1693 when the Roybal side arrived with De Vargas’ reconquest.

But Chávez doesn’t believe in the narrative of “pure Spanish blood” in New Mexico, or even in Spain.

“I feel there’s no such thing as a pure-blood Spaniard, because what does that even mean?” Chávez says. “Do you have Muslim ancestors, Jewish, Celtic?”

Chávez herself has more Celtic blood than anything else through the Roybal side of her family, which came from Galicia, Spain, as she discovered after taking a DNA test.

The Spanish kept detailed records of marriages, deaths and baptisms, which allow her family to trace their background to Spain—but Chávez identifies primarily as a New Mexican.

“Growing up, people would always say, ‘Well, are you Spanish or Mexican?’” Chávez says. “I would always reply, ‘I’m New Mexican.’ We have been here for all this time, along with the Pueblo and Native American communities here.”

It’s a complex identity that isn’t necessarily defined by your ancestry, she says.

“There’s a lot of things that come into play in identifying as a New Mexican,” she says. “To me, it’s very much a cultural thing, more so than your bloodline. I come from 14 generations of the original Spanish families that settled here, but over the centuries we have become New Mexican.”

Anyone who lives here knows there’s a fierce debate over what qualifies a “local.” For Chávez, it’s chile.

“Any New Mexican that goes back to Spain, the first thing you notice is there’s no chile—their idea of spice is garlic,” she laughs, recalling the first time she visited Spain with her father.

“We were there for 10 months. When we came home, my mother picked us up at the airport and the first thing she says is, ‘Where do you guys want to eat?’ And we’re like, ‘We wanna go to Garduños, we wanna go to Papa Felipe’s. We want New Mexican food.’”

Chávez grew up attending Fiesta, and one of her great aunts—now in her 90s—always threw a huge party.

“Two hundred people would come,” Chávez says. “We’re talking every walk of life—people would show up in their Fiesta dresses; a friend from Hopi Pueblo would come in full-on Hopi regalia. Fiesta was a time when everybody came out and showed pride in their heritage and cultures. The divide we really are seeing these past few years, I didn’t have that in my family growing up.”

She feels grateful that her family was inclusive, but recognizes this isn’t characteristic of New Mexico history.

“When the Oñate statue had the foot cut off, I think that was a big instigator: We’re not telling the full history,” she says. “But I feel like people will relate Oñate to every Spanish family. If you read the history, two-thirds of the colonists left because he was so evil and brutal. He was horrible to his own people, and to Native Americans. He was not a good leader.”

She sees Fiesta as an opportunity to show pride in multiculturalism.

“We know there are many cultures within the Native American tradition, there are many cultures within the Anglo tradition, and the same with the Spanish and Mexican traditions. I grew up with Fiesta being this really fun time of year because you got to experience all these different things.”

Chávez has a special interest in the arts, particularly Spanish Flamenco and Argentine Tango. She sees the way art is typically delineated—See: Santa Fe’s three famous summer arts markets—as a reflection of the oversimplification of identity.

“Art tends to be categorized as Native American, Spanish, contemporary…but there’s a lot of crossbreeding. What’s referred to as Spanish colonial art, the traditions and the heritage may have come from Spain, but they changed when they came here. The Spanish learned natural, local dyes from Native Americans. I feel that anything that is New Mexican heritage has that beautiful cross-cultural blending.”

“My two loves are dance and history,” Chávez says. “I grew up dancing and went into Flamenco at age 11 with Vicente Romero, who is like Santa Fe’s godfather of Flamenco.”

She developed an interest in the gender frameworks expressed in Flamenco and Tango.

“[Tango songs] always blame the woman: She left you, she did evil, ran off with another guy—real tragic songs.”

But the tangueras of the early 20th-century pushed against that. Chávez recalls one song, where a woman describes herself as a milonguera—one who frequents the dance halls.

“She sings, ‘I’m free. Nothing’s ever gonna tie me down. I won’t be la cincha del amor—I’ll never be held down by love.’”

* * *

Elena Ortiz is an Ohkay Owingeh tribal member who grew up in Santa Fe, where she still lives. She’s a member of The Red Nation, an Indigenous activist coalition, and was integral in getting the Entrada—the Fiesta pageant that depicts De Vargas’ reconquest of Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt—”put to rest.”

For Ortiz, Santa Fe Fiesta is an annual reminder of the hypocrisy of a city that “prides itself on being liberal, inclusive and diverse,” while perpetuating a celebration of the erasure of Indigenous people, their voices and histories.

“We call this place O’gah Po’geh Owingeh,” she says. “I’ve started referring to it as ‘Mordor,’ if I’m being facetious, because this is the center of all evil in Northern New Mexico. Santa Fe promotes, protects and encourages the racism and the vitriol that we see come out when Native people stand up for issues like the Fiestas, the Fiesta Court, the school visits and the Entrada, which basically celebrates genocide.”

Growing up, the only part of Fiesta her family participated in was Zozobra. Her first encounter with the Fiesta Court came when she was in elementary school at Acequia Madre.

“I was terrified of them,” she says. “I went home and I told my parents about it, and my mother was appalled. My father took me aside and said, ‘This is not something that we celebrate. This is not part of your culture.’”

He never forbade Ortiz from celebrating Fiesta, but as she grew older and learned more about it, she made her own decision. In 1980, when Ortiz was in high school, Ohkay Owingeh celebrated the Pueblo Revolt Tricentennial.

“That’s when I really learned the history of the Pueblo Revolt and Po’pay,” Ortiz says, “and that’s when I started advocating for the removal of—well, back then, it was the entire Fiestas.”

Having kids rekindled her opposition, and she and her daughter worked to abolish the Entrada and get the Plaza obelisk removed. She was on stage June 18, 2020 with the Three Sisters Collective when Mayor Alan Webber promised to remove the Plaza and Kit Carson obelisks.

“He lied,” Ortiz says. “We’ve been lied to for 500 years.”

She sees the city’s handling of the removal of the Plaza obelisk as symbolic:

“Whitewashing something is not solving the problem, it’s covering it up. And that’s what Santa Fe does—it’s nowhere more evident than in the fact that they have a cardboard box around where the obelisk used to be.”

Oritz was also on stage when demonstrators tore the obelisk down on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2020.

As for Fiesta, even though the Entrada has not been performed publicly since 2017 and the Fiesta Council has added the names of area Pueblos to the Spanish family crests it hangs on the public square for the event, Ortiz sees no change in the narrative.

“They’re still celebrating the conquest of Pueblo people,” she says. “It’s an insult to Native people, to those who struggled with these issues growing up in Santa Fe, who struggled with the racism that’s endemic in the schools, who struggled, like I did, like my kids did, with feeling marginalized and erased—as people, our history, our culture.”

As long as the symbols of La Conquistadora and De Vargas are part of Fiesta, it will never be inclusive, Ortiz says.

“They bring out La Conquistadora and thank her for allowing them to conquer and murder people,” Ortiz says. “They call her nuestra señora de la paz, which means our lady of peace. I speak Spanish, and I know La Conquistadora does not translate as peaceful.”

For Fiesta to truly become a celebration of all the people and cultures of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico, she says, “we need to remove this elevation of conquest. It does matter who and what we celebrate. If we don’t remove those things, it’s still celebrating conquest and excluding the original inhabitants and rightful caretakers of this land.”

For these reasons, Ortiz doesn’t celebrate Fiesta.

“What I do celebrate,” she says, “is that we are coming into harvest season. Celebrations in the Pueblos are all about giving thanks to the earth and giving thanks to the sun and the rains and the corn. And that’s really what we should be celebrating—life, and what gives life and not what brought death.”

Ortiz declined to be photographed for this story.

* * *

Jessica Lucero-Muñiz served as Santa Fe Fiesta Queen in 2006. Her family name—Lucero—originated with the Lucero De Godoy clan, who first arrived in New Mexico in the 1600s with Pedro Lucero de Godoy, a military leader of Spanish troops in New Mexico.

“He and his family cultivated the land,” Lucero-Muñiz says. “They spoke the Tewa languages and assisted the Pueblo Native Americans in defense against Apache raiding tribes.”

Her family is steeped in the traditions of Fiesta.

“When the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 occurred,” she says, “Josefa López Sambrano was the sacristana in the old parochia, which is the Cathedral now. She is responsible for obtaining the oldest Marian image—La Conquistadora—rescuing her from the burning buildings and fleeing to El Paso del Norte.”

When the Spanish returned under De Vargas, her ancestor, Juan de Dios Lucero de Godoy, was El capitán segundo—the second captain under De Vargas’ campaign.

“They brought back Our Lady,” Lucero-Muñiz says. “So every year when the new De Vargas is selected and representatives of the Cuadrilla are portrayed, the Lucero name is always represented.”

This year, her husband, Antonio Muñiz, is portraying El capitán segundo, a figure in De Vargas’ entourage, known as the Cuadrilla. It’s important to Lucero-Muñiz that he carries on the family’s involvement in Fiesta.

She sees La Conquistadora as a symbol of unity.

“I truly believe that the Native American and Spanish cultures integrated,” she says. “We know that our great-great grandmother came from Bernalillo and spoke the Tewa language. That, I think, is the beauty of how we’ve grown in the culture and uniqueness of New Mexico.”

Her uncle, Rudy Rivera, was president of the Caballeros De Vargas in the 1980s, and her aunt, Mary Louise Lucero-Rivera, was president of La Sociedad Folklorica. When her aunt died, her father, Henry Lucero, became deeply involved with the Caballeros De Vargas and also served as president.

Lucero-Muñiz wanted to be Fiesta Queen since she was a little girl. When she decided to run, she had to prepare a speech in Spanish and English. Hers was about faith:

“My first experience observing the faith that Don Diego had, but from my own eyes, was when I went with my father and Don Pedro Ribera Ortega to take the traveling image of La Conquistadora to Vadito as a young girl, to a morada, which is a small chapel made by the Penitentes. We had a minivan, and we had the image of Our Lady with us. I was just speechless that I had the opportunity to actually sit next to the image.”

She speaks of her time as Fiesta Queen as transformative.

“I think fulfilling the role of the Santa Fe Fiesta Queen is a beautiful opportunity to inspire the youth to continue to preserve the culture,” she says. “It’s an important story to tell, because if we don’t tell our history, we really have no future.”

That history, she says, is “painful.”

“There is this perception that Don Diego De Vargas was responsible for atrocities,” Lucero-Muñiz says. “We can see from my family’s lineage that we lived together in peace and harmony, supporting each other during raids, during times of famine, loving our neighbors as ourselves regardless of race, creed or religion.”

Lucero-Muñiz sees that tension reflected in the removal of monuments, including the statue of De Vargas from Cathedral Park.

“I do have a strong discontent over what Mayor Webber did to remove the statue of De Vargas,” she says. “There was no communication at the time with the Caballeros de Vargas, and there’s been no action to put that statue back. It’s demonized, and it’s very hurtful to the Spanish-surname families to be categorized in 2022 in the same misconception.”

She says: “It’s heartbreaking to know that statue is unaccounted for and it was just removed in the middle of the night—it should be returned to the Caballeros De Vargas for proper placement in the New Mexico History Museum.”

She also sees the discontinuation of the Entrada as a “loss.” In 2006, her father played the role of the cacique, the Indigenous leader who “welcomes” De Vargas in the pageant.

“That’s the story of how the peace was formed, and I think that that story still needs to be told.”

Lucero-Muñiz sees Fiesta as a time of camaraderie.

“Fiestas brings a sense of pride in community, but also preserving the promise that was made 310 years ago,” she says. “Being in the Fiesta Queen role was really special—going to the schools, to the nursing homes. That is so powerful—we bring Fiestas to them.”

She and her siblings have connections to the narrative of Fiesta through the Catholic Church. Her sister is the archivist for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and her brother sews outfits for La Conquistadora.

“The Lucero name holds great pride for me, especially because it’s so very close to the preservation of Our Lady of Peace,” Lucero-Muñiz says. “The name itself means light—the morning star, the first light you see at dawn. When they put an outfit on her that’s made by my brother, there’s a different sense of light. Maybe it’s in my eyes, but I know that’s the Lucero light.”

* * *

Deborah Rael-Buckley, who now lives in Santa Fe, was born in Albuquerque, the eldest of six. She’s a ceramic sculptor whose work excavates identity, but understanding her own was no simple matter.

Her father was born Ricardo Alonzo Rael, yet after he endured racism growing up, he changed it to Richard Alvin Rail as a young adult. Her maternal grandparents spoke Spanish at home, but neither her father nor her mother did, Rael-Buckley says, and neither she nor her siblings learned to speak it.

Among her ancestors is Alonso Jaime Rael de Aguilar, a secretary of war for De Vargas.

“We heard about that a little as kids,” Rael-Buckley says. “My dad used to bring us to monuments and things like that, but it wasn’t really a part of our life growing up.”

She recalls that “there were always murmurs that my family was part Jewish,” but as staunch Catholics, they never really discussed it.

“As far as my father was concerned, we were Catholics, forever and ever, amen.”

But Rael-Buckley pursued the question. She remembers attending a lecture by Stanley M. Hordes, who had recently published a book about New Mexico’s converso community.

“At the end of it people were saying, ‘Are there any names associated with that background?’ And he said, ‘I only know one—Rael.’”

She took a DNA test, which confirmed her Jewish background in the Iberian peninsula.

“My family were Jews and they were forced to convert, so they were converso,” she says.

The knowledge began to inform her work. One piece—titled “Edicto”—shows a female torso with her arms raised in surrender. She wears a yellow mantle like the ones worn by conversos in Spain during the Inquisition, marked by a red ‘X,’ another symbol of Spanish Jews’ forced conversion to Catholicism. The mantle is inscribed with text from the Alhambra Edict of 1492.

“It says that all Jews who reside in the state must relinquish their land, their belongings, their children and their slaves to the state, and must convert on pain of death,” Rael-Buckley explains.

Flames curl up from the base of the torso.

“They would burn you at the stake if you refused,” Rael-Buckley says.

Blue trees on the torso’s sides seem to support the figure, and their leaves are Hebrew words describing terror, family, loss.

“It was really painful to work on,” Rael-Buckley says. “I knew about the inquisitions and everything through history, but I hadn’t linked it to my background.”

Rael-Buckley thinks of her work in layers of memory.

“You have a cultural memory, a historical memory, a familial memory, a personal memory.”

She also has a sculpture entitled “Zozobra’s Fire” that features similar visual themes—the flames, of course, and inscriptions that symbolize the burning of gloom: fear, hunger, war, debt, envy.

The piece “recalls the lovely memories of times spent at the Santa Fe Fiestas,” Rael-Buckley says. “Zozobra stands while the spectators gather ‘round and the children light him up…clouds and fireworks fill the night sky above the female form.”

Zozobra is the part of Fiesta she celebrates.

“I love the community aspect—how people come together to build it. It’s also about the transience of life—burn it all up, start over.”


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Jorge Oliveira