COMMENTARY: As we head into Fiesta weekend, the Entrada pageant, a scripted re-enactment of the 1692 “bloodless reconquest” of New Mexico led by Diego De Vargas, is under intense scrutiny. Over the last few years, opposition to the event has become more visible and vocal.
Last year Red Nation organized a protest that effectively upstaged the performance, and the festivities continued unabated. This highlights the fact that while the narrative that frames the Santa Fe Fiesta is highly problematic and worth revising, it is marginal to the way that most locals experience Fiesta as a time to party in the Plaza and reconnect with family and old friends. Actually, it is one of the few times of year that the locals reclaim the Plaza as a community space and our regional Nuevomexicano culture, music and traditions are center stage.
Nuevomexicanos have celebrated a religious-based fiesta dedicated to La Conquistadora since at least the 1700s. Community celebrations dedicated to patron saints are also a Pueblo tradition and are common throughout the Southwest, Mexico and Latin America. Conquest and conversion dramas such as Los Matachines and Moros y Cristianos are living traditions in New Mexico and Mexico.
These ritual dramas symbolically reenact the arrival of Spanish-Catholic modernity through dance, music and performance. Spanish friars used these ideological tools to evangelize Indigenous peoples and to consecrate their defeat. However, over time Indigenous communities appropriated these dramas for themselves and incorporated their own stories, symbolism and interpretations. In some Pueblos it is said that the spirit of Moctezuma came to teach them Los Matachines to ensure their survival.
The Entrada pageant is conquest and conversion drama of sorts. It has elements of the colonial folk dances we are familiar with but it derives from the second invasion and tells a story about the arrival of Anglo-Protestant modernity.
This is a controversial statement, so bear with me. Let us not forget that the Entrada is an Anglo invention. In the 1920s, Edgar Hewett of the Museum of New Mexico organized “La Fiesta de Santa Fe,” a pageant of three cultures, with Anglos, Hispanos and Indians receiving separate recognition. The goal was to attract tourism to the region by highlighting the unique history of the region.
This Anglo-directed celebration included a re-enactment of General Kearney’s takeover of New Mexico “without a single shot fired.” This narrative recalls De Vargas’ “bloodless reconquest.” This is no coincidence. Anglos and a few members of the Hispano gentry (some of whom played the roles of Indians) comprised the original cast of the Entrada pageant. The historical pageants were a complete flop. Anglo tourists found the Indian dances much more appealing.
Nuevomexicanos did not appropriate and reinvent the Entrada until the 1950s, and this coincides with the revitalization of Hispano-Catholic organizations and cultural preservation projects. During World War II, many native New Mexicans left the region to join the military or work in wartime industries. When they returned, they wanted to be fully included in U.S. society as Americans. But they also wanted to preserve their culture and traditions, which they believed were diminishing as a result of Anglo emigration.
Anglos had also established their own exclusive clubs (such as the Masons) and controlled the culture industry, so Nuevomexicanos created their own parallel forms of exclusivity, drawing on their Hispano-Catholic heritage. They revived religious confraternities, took leadership positions in the Fiesta Council, and established clubs such as La Sociedad Folklórica and Los Caballeros De Vargas, dedicated to preserving “Spanish culture” on their own terms.
Assimilation was the only option in the 1950s. Being Spanish American allowed my grandparents to be almost white — to be different but in an acceptable way. The downside is that this often required disidentification with our Mexican origins and Native American roots.
Glorifying Spain is practically unheard of in Mexico, where a mestizo nationalism emerged (Mexican immigrants must find our Fiesta quite baffling). Nuevomexicano claims to Spanish origins were only made possible or appealing in the context of Anglo domination and white supremacy in the Southwest. Like other oppressed minority groups, Nuevomexicanos have adapted to (and also resisted) U.S. racial and economic systems in different ways in order to survive, participate and gain respectability in a society that has never fully included us.
Some of these adaptations and forms of resistance are accommodative in that they assimilate parts of the dominant culture and systems of power. This is how colonialism operates.
There is no purity and no redemption when it comes to history. But the Entrada pageant is not a really history; it is a heritage performance, which is different. Heritage is more about the present than it is about the past. It is a reconfiguration of the past in order to fit present circumstances. Fiesta participants and organizers have a particular Hispano-Catholic vision of Santa Fe’s heritage that does not always jive with our multicultural realities and secular humanist views. The Entrada pageant, like the older folk dramas that it references through ritual, is a hybrid performance — a mythic history — that tells a particular story of survival.
I am not an apologist for glorifications of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. I’m a Chicana anthropologist who has studied them with empathy and has tried to come to terms with them. Certainly, we need to move toward decolonization, but this process takes time, healing, dialogue and compassion.
Perhaps it is time to move forward with a different vision for Fiesta to free it from the painful ideological trappings of conquest and conversion. What form this new cultural and civic celebration will take is open and full of hopeful possibilities.
Dr. Aimee Villarreal is a native of Santa Fe. She is an assistant professor of Mexican American Studies at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Villarreal is a producer and served as lead researcher for the animated documentary, Frontera! Revolt and Rebellion on the Rio Grande. For further Fiesta reading, she recommends The Spanish Redemption: Heritage, Power, and Loss on New Mexico’s Upper Rio Grande (2002) by Charles Montgomery, and The Santa Fe Fiesta, Reinvented: Staking Ethno-Nationalist Claims to a Disappearing Homeland (2010) by Sarah Bronwen Horton. Agree with her opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.