A Slice of History

Que viva La Fiesta! Que viva Santa Fe!

A scene from last year

A scene from last year

Yes, it’s that time of year again here in the City Different, Fiesta weekend, though as I finally get around to writing this, the celebration is drawing to a close. As I noted last year, the party gets started with a recent addition to the Fiesta tradition, the burning of Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom.

That fiery display is not even a century old, while La Fiesta goes back 300 years. And as this annual celebration shows, folks here take their history seriously. Continuing to honor a pledge made centuries ago, the religious ceremonies of the weekend feature a wooden statue of Mary that dates to 1625. All in all, La Fiesta maybe one of the oldest—if the not oldest—community-wide celebrations in the country.

But what’s it all about, the non-New Mexican history buff might ask? Here is an abbreviated retelling of the story, as interpreted by a decided amateur (in all senses of the word) on the subject. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Spanish quit New Mexico, until Don Diego de Vargas (his full name goes on in typical Spanish-aristocratic fashion of the day, but I’m keeping it short) returned to lead a reconquest in 1692. Historian John Kessell called it “more an armed reconnaissance than an invasion,” as De Vargas visited the pueblos of northern New Mexico and tried to reestablish good ties with the rebellious Indians. He succeeded, and that’s why his efforts are sometimes called a bloodless reconquest.

Of course, the next year, when de Vargas came to Santa Fe with colonists in tow, the Indians realized the Spanish were coming back to stay, and things did not remain bloodless. And even in the original diplomatic mission to the pueblos, the don was not what you would call entirely sympathetic; threatening a siege, burning crops, taking women and children hostage, and executing a few Indians would not make him a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The violence that started in 1693 and lasted into the next year was even worse, as the Spanish and their Indian allies battled Pueblo people who weren’t eager for the return of Spanish rule. But in the end, de Vargas and his troops triumphed. And like a good Spanish Catholic of the day, he vowed to honor Mary for bringing him victory. De Vargas promised that Santa Fe would hold an annual fiesta for the Virgin Mother, though the first was not held until 1712.

Unlike many of the big arts markets held here throughout the summer, or the opera, La Fiesta is more for the locals than far-flung tourists. And as I said before, the people here—especially the descendants of the Spanish settlers—take it seriously. Even if it is a little odd, in a region where Native Americans still make up a good bit of the population, that the community revels in a celebration honoring a conquistador. Apparently, though, some of the Indians have made peace with the concept, as they take part in dances and others parts of La Fiesta too.

This year's Don Diego de Vargas. Lucky for him, La Fiesta is not the Wicker Man...

This year’s Don Diego de Vargas. Lucky for him, La Fiesta is not the Wicker Man…

Even so, it must be a little off-putting to some Pueblo Indians to see a modern-day incarnation of their conqueror, as Santa Feans  choose a young man to play the role of Don Diego in public events, attended by men dressed as soldiers and monks. La Fiesta also has a princess, who has her own maidens by her side.

Even before the torch sets Zozobra ablaze, the weekend’s activities start with a lecture on New Mexico history.  And that’s what this History Nerd attended, letting the other festivities slide by.

The talk by state historian Rick Hendricks focused on Don Diego de Vargas and his two families—the one he left behind in Spain when he first came to the New World, and the other he started in Mexico. De Vargas came from aristocracy, but he was in debt when his father died in 1672. The elder de Vargas had been a soldier in Guatemala, and that’s where the son traveled to settle his father’s estate.

De Vargas ended up in Mexico, where he held a government position. He took up with a woman and fathered several children, though that union began after his wife back in Spain had died. De Vargas never married in Mexico, and he didn’t tell his children back in Spain about their half siblings in the New World. One Spanish son, however, named Juan Manuel, made the trip west to visit his father. He was probably surprised when he met a young man, also named Juan Manuel, who turned out to be his brother by the don’s new consort.

Hendrick’s talk reflected several decades of research into letters de Vargas and others left behind, which ended up with relatives who were not directly related to de Vargas by blood. For me, the story of the two families was mildly interesting. The better stuff came out during the Q&A, as Hendricks talked more about the reconquest and de Vargas’s later troubles in New Mexico. After his tenure as governor ended in 1696, he was accused of illegal actions. While the allegations were reviewed by officials in Spain, de Vargas sat in a Mexican jail, waiting for his day in court. When it finally came, he was exonerated, and he briefly served as governor of New Mexico one more time, until he was killed in 1704 while battling Apaches.

Although de Vargas spent only a small part of his life in New Mexico, he made his mark here with the reconquest. And now, his memory lives on in Santa Fe during La Fiesta. For me, the weekend is nothing special, but it means a lot to many people here—as does so much of the history of New Mexico, so little known beyond its borders.

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