How do we honor New Mexico’s colorful past… without celebrating colonialism’s violence?
By Jason Asenap
High Country News
HCN.org Evening, and a raucous crowd is milling beneath a giant marionette, waiting for the fire to begin. “Burn him!” they chant. “BURN HIM!” And, just like that, the lights of the old baseball park go out. A roar of approval from more than 60,000 people fills the air. In the darkness, faces are illuminated by cellphones; necks and wrists glimmer green, orange, and pink with the help of neon-glowing bracelets and necklaces. Then there is fire. Zozobra, or “Old Man Gloom,” symbolizes Santa Fe, New Mexico’s collective woes and grievances. He’s a 50-foot effigy resembling a nightmare puppet or whirling dervish. He burns lazily at first. Flames flicker at his feet, slowly run up his legs, jump to his torso, then his arms, until finally, his whole figure is engulfed. The intense heat radiates out into the crowd. People glow with happiness, their faces orange from the two-story bonfire. For 93 years, every September, Santa Fe has publicly incinerated Zozobra. While 93 years might seem like an old tradition, that’s nothing compared to the Fiestas de Santa Fe, which begins one week later. Taken together, these two festivals have recently become an occasion for reflection, and in the case of the Fiestas, something more: a confrontation with history. The Fiestas commemorates the reoccupation of Santa Fe by Spanish conquistadors after they were expelled from the region during the Pueblo Revolt. In 2017, eight people were arrested for protesting at the Fiestas, and Jennifer Marley, a citizen of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was charged with assaulting an officer. 2018 promises to be no different. In the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, in an America where white nationalists regularly occupy public space and Confederate monuments are fought over and often removed, the city of Santa Fe faces its own dilemma. How do you honor New Mexico’s colorful past without celebrating violent colonialism in racially charged festivities? The Fiestas de Santa Fe stems from a 1712 proclamation to celebrate the peaceful reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692, after the Spanish were driven from what is currently New Mexico by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. While the first part of the reoccupation 12 years later was largely bloodless, the second phase resulted in a two-day war. At least 70 Pueblo warriors were executed and hundreds of Indigenous men, women and children enslaved.
Under Popé’s leadership, Pueblo freedom fighters expelled the Spanish from New Mexico, as far south as modern-day El Paso, Texas. It took 12 years for the Spanish to return to Santa Fe, led by Diego de Vargas. The event is re-enacted each year during the Fiestas and portrayed as a “peaceful” reoccupation. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t sit well with many Indigenous folks. There was a time when Native people participated in the burning of Zozobra, but that ended in 1958. This hasn’t stopped Ray Sandoval from reaching out to Pueblo and Native communities, asking people to return to the celebration. But his overtures have been largely ignored. “For many years, Pueblo dancers danced with fire in front of Zozobra and helped light Zozobra on fire,” Sandoval said. He spoke to me as if addressing the Native community directly: “We want you to come back home to Zozobra. You were there at the inception and you were there from the beginning and we miss you and we need you back.” “In terms of Zozobra directly, there’s never been any real issue with any of the Pueblos,” said Sims. “Now the Entrada. …” He paused. “We got much larger fish to fry than worry about these guys that like to play conquistador four days out of the year.” Ever the optimist, Sandoval sees Zozobra as something bigger, separate from the Fiestas. “You don’t lose anything from the story of Zozobra or fiestas by telling the entire story. In fact, the ending is a much more beautiful ending, because you understand the reality and the hardships and the mistakes that were made.”
But how does the story truly get told without Indigenous input? How does one reconcile a word like “reconquest” with the idea of coming together? And how do you get the surrounding Pueblo communities to join in setting a giant papier-mâché marionette ablaze to mark the beginning of the Fiestas? The politics of the Southwest are messy with competing narratives, intertwined Indigenous, Hispanic and Anglo contributions. Thanks to intermarriage, shared cultures and incredible cuisine, New Mexicans generally get along. However, sparring creation stories continue to complicate relations. Sandoval sees Zozobra as an opportunity to set those stories straight. “The ending is we all learn how to live together, despite all of our troubles,” said Sandoval. “We’re all here, and we peacefully co-exist, and need to treat each other well, and we need to respect each other, and we need to respect each other’s cultures.” Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on May 14, 2018. Related Stories:
Elena Ortiz: Fiesta commemorates the conquest of Pueblo people (August 15, 2016)
Tribal members protest Spanish re-enactment in New Mexico (9/14)