SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s public school students have been given permission to skip an annual presentation of Spanish colonial culture and history that honors a 17th century conquistador, in deference to Native American and non-Christian students who may find the performances disrespectful.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia briefed local tribal leaders Wednesday on the decision allowing students to opt-out of watching dances depicting a costumed Spanish royal court that promotes the Santa Fe Fiesta, a week of community events that culminate in a tribute to conquistador Don Diego de Vargas.
De Vargas reclaimed Santa Fe in 1692 years after the Spanish were driven out of the region in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt of indigenous people against colonizers that killed 400 Spaniards.
The fiesta’s ceremonial “entrada” — or arrival — of de Vargas on Santa Fe’s downtown plaza has been met in recent years with protests by activists who say the event obscures cruelty inflicted on Native Americans as the Spaniards stamped out resistance to their rule.
A “fiesta court” of costumed Spanish colonial soldiers and royalty will visit schools starting Thursday.
Garcia says it has become clear that some Native American and non-Christian students feel uncomfortable during the brief performances at schools.
“It’s a celebration for some kids,” Garcia said. “For others, it may not feel that way to them.”
A memo about respect for cultural and ethnic diversity from Garcia to school staff says alternative activities must be provided for students who opt-out of watching the fiesta performances at schools.
It suggests teachers use the time to highlight aspects of New Mexico history and cultures, providing an online reading list that touches not only on Spanish conquest and Native rebellion but also on early Jewish settlers and buffalo soldiers who served with all-black military units in the 19th century.
Dean Milligan, president of the nonprofit that organizes the Santa Fe Fiesta, declined to comment on the school district’s decision. He said the Santa Fe Fiesta’s school presentations are light on history and focus on dancing and music.
“It’s more to invite them (students) down to the plaza to get together with the community and their friends throughout the city,” he said.
Elena Ortiz, a Santa Fe resident and tribal member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, praised the school district’s decision. She said she resented the fiesta court presentations when she was a child and had tried to prevent her daughter from participating but could not previously get permission from school officials.
“My daughter was not allowed to excuse herself,” said Ortiz said. “I would pull her out of school when I found out” that the performances were taking place.