The run-up to our 300th birthday was a time of remarkable creativity and cooperation, but it didn’t start that way.
Organizers grappled with the question of how a New Mexico city celebrates its history in ethnically charged times. Early on, they had what I call the Oñate argument, which seems to be a prerequisite in history-related events here. In stormy meetings, accusation flew that this would be one more event to glorify the conquistadors and the infamous Don Juan de Oñate, seen by Hispanic people as a colonizer but experienced by Indian people as a brutal oppressor. Don Juan had nothing to do with Albuquerque’s founding but came up anyway.
For Indian people, the tricentennial was comparable to Columbus Day. Anglos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans were ambivalent; they didn’t see it as their event. City councilors argued that the tricentennial was a poor use of city money. A friend in the high-tech industry asked, “Why should we care about a bunch of dusty old conquistadors?” It was not a promising beginning.
When the tricentennial chair developed health problems and had to bow out, Mayor Martin Chávez asked Geist to take over. It was a good choice. The new jefe was a northern New Mexico native – born in Raton, raised in Taos and Las Vegas – and an Albuquerque resident of many years.
Jerry insisted on inclusion. This would be a celebration of all cultures – 72 and counting. It would showcase the range of creative genius. It would delve into history, warts and all. It would explore who we are.