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Geist brought inclusion to tricentennial celebrations

Jerry Geist has left us at age 84. He was well-known as a business and civic leader. Not many people also knew him as the leader of Albuquerque’s tricentennial celebrations in 2006, and it’s a story worth telling.

 Jerry Geist

Jerry Geist

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.

An executive committee handled overall planning and logistics. Task forces tackled big projects. The Tricentennial General Committee served as umbrella group for volunteers, sponsors, vendors, city employees and others. Meetings became forums to discuss current projects and hear proposals for new ones. One event sparked another; one idea fed others. All participated according to their own interests.

Major events got media attention, but there were hundreds of smaller events. The New Mexico Postcard Club provided nearly 600 images for an exhibit. Two Scotsmen designed an official Albuquerque Tartan. The New Mexico Quilters Association created a tricentennial quilt. At an all-faiths tricentennial service, an African-American storyteller performed a Maya Angelou poem with the line, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The peak moment, for me, was the staging area of the tricentennial parade the last day. I walked along the street to photograph preparations, brushing tears from my eyes. Spanish re-enactors adjusted their costumes. Descendants of founding families gathered, bearing their crests. Little girls in flamenco costumes fidgeted as adults adjusted float decorations. Musicians of the Irish-American association rehearsed sitting on a tailgate, while nearby a youth mariachi band and Scottish bagpipers did the same. Filipinos tinkered with a float towed by a brightly painted Jeep-bus hybrid unique to their homeland. The Okinawa Association unfurled its banner. Bringing up the rear were people driving vintage military vehicles.

It was, in fact, a celebration of all of us. Thanks for this and many other contributions, Jerry. You will be missed.