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The stories that defined Santa Fe in 2020

Protesters toppled the obelisk that stood in the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza for more than 150 years during an Indigenous Peoples Day rally on Oct. 12. Originally dedicated as the “Soldiers’ Monument,” it had long been viewed as a symbol of oppression of Native American people. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It’s fair to say 2020 was a landmark year for many, when any sense of “normalcy” was upended by a worldwide pandemic that ravaged communities, including Santa Fe.

The City Different soon became a city stripped of its identity as a bustling tourist destination, with retail stores around the downtown Plaza empty for months on end. Everything – including city government, restaurants and the personal health of thousands – felt the impact.

But the city wasn’t immune to nationwide movements against systemic raci

Santa Fe High School basketball star Fedonta “J.B.” White was shot and killed in August. He was one of several young people in northern New Mexico who died by gunfire in 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

sm and nods to imperial conquerors. In fact, it often found itself at the center of attention.

And while the calendar has transitioned into a new year, it’s unlikely any Santa Fean will soon forget the struggles, perseverance and unbelievable sights that defined 2020.

Plenty of protests

Santa Fe has many landmarks, but few were as recognizable – or as controversial – as the Soldiers’ Monument, which stood at the heart of the Santa Fe Plaza for 152 years.

Once inscribed with a dedication to soldiers who fought battles against “savage Indians,” the 33-foot obelisk had long been viewed as a symbol of oppression of Native American people. While upsetting to many members of the community, others were quick to defend its place in Santa Fe’s iconography.

During an Indigenous Peoples Day rally after a weekend of peaceful demonstrations, a group of activists pushed back against a minimal police presence and tore down the monument. Several people were arrested following the incident.

Many criticized city officials, particularly Mayor Alan Webber, for not moving fast enough to address rising tensions in the community. Webber had told a large crowd months before that the city would begin work on exactly that, but he admitted after the toppling of the obelisk that he hadn’t moved fast enough.

In a Dec. 28 press conference, Webber said the toppling of the obelisk was a low point for the city, widening a divide that had long existed in the fabric of Santa Fe.

But there were other demonstrations against systemic racism around Santa Fe in 2020. Multiple Black Lives Matter rallies saw hundreds of mostly young people march around the city demanding an end to systemic racism.

The popular Indian Palace restaurant in Santa Fe was heavily vandalized during a summer of racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Local restaurant India Palace became the victim of brutal vandalism, which saw much of the restaurant destroyed and racial slurs spray-painted on the walls, triggering an outpouring of support from community members.

The city established, or began work to form committees to address issues of racism and monuments in the community, although much of their work won’t be completed for several months.

As the state capital, Santa Fe attracted protesters from across the state for demonstrations over one issue or another. In 2020, there were frequent “reopen New Mexico” demonstrations at the state capitol over restrictions Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham imposed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Pandemic problem

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, spread within Santa Fe was comparatively limited (it wouldn’t stay that way).

But Santa Feans still felt the impact as, one by one, the city’s most iconic spring and summer events began canceling all plans for the year.

An empty Palace of the Governors’ Portal is evidence of how badly COVID-19 robbed Santa Fe of its tourist season, canceling events, and emptying hotels and restaurants. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Indian Market, Spanish Market and the Santa Fe Opera, among others, announced cancellations in succession, taking with them a large source of revenue for many residents and city government.

Santa Fe City Hall saw its revenues, driven largely by gross receipts tax, decline rapidly. This led to a series of employee furloughs, budget cuts and hiring freezes, the effects of which are still being felt in city operations.

Meanwhile, dozens of businesses across the city were forced to close their doors permanently as COVID-related restrictions limited the number of tourists and how much Santa Feans spent in their local economy.

Some would apply for stimulus programs and grants that provided temporary relief. But many still face struggles in 2021, with Santa Fe County still in the “red” for restrictions on businesses due to the pandemic.

Santa Feans eventually began seeing the horrific impact COVID-19 was having on personal health and the health care system as a whole.

The daily number of COVID-19 cases shot up from only a couple a day to more than 100 at the height of the pandemic.

Those living in the Southside were significantly more likely to contract the virus, a reality that persisted throughout 2020. The area is home to most of the city’s immigrant, Spanish-speaking and low-income populations. Activists in the area at one point called the rate of infections “a crisis.”

Local nursing homes also saw a large number of infections and deaths among residents.

Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center recently saw a surge in COVID-19 patients from across northern New Mexico, as it and other hospitals neared capacity in the virus’ most recent surge.

Mother Nature

Santa Fe also saw itself subject to natural forces during 2020, in particular a drought that has slowly dried out many parts of New Mexico throughout the past year.

Locally, that meant the Buckman Direct Diversion, a large supplier of water for Santa Feans, saw water levels reach record lows since it opened 10 years ago. A complete shutdown of Buckman was avoided after New Mexico received permission from Texas and Colorado to use stored water.

The Medio Fire burned 4,000 acres in August and September, and threatened Ski Santa Fe and watersheds in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But the danger of such dry conditions was on full display when a fire sprang up in the Santa Fe National Forest in August. The Medio Fire would burn for weeks and eventually consume more than 4,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at some times shrouding Santa Fe in thin layer of smoke.

Limited snowfall is already impacting local ski lifts and a light snowpack overall could worsen the historic levels of drought seen throughout northern New Mexico.

Election year

While the presidential election was in the spotlight in 2020, the election year brought few surprises in northern New Mexico, long a Democratic Party stronghold.

The year 2020 was an election year. Teresa Leger Fernandez, seen ed the seat to make a successful run for the U.S. Senate. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Teresa Leger Fernandez prevailed in a competitive Democratic primary in the race for the 3rd Congressional seat vacated by Ben Ray Luján. She then went on to beat Republican Alexis Johnson in the general election to secure a seat in Congress. Luján, meanwhile went on to win the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Tom Udall.

Looking ahead

There were other many other important, relevant and heartbreaking stories from 2020 that can’t be covered in this space, but the turn of the calendar year has brought new optimism in many forms.

Now, with vaccine distribution growing slowly, local government officials, business owners and citizens are hopeful that life will return to some sense of normal in 2021 – at least as normal as possible after a year that in many ways defined a new normal.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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