Santa Fe Plaza is coming back to life

Kelly Quintia, left, with her daughter Zevi Keyes, 3, center, and Marna Hitt, second from left, and her daughter Vivi Hitt, 3, listen to country music by Johnny Lloyd and Tim “Timbo” Arnold, right, on the Plaza last week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Santa Fe Plaza is normally bustling during the tourist season, with different art or food vendors on every corner, and people milling about and visiting retail shops.

It’s fair to say that the past year has been anything but normal. But the Plaza is now beginning to return to its iconic status after lying barren for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Native American artists returned Friday to selling jewelry beneath the portal of the Palace of the Governors after an absence of more than a year, bringing a sense of normalcy that has been missing for months.

Native American Artisans Portal Program Committee Chairwoman Maya Quintana, a fifth-generation silversmith from Zia Pueblo, said she’s happy and relieved the program has started up again. The committee – and the artists who have been deprived of their source of income – have been through a lot this past year and the committee has been working with the New Mexico History Museum, which administers the program, to reopen.

Before the pandemic began, Quintana said she was planning to buy a house. But, now, due to financial hardships caused by the pandemic, she’s had to deplete her savings and use her credit cards just to survive.

And Quintana’s story is not unique. She said many artists in the program have also suffered during the pandemic.

She said the committee sent several letters and reopening proposals to the museum and state officials, and that artists were frustrated when other businesses were opening up, but the portal program was still closed.

“A lot of the reactions have been ‘finally’ and ‘about time’ because I myself and a lot of the artists feel as if we could have opened safely when all the other businesses opened up in Santa Fe,” she said. “The state was hesitant to let us reopen and I’m not too sure why.”

Whenever the committee would turn in operation proposals, the state kept telling them “not yet, not yet,” she said. Most of the Native American vendors are vaccinated through their tribal governments, she said, and were willing to reopen a while ago.

“Our program is mostly intended to educate the public,” she said. “If it weren’t for the program, a lot of the tourists that do come to New Mexico, a lot of them don’t know that Native Americans are still alive or that we’re still very intact, with our traditional aspects of life.”

Billy Garrett, executive director of the New Mexico History Museum, said the museum got approval to reopen the program Wednesday from Debra Garcia y Griego, Cabinet secretary for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

He said vendors will be spaced at least 6 feet apart and, given these requirements, there’s room for only 26 vendors under the portal. As a result, the museum is expanding the program to Washington Avenue and Lincoln Avenue surrounding the portal.

With this added space, they’ll be able to accommodate 51 vendors, which is fewer than the usual 69.

Under the portal itself, there will be one-way-only pedestrian traffic to help cut down on face-to-face encounters. This will provide more protection for the public and the vendors, he said.

All vendors will be wearing masks, as well, he added.

“This has been a real economic hardship for a lot of the artisans who rely on the sale of their work for their primary income,” he said. “We’re taking all reasonable precautions to protect people and, of course, if a participant isn’t quite ready to do this, then that’s fine.”

For the Plaza Park Artist/Artisan and the Pushcart Vendor Program run by the city, sellers were allowed to begin hawking their wares on the Plaza on May 3, according to Isabella Sharpe, a city constituent services specialist.

“I really left it up to them (vendors). If they feel comfortable and if they want to be up there, it’s completely up to them,” Sharpe said.

She said that, of the six pushcart vendor licenses, two are currently available. As for the artisans, she has 23 total vendors.

It’s great to have them back, she said. This is how they make their living and it was very difficult to suspend the program during COVID-19.

“I go on my runs downtown and … it brings so much peace and lightness to my heart to know that it’s not a ghost town any more,” she said. “They add so much life to the Plaza.”

Daniel Caldera, owner of El Molero Fajitas, and his daughter Gabriella are once again selling fajitas and other items from their food cart on the Plaza. Caldera had had a cart on the Plaza for 30 years until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Pushcart vendors Daniel Caldera and his daughter Gabriella have been on the Plaza for about 30 years. The two run the fajita stand, El Molero Fajitas, on the Plaza.

Gabriella Caldera said reopening has been a little stressful because business is still kind of slow. She said they’re still trying to get back to normal after being shut down for so long.

She said the stand has been open off and on for the past couple of weeks, but that she plans to start opening more often. She said that once the summer concert series starts again, they will be there all night.

And people won’t have to wait much longer to hear the music, according to Jamie Lenfestey, director of AMP Concerts in Santa Fe and Taos.

“Live music is coming back, baby!” he said.

In April, Lenfestey wasn’t sure if they would even be able to have concerts. But now it’s assured that people will be able to enjoy live, and free, music on the Plaza and at the Railyard this summer. He said AMP Concerts has been announcing shows on its website and more shows will be announced June 21.

Mario and Rebecca Sena, of Santa Fe, ride through the Santa Fe Plaza in their ’72 Volkswagen Beetle last Tuesday. Even the cruisers are returning to the Plaza now that the pandemic has subsided. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

He said the shows will be at the Santa Fe Opera, The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing Company, a Santa Fe Music Week at HIPICO Santa Fe and more.

On the Plaza, free concerts will start July 8, and run Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays through Sept. 2. The free concert series at The Railyard will begin on Friday, July 9, and run seven Fridays through Aug. 27.

Lenfestey said all concerts will follow the guidelines laid down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the New Mexico Department of Health. He said all the concerts he mentioned will be outdoors, and they don’t intend on having any indoor concerts until late summer or fall.

“We’re just monitoring (the state’s guidelines) and paying attention, and trying our best to create an environment for music to return safely,” he said.

Ken Bonner, an artist vendor on the Plaza, said it feels strange to see people maskless and walking around now that restrictions have been eased, but it’s also exciting because it means things are returning to normal.

On Bonner’s second day on the Plaza as a new vendor, he said he’s happy with the experience. He’s had his work in Santa Fe galleries for seven years, but he enjoys the direct touch with the public on the Plaza.

Bonner said he’s talked to a lot of people from all around the U.S., and thinks people are getting out and exploring the country, rather than going overseas due to the pandemic.

“I think that’s what’s my message is to people – explore the town again. We’ve got to do it and get to know our own town again,” he said.

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