Santa Fe la conquistadora

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306 YEARS OF PARTYING AND PROMISES KEPT IN SANTA FE

Every year Santa Fe throws a huge party in September. Royalty is elected. Masses are celebrated, novenas said. Processions of old Spanish families in period dress wind through the streets of downtown. There are arts and crafts booths on the Santa Fe Plaza. There's dancing in the street. There's a pet parade and a Hysterical Historical Parade parodying New Mexico's colorful past. And there's the burning of a giant marionette effigy named Zozobra (aka "Old Man Gloom") in Ft. Marcy Park the Friday night before Labor Day, just for the fun of it. THIS is a party. Only in New Mexico!
And it all started as a way to honor the Virgin Mary and a statue created in her honor. 2018 will mark the 306th year that the faithful of Santa Fe will gather to honor the promise made to La Conquistadora by Governor Don Diego de Vargas in September of 1692. 306 years is a lot of gratitude and honor, but once you know the story, you’ll understand why La Conquistadora is worthy of the oldest (and I think the most entertaining) civic celebration in the United States.
Why is La Conquistadora so important? She’s a beautiful, delicately-featured statue, carved in Spain from willow in the early 1600s. Her original name was Our Lady of the Assumption. We don’t know for sure when she made the journey from Spain to New Spain, but documents show she arrived in Santa Fe in 1625, cared for by Fray Alonso de Venevides, a Franciscan missionary. She’s been here a while.
Venevides installed the statue in the Church of the Assumption, making it the first shrine in the US to specifically honor Mary. It wasn’t long before she became known by her second title: Our Lady of the Conception. Her red robe was traded for blue and a silver crescent moon was added to her pedestal to commemorate the new honor shown Our Lady.
She was also known as Our Lady of the Rosary. Early life in Santa Fe was pretty treacherous for the Spanish colonists, given the weather, disease, and the ongoing attacks from Pueblo Indians. The faithful turned to the Rosary for comfort and courage. As legend has it, “Our Lady had sent a warning by a 10 year-old girl who had recovered instantaneously from a violent illness. In a vision, Our Lady told her that the colony would suffer a chastisement and be destroyed because of the lack of reverence it had for her priests and her holy Religion.” (see expanded version of this story here.)
Soon after this warning, on August 12, 1680, the Pueblo Revolt occurred, a well-planned, secret attack by Pueblo Indians that resulted in the death of 21 Spanish religious leaders, the burning of Santa Fe, and a retreat of all Spanish colonists to what is now El Paso and Juarez. Amazingly, Our Lady was rescued from a burning church during the retreat and she joined the refugees in their flight to safety, where she waited patiently for someone to bring her home to Santa Fe It took 12 years, but eventually that someone appeared in the form of Don Diego de Vargas. Sent by the Spanish King to New Spain to organize a return to and resettlement of Santa Fe, Don Diego vowed to return Our Lady of the Rosary to her rightful throne as Patroness and Protectress of the Kingdom and Villa of Santa Fe. Don Diego gave all credit for the conquest to “the Sovereign Queen, Most Blessed Mary, “and stated that henceforth, she would be known as La Conquistadora, Our Lady of the Conquest.” He also promised that he would honor her annually with a celebration in her honor.
In 1712, eight years after Don Diego’s death, Santa Fe city officials drafted a proclamation for an annual celebration commemorating the peaceful 1692 resettlement and honoring La Conquistadora’s role in that occupation. To officially start the Fiesta, the faithful follow the old tradition of taking the statue from the St. Francis Cathedral and returning her to the site outside the city where the colonists had camped and prayed to her before returning to Santa Fe.
In 1806, Rosario Chapel was built on that site to replace the temporary shelter of juniper branches and cottonwoods that were erected annually for her novena. She’s a pretty girl, La Conquistadora, with a very serious expression on her face. You can see why she charmed Don Diego de Vargas. You can understand why we celebrate her every year here in Santa Fe. These folks know how to throw a party. And how to keep a promise.
Note: Controversy abounds about whether Don Diego DeVargas’ reconquest was bloodless, as he had promised. This writer has no opinions or independent knowledge that refutes or settles this claim.

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