Every year Santa Fe throws a huge party in September. They elect royalty and celebrate masses and say novenas. 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. Folks, 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. 2014 marks the 302nd 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. 302 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 first 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. (1625 folks. She’s been here for 389 years.)
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 a hero to bring her home to Santa Fe
It took 12 years, but eventually her hero 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 was the perfect hero – “fearlessly intrepid and sincerely pious.” He vowed to return Our Lady of the Rosary to her rightful throne as Patroness and Protectress of the Kingdom and Villa of Santa Fe. On his journey from El Paso to Santa Fe, Don Diego made a point of meeting with Pueblo leaders, winning them over with his promise of peace “under so tender a Mother who loved them all alike.”
His conquest proved to be entirely bloodless. Within four months, 23 pueblos of 10 Indian nations had been conquered and 2,000 Indians converted with the loss of a single life. And of course, 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, the 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. The original Fiesta begins at 6 AM at the Pregón de la Fiesta on Fiesta Friday, which is September 5, 2014, where a mass will be said in her honor at Rosario Chapel. Word has it that if you attend this mass, you’ll get hot chocolate and biscochitos afterward. I’m definitely going.
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. And just wait until you see the calendar of events – these folks know how to throw a party. And how to keep a promise.Pin It