You know what I’m all done with? Santa Fe’s quatrocentenario—the 400th anniversary celebration. Sure it’s scheduled to go on for more than a year, but that’s no excuse for sucking at the outset. Like many Santa Feans, I think I’ve given it a fair shake, a tolerant smile and an opportunity to convince me—or anyone, really—that it’s going to be an important, useful, fun, celebratory, economically advantageous event.
But no. So far nothing has really happened to convince me that it’s anything other than a weird post-colonial seizure—the fevered gasp of a misunderstood and violent history. Even before Corey Pein’s excellent reporting on SFReeper.com—in which he detailed some of the shocking and reckless expenses dominating the 400th’s budget—the apparent lack of organization or any economically justifiable slate of events or publicly instructional sense of what, exactly, is being celebrated had begun to wear thin.
More than a year ago, when Santa Fe Mayor David Coss insisted that additional funds be directed toward the quatrocentenario just as the country dipped into economic catastrophe, I read it as leadership in a storm: Rather than rolling into a little ball and whimpering, Santa Fe was taking steps to ensure its vitality through rough times. But you know, I assumed (yeah,I know) that there was a there there. I made the rookie mistake of thinking that funding the thing equated to infusing the thing with substance.
But the map is not the territory and, in this case, the territory is looking increasingly like a black hole. If there was a motivational factor other than fear of bruising Santa Fe’s Hispanic pride when the city Finance Committee recently acted to “fast-track” an additional $750,000 to an obviously bloated budget under dubious management, I have yet to discover it. The funding issue, which goes before the Public Works Committee on Oct. 28, won’t even save the event—the 400th dropped its executive director, PR firm and corporate fundraising contract after requesting the cash.
Thus far, there is no evidence of anything more than token attempts (ie, celebrity lectures versus community dialogue) to justify the glorification of colonial history and the correlative neglect of Native American culture, and the manifold factors in the sculpting of the city’s essence and soul. Oh, there’s lip service aplenty, but nothing concrete to justify so manic and substantial a public investment. The success of events thus far has depended on the goodwill of participants and organizers such as the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and those participants have issued a steady stream of qualifications about the arbitrary marker of 400 years on the development of the city we know today as Santa Fe.
The slate of upcoming events remains alarmingly empty. Sherman Alexie, Carlos Fuentes and Anthony Bourdain are some top-shelf lecture guests—and ones who can address some of the whole event’s failed underpinnings with humor and wit—but they alone (well, they and a dinner gala and a New Year’s party) are an unconvincing excuse for Santa Fe’s apparent blind devotion to a poorly constructed and mysteriously expensive commemoration.
More prevalent on the 400th website than engaging content or the promise of events that sound fun, educational or worthy of public funds is a slate of commemorative products. There are 1.5 humdrum T-shirts for each scheduled, legitimate, original event. Of course, the “store” is packed with traditional and contemporary iconic art of Santa Fe like, um, tank tops and toddler beanies. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the “eco-friendly” tote bags had to be shipped across an ocean—like a Chinese consumer conquistador—before arriving here in Santa Fe to capture hearts, minds and groceries.
In other words, the quatrocentenario is already making such previous disasters as Design Week look successful in retrospect. What is it with this town that makes financial accountability and competence so shockingly elusive? If it’s the lithium in the water, it’s understandable, but I’m starting to suspect it’s just that we’re still an easy mark, especially when we get our cultural pride played off our cultural guilt while someone whispers “tourism” in our ears.
Is it justifiable to celebrate Santa Fe’s manifold cultural influences and drive economic activity through the trumpeting of the city’s age and history? Absolutely. Is it justifiable to do so through the overarching theme of colonialism with a veneer of post-millennial cultural sensitivity? For some, probably it’s fine, but it’s still shortsighted and in poor taste. Is it justifiable to do so through the laughingly predictable mechanism of connected contractors and patron hookups and overpriced experts? Not so much. That’s not a celebration or an economic driver, it’s just another racket.
Welcome to Santa Fe. That’s, right—according to the king of Spain—the city is 400 years old. But not much has changed since its start. We’re still desperately searching for gold and, when we can’t find it, we just take it from each other.