The ceremonial burning of the Michael Jackson-inspired Old Man Gloom last Friday heralds the beginning of another, even longerstanding, tradition: the Fiesta de Santa Fe. But it’s early-morning mass at Rosario Chapel that officially starts the 309th Fiesta on Friday, Sept. 10. In-person events through Sunday include dancing, music and food on the Plaza, though crowd-pleaser parades will not make an appearance. To the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, the weekend commemorates “Don Diego De Vargas’ peaceful reoccupation of the City of Holy Faith in 1692,” and marks his reported prayer and promises to La Conquistadora, a version of the Virgin Mary.
Yet, the roots of the tradition are not without controversy. The conquest of the city led to bloodshed of the region’s Indigenous people and set the stage for centuries of conflict to follow. In 2018, the council and other stakeholders agreed to retire the Entrada, a reenactment of the “peaceful” version of events, after protesters decried its mythical portrayal of colonialism. In light of other recent events forcing Santa Fe to confront parts of its darker history (see the city’s quiet removal of the De Vargas statue one summer morning last year and the public destruction of the obelisk a few months later), Fiesta comes at a delicate time for the city.
Enter Doug Nava. The Fiesta Council selected 46-year-old Nava to serve in the role of De Vargas—the man depicted in a tattoo on his right arm. Nava has been nothing short of steeped in Fiesta culture since his youth and tells SFR he has the goal of sowing unity with his two-year reign. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SFR: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Doug Nava: I was born and raised in the downtown area [of Santa Fe]. I live one mile from [the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis]. So I come from a family that’s been working on the Plaza all their lives. I’m also part of the Navas, which is Nava Elementary School, [Francis Xavier] Nava was my [second] cousin, the first man in Santa Fe to lose his life in Vietnam...I’m also the eighth person in my family, between De Vargases and Reinas, to receive the title since 1952.
Why is it important to you to serve as Don Diego De Vargas?
I’ve been trying to get this title since 1997, so I waited 24 years before I heard my name get called. The first time I ran for Don Diego De Vargas was in 1997 at the age of 21, at the time the cut off age was 21 years old. I turned 21 and I got on the stage right away. And I’ve been on three cuadrillas: 1997, 1999 and 2004...This title means a lot to me. I’m very old school in my traditions and my beliefs, but I was raised extremely traditional. La Conquistadora is the most important thing. I tell everybody, ‘She’s the reason why I live.’ You know 10 years ago, I had open heart surgery and I owed my survival to her.
What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
My goal is to stop that stigma that the Spanish people were bad people 400 years ago. I understand history wasn’t the best, but if a lot of people did their history, Don Diego De Vargas died while on expedition to Bernalillo to stop the Apaches from attacking the local pueblos. There’s a lot of that stuff people don’t realize. Unfortunately, anybody who reads history, you always interpret what you want. I just want that stigma of what people think we are—every painting of a Spaniard, they always have that glare on their face—but I want people to understand that we’re a good community...Fiesta de Santa Fe, that celebration is no different than a feast, we just do it in a different language.
My purpose of this role is to make the Spanish people proud of who they are. I hear so many times when they say they’re taking our culture away, and I want the Spanish community to understand they really aren’t. No, I want people to realize you can’t take away 300 years. It’s a matter of just remembering. When the De Vargas statue was removed, I was heartbroken, but at the same time, I would rather have it somewhere safe than always having to scrape off spray paint and stuff like that. It’s kind of like when you go to the cemetery; you pay honor on those headstones.
Do you think most people in the Santa Fe community have a factual understanding of Fiestas?
I think it’s based off whatever history book you [read]. You’re going to have those people that are going to write pro to the Native American side, and tell what they want to say about the Spanish. And you have those people that read the Spanish side, where they talk about the peace and all that stuff—it’s all your own personal interpretation, it’s what you get out of it. I’ve read the books, and I’ve read what the Natives have written on this. Yeah, they talk about how they were treated. And then you read the Spanish and they talk about what they came in to. You can only believe what your heart wants to believe.
I’m very close with all my great great aunts and one night I asked them, “Was it always like this?” And my aunt says, “Yeah, there was always that one little person that didn’t believe in it.” She said, “We just have the type of social media that makes it easier to inform everybody about it.”
There’s been a lot of talk about division in Santa Fe this year. Does it feel more divisive to you than in other times in the city?
I would have to say it’s only a fourth [of the population] because most everybody is pretty chill and we’re all getting along...But if I can come out strong—and not strong, as a Spaniard and a conquistador carrying a sword and stuff like that—strong in my beliefs and in my faith, I can start the domino effect this way instead of that way.
When they vandalize something, it angers Native American people [and] it angers Spanish people too, because we don’t want to see destruction. No one likes to see destruction. It’s one thing to be vocal, it’s another thing to be disruptive. But protesting stuff, that goes all the way back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I understand that, but at the same time, we can be peaceful...To some, they might have not believed we lived in peace then, but we can live in peace now.