QUEENS FOR A LIFETIME
ROSINA CASADOS SCHUTZ is in her eighties, and she still remembers being crowned La Reina de la Fiesta de Santa Fe, or Fiesta queen. “In those days, I think every young Hispanic girl in Santa Fe looked forward to trying out to become La Reina,” Casados Schutz said. She was nineteen, and it was 1952. That year, 33 young women vied for the title, and Casados Schutz was chosen via unusual means: an applause-o-meter produced by community members who crowded into the auditorium at the St. Francis Cathedral School during the queen’s selection. “I had a wonderful brother who brought all of his friends, and they raised Cain. My favorite part of being queen was the Paseo de La Reina. My court and I were in a big wagon — I don’t remember if it was drawn by a horse — and we were serenaded by a man named Johnny Valdez who used to sing during Fiesta.”
At first glance, the role of Fiesta queen is clear: Its meaning is in the title. But La Reina is more complex than she appears: She’s a 20th-century invention with roots in much older traditions, dating back to Don Diego de Vargas’ reconquest (or reentry, depending on whom you talk to) of Santa Fe in 1692-1693. La Reina is a civic figure, but her role is deeply tied to Catholicism, and strong religious faith is cited by many former queens as the most important motivator in competing. Women who were queens remember their reigns as a pivotal time in their lives, a rite of passage to adulthood.
“I’m in love with Fiesta itself; that’s what made me fall in love with being queen,” said Valerie Medrano Garcia, who held the title in 1985 at nineteen. “Back in those days, it was very prestigious being the Fiesta queen; you really were royalty in this town. It changed my entire life: I made friends and got jobs that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
A Fiesta queen’s reign lasts for one year. She’s selected ( judged on public speaking, poise, and command of Spanish) during the annual Baile de Mayo. During her reign, a queen’s duties are as diverse as visiting schools, churches, nursing homes, and other Fiesta courts in Española, Taos, and Las Vegas; participating in parades and processions; and wearing a series of elaborate gowns and costumes. (Medrano Garcia liked her royal gown so much — “It was from Mexico, layers of lace and bell sleeves” — that she later repurposed it as her wedding dress.) The schedule can be grueling: As queen, you’re on call all summer, and days can last upward of 12 hours.
Fiesta can be a contentious subject. Its true meaning is up for debate. For those who have long histories of celebrating each year with their families, Fiesta and the image of La Reina represent tradition, faith, and family. For some former queens, this is straightforward. “The Fiesta commemorates the peaceful resettlement of New Mexico and how that was achieved through a peaceful meeting with the Native Americans in 1692,” wrote Jessica Lucero, 2006’s queen, in a Facebook message. “The religious aspect commemorates La Conquistadora.” La Conquistadora is a 31-inch-high Marian statue (the oldest of its kind in the United States) to whom de Vargas prayed before his successful reconquest of Santa Fe.
For other New Mexicans, Fiesta honors a painful history. “The reconquest of Santa Fe was not bloodless,” said Matthew J. Martinez, a history professor at Northern New Mexico College in Española and head of the Northern Pueblos Institute. “Fiestas in Santa Fe and Española tend particularly to soreness, because they honor the conquistadors de Vargas and Oñate, whereas Fiestas in Las Vegas and Taos are more community-focused.” (Fiestas in Las Vegas, Taos, and Mora celebrate those cities’ patron saints.) Martinez said that increased engagement with local Native American tribes and broad acknowledgement of the violence of conquest would go a long way toward making Fiesta more inclusive. Most years, the queen’s court includes an Indian princess, who is usually selected by the Fiesta Council or asked to participate by that year’s queen.
This year, Naomi Cata is Santa Fe’s Indian princess and served as Española’s princess last year. Cata was raised Catholic and grew up on Ohkay Owingey (formerly San Juan Pueblo). “I’m half Spanish and half Native American, and I embrace both of my cultures,” she said. “You don’t have to be one or the other. Today, there’s really no such thing as pure Native Americans or pure Spaniards.”
Last year’s Santa Fe Indian princess, twenty-threeyear-old Loren Musgrave of Nambé Pueblo, said, “I feel like Native Americans are pretty well represented in Fiesta. The Fiesta Council tries to be inclusive of both cultures and never put me in an uncomfortable situation. I don’t know anyone who isn’t both Native American and Hispanic. And that’s part of the Fiesta itself: the story of how we’re blended, how we got to where we are.”
The first Fiesta queen, Amalia Sena-Sanchez, was crowned in 1927, three years after the inaugural burning of Zozobra. The institution of a Fiesta queen was established during the post-World War I modernization of Fiesta, which was influenced by East Coast artists (including Will Shuster, Zozobra’s creator) and also introduced other secular events such as the Desfile de los Niños (Children’s Pet Parade) and the Desfile de la Gente (Historical/Hysterical Parade) into the festivities.
Sena-Sanchez was thirtyfive and married with children when she was queen, but today’s queens must be unmarried and childless. They must also be reasonably fluent in Spanish and be between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. (The rules for potential de Vargases and his caballeros are looser — they may be married and/or fathers, and there’s no upper age limit.) It’s unclear when and why the unmarried and childless requirement was installed, and the Fiesta Council did not respond to requests for information about when and why these restrictions were instituted.
As reported by Staci Matlock in The Santa Fe New Mexican in July, participation in the competition to portray La Reina has declined significantly in recent years; some speculate that this is because fewer young women qualify for the role — women in their twenties are often in school or the workforce or are getting married and starting families.
Many queens believe married women and mothers should be eligible. Amanda Quintana Bowles, who was queen in 1993 at nineteen, told Matlock, “Some people have this idea that La Reina is pure and virginal. ... But then you look back and see the first La Reina was married with kids. Why can’t a woman be empowered and beautiful and a good representation of her city if she is married and has children?”
Most queens come to the role with a sense of destiny, having participated in Fiesta since they were small children, dancing on the Plaza or watching their older sisters and cousins have their turns as La Reina or Spanish princesses, while fathers and older brothers of former queens often portrayed de Vargas and his caballeros. “I’d wanted to be La Reina since I was a little girl,” Jessica Lucero said. “My parents and my grandparents were very influential in my faith and in teaching me the history [of Fiesta], and I always knew that being queen was something that I wanted to do.”
While the queen herself is not a religious figure, it is often the faith-driven aspects of the experience that stay with the queens long after they’ve retired their crowns. “It was my faith and my love for Our Lady that inspired me to want to represent our city,” said Jennifer Richardson-Romero, who was queen in 2005 at twenty-four. A highlight of Richardson-Romero’s reign was changing the vestments of La Conquistadora. “I never thought I’d be that close to Our Lady, this image that we celebrate: Our Lady of Peace, Nuestra Señora de La Conquistadora, our mother Mary, and our patron saint of Santa Fe,” Richardson-Romero said.
Many former queens said a highlight of the experience was the procession of “La Peregrina” or the Pilgrim (La Conquistadora’s mobile twin) from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to Rosario Chapel, or being crowned by the Archbishop. Others were surprised by the extent of the religious nature of Fiesta or saw it differently once they were queen. “Up until I was completely involved, I didn’t realize that Fiesta was so religious,” said Donna Garcia Lesher (queen in 1991 at nineteen). “The year began with me and my court along with Don Diego de Vargas and his staff attending Mass at a different Catholic Church each Sunday, followed by a week of 6 a.m. novena of Masses and a number of processions honoring La Conquistadora.” Musgrave, last year’s Indian princess, said she didn’t know what to expect regarding Fiesta’s religious nature. “The first church visits were interesting, and I was definitely out of my comfort zone, because I wasn’t raised Catholic. But I got used to it, and I enjoyed the positivity of each Mass.”
Though she’s central to Fiesta for many former queens, La Conquistadora wasn’t actually part of Fiesta until 1958, according to a Sept. 2011 article in Pasatiempo by Khristaan D. Villela. Villela writes that after World War II, Fiestas increasingly focused on Spanish heritage and Catholicism. Of this shift in emphasis, Villela writes: “This can be interpreted as a reaction of the city’s Hispanic populace to the increasingly secular and bohemian nature of the city. In today’s Fiesta, La Conquistadora and her traveling double contend with and offer a counterpoint to Zozobra, like David and Goliath.”
Despite Fiesta’s strong ties to Catholicism, former queens are very clear that their role is a civic one. “It’s not an ecclesiastical role,” said Quintana-Bowles, who organized a La Fonda luncheon in August for all former queens, the first gathering of its kind. “La Reina is not meant to represent a Marian figure or virginity or anything like that. She’s on the same
level as the mayor and represents the beauty, intelligence, poise, and prosperity of the city.”
Recent controversies, like this year’s dethroning of Española’s Fiesta queen for posting disparaging comments about that community on Facebook following the theft of her crown, or a physical confrontation between La Reina and other members of the 2009 Santa Fe Fiesta Court, have been detrimental to the image of the Fiesta queen, contentious colonial history aside. But the vast majority of former queens continue to take the role very seriously and see it as an essential part of Fiesta. “Before I was queen, going to fiestas and walking around the Plaza was fine; it was good, but once I became involved I saw a deeper meaning,” said Linda Borrego, queen in 1972 at twenty.
For the women who portray her, the influence of being La Reina is lifelong, and part of a former queen’s identity, even decades after the fact. “I still remember the night of my coronation,” said Ida Sanchez-Fernandez, who was twenty-three when she was queen in 1957. “My husband — who I hadn’t dated yet — was standing nearby, and he said to his friend, ‘I want to marry that girl.’ Well, after Fiesta, he asked me for a date. He’s eighty-two, and he talks about it even to this day — he was just so proud of being married to the Fiesta queen.”
Harry M. Davidson: Fiesta queen during the Fiesta parade on Lincoln Avenue, 1949; opposite page, Fiesta queen MariaIda Sanchez, 1957, Negative No. HP.2009.91.2; images courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)
Left, Harvey Caplin: Fiesta queen Mary Esther Garcia in front of San Miguel Church, 1958; right, New Mexico Tourism Bureau: Fiesta queen and her court, Sunday morning procession on East San Francisco Street, circa 1950; below, Neil Jacobs: Fiesta queen Karmella Borrego leading a procession, 1983; opposite page, top, Fiesta queen MariaIda Sanchez and her court, 1957; opposite page, bottom, Fiesta queen Olinda Rodriguez, 1936; images courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)