New Mexico cultural group stands up for Spanish heritage

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Time mattered when Virgil Vigil flew wounded soldiers to the hospital in a medevac helicopter during the Vietnam War.

Vigil, a former pilot and retired Army colonel, said the life-or-death 60 minutes was called the golden hour.

“You go and you pick up your patient at the site of injury, wherever that may be,” he said. “If you can get that patient into the hospital to get medical care (within an hour), their chances of surviving are much greater.”

Now 66, Vigil told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he’s once again fighting against time but in a much different battle in his hometown.

Spanish culture in Santa Fe is under attack, dividing a city and leaving longtime Hispanic residents who take great pride in their ancestry feeling wounded, said Vigil, president of Union Protectiva de Santa Fe. The normally quiet and relatively unknown Spanish fraternal organization in recent months has become a vocal player in a thorny debate over historic monuments.

Founded in 1915 and said to be one of the oldest organizations of its kind, Union Protectiva de Santa Fe jumped into the fray following Mayor Alan Webber’s unilateral decision in June to remove a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from a downtown park.

Protesters’ destruction of the historic obelisk in the center of the Santa Fe Plaza on Oct. 12 has emboldened the group even more.

“The mayor really (expletive) up,” said Richard Barela, 70, vice president of the organization.

But tensions have been simmering for years after what organization members consider other slights to Spanish culture.

Among them was a decision to end the Entrada, a controversial reenactment of Spain’s reentry into Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Indigenous activists and others considered the pageant, part of Fiesta de Santa Fe, revisionist history and a celebration of conquest.

But local Hispanics who trace their roots back generations were angered and saddened to see it end. The Santa Fe school board then voted to limit the presence of the Fiesta royal court, including a costumed de Vargas, at schools after some people complained that the annual visits glorified Spanish colonization on what had been tribal land.

“We are at the ‘golden hour’ point right now,” Vigil said. “If we don’t stand up and stop this attack on our history and our culture, the patient is going to die — and that’s our history and our culture.”

__

Humble beginnings

For Union Protectiva de Santa Fe, which has about 450 members, from carpenters and city workers to a former mayor and a two-time lieutenant governor of New Mexico, it’s a matter of principle.

The organization was established to “help preserve the language and culture of Santa Fe … for future generations and descendants of the original Spanish colonists,” according to its website.

The group still conducts its meetings and keeps minutes in Spanish as part of its commitment to keep the language alive.

Its first mission, however, was to help families pay for “proper Christian burials” — a practice that continues today.

“When one of the members dies, we donate to the family members $2,500 to help defray their costs of a burial,” Vigil said. “At one time, that used to pay for the burial, but not any longer.”

In recent weeks, the organization has been spending money on newspaper advertisements calling for, among other things, the return of the de Vargas statue to Cathedral Park. Webber has said he removed the artwork for safekeeping ahead of a planned protest that he feared could turn violent after a shooting in Albuquerque involving a statue of another conquistador, Juan de Oñate.

Officials of Union Protectiva de Santa Fe declined to divulge details about its finances but said it is financially strong.

“We could fund an (advertisement) against what’s going on in the city today every week and it won’t even make a dent on us,” Vigil said.

“We’ve grown a lot,” said outgoing Santa Fe County Treasurer Patrick “Pat” Varela, who has helped the organization invest its money. “I use my business skills to help the organization.”

Barela said Union Protectiva has an estimated $14 million in real estate assets, including the former Second Ward School on Sandoval Street, which it rents for wedding receptions and other events. The group has other rental properties, including on Acequia Madre and Camino del Monte Sol on the city’s affluent east side.

In 2008, the late Rafael Ortiz Jr., then president of the organization, said members used to pay a nickel a month in what he likened to union dues. Today, members pay $35 a year.

Former Santa Fe Mayor Joseph Valdez, 90, said he used to pay about 25 cents a week when he first joined.

__

‘Union,’ ‘proteccion,’ ‘instruccion’

In addition to Valdez, the organization counts several other prominent Hispanics as members: former Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragón, former Santa Fe County Sheriff Eddie Armijo, former Santa Fe City Councilor Ron Trujillo and state Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde. The late and longtime Republican congressman Manuel Luján Jr. was a member.

Most members are Catholic and Hispanic, but neither is a requirement to join, said Barela, adding the organization has about 30 members who are white.

“We’re looking for individuals that have the desire to belong to this organization, that want to follow our tenets, our pillars, and will help us maintain that,” Barela said. “That’s the type of individual that we look for.”

The organization has three principles, all geared toward Spanish culture: union, or unity; proteccion, or protection; and instruccion, or education.

Recruitment is mostly by word of mouth, but membership is usually a family tradition.

The group is not exactly a household name, though it’s familiar to longtime Hispanic families in Santa Fe.

Its presence mostly has been in Spanish cultural events, such as participating in religious processions, providing financial assistance to the Santa Fe Fiesta Council and the Caballeros de Vargas, and sponsoring candidates competing for the role of the Fiesta queen, or La Reina, and de Vargas.

“The Union Protectiva, if they bless you, (the candidates) always win,” Barela said, laughing.

Elena Tercero, daughter of former Santa Fe County Commissioner Miguel Chavez, another member of the organization, said she was honored to be sponsored by the group when she successfully competed to be La Reina in the late 1990s.

“At 18, I wanted to make them as proud as I could that they selected me as their candidate that year, regardless of the outcome,” she said.

Tercero said the organization helps keep the history of Santa Fe and New Mexico alive, similar to La Sociedad Folklórica.

“These two organizations, when I was growing up, worked very closely together, and most often the husband belonged to one and the wife the other,” she said. “They brought pieces of the cultural diversity alive for me growing up — things that I wish were talked about more in day-to-day conversations, not just about the topics that most know about when it comes to fiestas and its meaning.”

Today, the conversation has turned more political.

__

‘Colonialism and white supremacy’

Leaders of the organization blame Webber for the controversy over historic monuments, accusing him of listening to what they call “radical” Indigenous activist groups like the Three Sisters Collective and The Red Nation.

“Governors from the pueblos don’t recognize those Three Sisters, they don’t recognize The Red Nation, and they say that they don’t speak for them,” Vigil said.

Neither the Three Sisters Collective nor The Red Nation returned messages seeking comment. However, the Three Sisters Collective posted The New Mexican’s written request for comment on its Instagram and Facebook pages.

“We have no issue with our Hispanic/Norteno/Spanish/Latinx relatives, rather the systems of white supremacy that continue to affect both our communities,” they wrote in the posts. “Displacement and erasure are issues that our communities have a shared reality and perspective in, which are both rooted in ongoing colonialism and white supremacy. We request that any commenters do not spew racist or violent comments towards (the reporter) or the Hispanic community.”

Amid a nationwide reckoning on race and social justice, Webber over the summer called for the removal of three monuments in Santa Fe — the de Vargas statue; the obelisk on the Plaza, which was dedicated in part to the “heroes” who fought against “savage Indians;” and an obelisk on federal property in honor of Christopher “Kit” Carson, a frontiersman who led military campaigns against Native Americans.

The mayor was able to remove the de Vargas statue from Cathedral Park in June and appeared on the Plaza stage with the Three Sisters Collective afterward.

Removing the obelisk from the Plaza, a designated National Historic Landmark, proved more challenging.

Activists grew impatient and took matters into their own hands on Indigenous Peoples Day, toppling the obelisk after police left the scene.

“The mayor failed to take responsibility for protecting our city, protecting monuments, protecting the people,” said Vigil, who explored an effort to recall Webber but said he’s unlikely to launch it in time because of the onerous requirements.

Vigil, who exchanged words with Webber outside a downtown restaurant in September over removal of the de Vargas statue, leveled a serious charge against the mayor, accusing him of “purposely” turning his back on protecting the obelisk from destruction. The incident worked to the mayor’s advantage, he said.

Webber on Friday called the accusation a “false conspiracy theory.”

Vigil said it’s more than historic monuments that are at stake.

“You see a trend happening,” he said. “We have to put a stop to this trend because it’s like a set of dominoes. Hit the first domino and then they all start falling down. That’s exactly what’s happening here.”