As I walked out the gate, the coyotes were yipping and yowling, their songs echoing up from the nearby arroyo. They might have been celebrating three hours of rain, a rare event here in parched Santa Fe County, New Mexico, which is now in the second year of a deep drought. This summer and its accompanying monsoon weather have brought some relief, but the long-term prognosis, driven by the rapidity of climate change, does not bode well for those who live throughout the Southwest.
My wife and I moved almost a decade ago to a home in the country several miles west of Santa Fe, the “City Different.” Years earlier we had both been here for our professional work, and together came more recently for a few weeks each summer to enjoy the spectacular high desert scenery, the vibrant cultural life, and making new friendships.
We live most of the time in Seattle, coming south in the warmer months. Fearing the COVID risks, we had not been here since January of last year, arriving this past mid-May after almost 16 months away. Nothing worked at our house, including just about everything. A lot works in Santa Fe, but it too needs some fixing.
The city was established by the Spanish in 1610 as the capital of Nuevo Mexico and made the same when New Mexico entered the Union in 1912. Santa Fe sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet, the highest and the oldest seat of state government in the country. It has two major industries, government and tourism, with a third sector far smaller, but still potent economically, the sale of art.
Its unique architectural style is a combination of the traditional mixture of Spanish, Pueblo, and related historical influences, abetted by a decision by city fathers almost a century ago to retain the “traditional” look to encourage tourism. Thereafter, and still today, strict zoning laws apply to new construction and renovations in the Historic District.
It’s not only a city different but a city changing. One problem is how divided the city is by race, economy, age, and history. The majority of the population of 83,922 is of Hispanic white and non-white ancestry, some tracing their roots to early colonial times. The remainder are non-Hispanic whites, a small percentage of Native Americans, and smaller numbers of African- and Asian-Americans. The proportion of seniors, many of them affluent whites, is unusually high compared to the rest of the state.
Santa Fe’s colonial history remains complex and contentious more than 400 years after the Spanish subdued the area’s Pueblo Indian communities. In 1680, the pueblos revolted against their Spanish overlords, driving them out of the region and killing hundreds including Catholic priests who had been busy for decades converting the “heathens.”
Twelve years later, the Spaniards returned, taking control. In 1712 the colonial administration first celebrated the Fiesta de Santa Fe, a series of events with powerful Catholic roots, still held annually and commemorating the return of Spanish control 20 years earlier.
Since 2012 when we first arrived, the tensions between the Hispanic traditionalists and area Native Americans and their allies have grown palpable, accelerated more recently by Black Lives Matter protests.
Traditionally, the Fiesta began with the Entrada, a parade of caballeros in period costumes entering Santa Fe from the north. They were re-enacting the triumphal return of the Spanish marking the end of the Pueblo Revolt. When first seen by us it was exciting, impressive – – men in helmets on horses! — and disturbing. Perhaps there had been protests of it before, but they accelerated yearly, and in 2018 the Fiesta Committee cancelled this event.
Activists have also applied pressure to remove vestiges of colonial rule present in statues and monuments in and near the Plaza, the historic center of the town, and on the grounds of the nearby Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi. In October 2020, demonstrators toppled the obelisk at the center of the Plaza erected in 1866 to honor Civil War-era Union soldiers who died in battle. Its plaque featured a phrase that described Native Americans as “savage Indians.” It had been chipped away by a protester years earlier but to some it still induced bitter memories. While some in the community applauded this action, many condemned this destruction.
At the same time, Santa Fe has long attracted visual artists, spiritualists, and those wanting an alternative lifestyle. Their numbers burgeoned in the 20th century as they found here a receptive and supportive community of like-minded people. Living here as we do, we can understand why.
Nearby Native American cultures provided inspiration to some, as did the freedom to create a new life. There is crystalline air and light, mountains and stark rock formations whose colors change as the day proceeds. There are so many indelible sunsets my wife Joan and I laughingly rank them from C to A+. The seemingly unending sky, one moment nary a cloud, next filled by darkness followed, though not enough these days, by lightning, thunder, and a deluge. One August night the first summer we lived here huge electrical flashes, enormous claps of sound, and rainstorms surrounded us in every direction for hour upon hour.
Santa Fe has long been an important art market for those interested in Southwest Native American antique and contemporary baskets, weavings, pottery, jewelry, and painting. There are many fine contemporary art galleries. And, of course, a plethora of shops with inventory that ensures the visitor that they are leaving with a small piece of “authentic” Native American art or a tchotchke as a souvenir of their visit.
The annual Indian Market, cancelled last year and restricted this one by COVID, is an enormous affair, usually filling the downtown streets with vendors and viewers. There is also a yearly Folk Arts Market (also diminished this year) attracting thousands and featuring crafts people from many countries. It is held on Museum Hill, a spectacular site to the southeast of downtown.
My interest in coming to Santa Fe was that it was also a center for antique tribal arts from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. When we first came for a summer visit 20 years ago there were galleries showing this work and three big summer tribal art shows. Dealers came from all over the country and overseas. The Santa Fe Flea Market located just out of town, now long gone, was perhaps the best in the country for tribal art discoveries.
In recent years the field of tribal arts has undergone significant change. Dealers and collectors have aged and not been replaced by younger ones. Online offerings have vastly increased their market share even before COVID. Galleries have closed, and the quality of works and the international participation in the summer shows have declined. I still attend them to see friends and acquaintances, and always with the hope of new discoveries. However reduced, the tribal arts community in Santa Fe remains a nurturing one for me.
Santa Fe’s large and diverse visual arts community reaches well beyond my areas of interest, and has become an influential presence in town. Santa Fe had more movie “art” houses pre-COVID than Seattle, including the little gem, Jean Cocteau Cinema, whose benefactor is Game of Thrones creator and local resident George R. R. Martin.
Two art experiences stand out to me, both reflecting the importance of the arts to the local community. One, Meow Wolf, is an astounding success story. A group of younger artists who worked outside the established contemporary arts scene found a vehicle for their collective dreams. Working together for years with virtually no funding they found the ideal home, a former bowling alley in a part of town well away from the Historic District. George R. R. Martin was the financial angel who helped them purchase the building.
The work of multiple artists, Meow Wolf is part traditional fun house, psychedelic trip, and bizarre encapsulated environments. It is also a concert venue and has an impressive on-line presence.
Opened in 2016, it was an instant success and is now a commercial company, spawning two offspring, the first in Las Vegas, and soon to open in Denver, with plans for other locations underway.
Meow Wolf partially addresses another Santa Fe problem for many years — keeping or attracting young people. The economic base and business spectrum are limited, the population skews older, and cultural attractions like the opera and chamber music venues appeal to more mature audiences. Residential rents are inflated by a limited housing stock, with many homes off the market as tourist B&Bs or as second homes for outsiders.
Nonetheless, in only a few years and despite the challenges of COVID Meow Wolf has become a singularly important venue for local young people and families. It generates income for its owners, participating artists, and for the city. My personal favorite when I visited, other than the huge spider sculpture that sits in the parking lot, was opening a refrigerator door containing not food, but a portal I passed through to a new world, not quite on par with my, let’s say, chemical experimentations of the ‘60s, but still pretty good.
The second shared communal arts experience, both ritual and spectacle, is one unique to Santa Fe — the burning of Zozobra. Started in 1924 by artist Will Shuster in his backyard, Zozobra (Spanish for anxiety or worry) has over time become one of the world’s largest marionettes standing above 50 feet tall. The local Kiwanis Club now owns the rights, using the income generated for their charitable purposes.
In the weeks before Zozobra’s immolation, locals and those from around the world prepare slips of paper declaring “gloom” in their lives they wish to dispel. These are then stuffed into the giant figure. Occasionally, other items such as divorce documents and mortgages, even once a wedding gown, are placed within.
The great purifying spectacle, including a number of dancing performers is held on the grounds of Fort Marcy Park the Friday night before Labor Day. The enormous marionette, “old man gloom,” whose features have remained constant over time, is burned to the ground. Up to 60,000 people attend the event. Recently there have been “theme decades.” This year was the 1980s. Zozobra was attired in a huge replica of Michael Jackson’s jacket from the “Thriller” video.
Let me end by citing one more problem my new adopted city needs to solve. One of the many things I liked about Seattle when first I came there almost 40 years ago was that people seemed unusually polite. Not garrulous, not obstreperous, not quick to befriend you, but nice. As a native New Yorker I was enchanted — though when driving, I often got impatient with the Alphonse and Gaston routine encountered at street corners without a stoplight. People in Santa Fe are the same in many ways, though perhaps more lively and garrulous than those I first encountered in Seattle. However, there is one big difference.
When they are in their motor vehicles, a scary minority of locals dispense with any illusion of niceness. They are terrors on the road. If you move too quickly after the light turns green you court disaster. Drivers regularly go through red lights and consider stop signs an unnecessary formality. They tailgate, pass you illegally, and drive at speeds that approach that of light.
Why all this aggression? Rage supressed in their non-motorized lives? Drugs, alcohol, which are a real problem here? Cowboy mentality? I don’t know but wild it is.
Still, Santa Fe is a unique and bewitching place, rich with cultural amenities, surrounded by stunning countryside and with lots of progressive thinking. It’s a place where one can make friends easily, receive more types of alternative health treatments than ever imagined, and feast on the famed regional cuisine. Lots to love, but if you do come, one caveat: Don’t drive.