Santa Fe, New Mexico is many things to many people, but it’s not often experienced as more than the glossy magazine page portrayed to tourists. It’s artsy. It’s old. It’s a great place to pick up some Indian jewelry.
It’s true that the arts community is vibrant, renowned, and well-funded by pretentious money. Canyon Road is phenomenal. And it is old. Santa Fe was founded in the 1600’s by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600’s, though the area was inhabited by pueblo Indians for centuries prior.
But few people know the town from the perspective of a local. Santa Fe is paradoxical and divided. The money coming through from California and New York does not trickle down to Cerrillos Boulevard, and nobody will tell you about the heroin coming up the main vein of I-25 to Espanola. It’s a wild place, unpretentious to the point of vulgarity, impoverished, and misunderstood by vacationers. It has a high crime rate.
Yet Santa Fe is a progressive place too, with more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world. It has a great farmer’s market, and a proportionately larger gay community than San Francisco. The world-famous Santa Fe Opera house is just outside of town, but so are the shabby casinos. The poverty and privilege don’t mix. BMWs and teal cigarette holders juxtapose panhandlers and dilapidated Monte Carlos. The dirt poor ranches near town couldn’t be farther from the Manhattanites living there for the summer.
The two worlds pass each other most closely on the centuries-old Plaza, which is the soul and heart of the town. Approaching the popular area by car is difficult, especially if you don’t know the area’s quirks. The narrow streets, once goat trails, long predate the automobile.
Native jewelers line the adobe mud buildings of the Plaza and spread blankets under the overhanging viggas. Holiday goers swarm the food carts and mull through the galleries lining the square. Panhandlers and buckers are here too, with guitar cases laid flat for dollars, instruments and musicians looking worse for the wear.
Shops in the plaza area are a menagerie as well, ranging from world class galleries to the Five-and-Dime where you can purchase a bowl of chili poured directly into a snack size bag of Frito Lays. Guadalupe’s Café off Old Santa Fe Trail serves better food – authentic northern New Mexican cuisine – but a Frito Pie in a plastic bag is an equally valid cultural experience.
If you really want the full range Santa Fe experience, certainly visit the galleries, but also coordinate your trip with the Burning of Zozobra. Every harvest season, the town celebrates with the Fiesta Days, or simply “fiesta” to many of the locals, and the burning of a flailing, 60-foot marionette. Zozobra is Spanish for anxiety, and the burning releases angst and worry.
Over the 92 years the event has been held, the experience has become wilder, such that the city has moved the event to a Thursday due to its sometimes violent energy. A crowd gathers on the baseball field next to the fire station, and the energy builds in anticipation of the fire dancers and the actual lighting. The drunken masses chant – BURN HIM! BURN HIM! – in what is essentially a mock execution.
The Zozobra puppet is stuffed with the unwanted papers of citizens of the city – parking tickets, divorce papers, credit card bills – so the emotional energy of the tightly packed field can be intense. As the flames engulf Zozobra, his arms fail and his head shakes, a moaning scream is played through a PA system and the crowd explodes in cheers. The divorce has been finalized.
If You Go
If you go, checkout Zozobra after you hit the galleries on the Plaza, and also consider the drive 30 minutes south to the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The volcanic rock spires are incredible, and the brief hike is a great day excursion into the wondrous desert. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience one of the brief afternoon rains and the smell of the sagebrush afterward.
Jack Bohannan is a freelance writer and former resident of Santa Fe now living in the Denver area.