The Quadricentennial three-day festival filled Cougar Park in Socorro, just a few miles from San Elizario, where Don Juan de Oñate and his expedition arrived at the Rio Grande in 1598. The park was turned into a Renaissance Spanish village reminiscent of Oñate's time.Image caption: University of Júarez dance troupe performed for large crowds during the festival. Photo by Danny Martinez.
Despite the windy weather, spectators enjoyed a reenactment of what local historians have termed the "First Thanksgiving."
The year, Hector Serrano, head of the Drama department at El Paso Community College, directed the pageant, with a large cast of actors and volunteers dressed as Spanish soldiers, Franciscan friars and colonists. University of Juárez students, many of whom are descendants from Indian living in this area 400 years ago, began the pageant with series of dances.
Serrano narrated the story of Oñate's expedition which traveled through desert and mountains trying to find a shorter, more direct trail to New Mexico. Actor Don Pasco played Oñate convincingly.
The group reenacted "La Toma," in which Oñate took possession of the land for Don Felipe II, king of Spain. Then the colonists gave thanks to God for bringing them to the Pass of the North to water, abundant food and friendly natives. At the end of the drama, a flock of white doves was released to the enthusiastic applause of the audience. About 500 spectators watched each day's reenactment of the First Thanksgiving. On Sunday, April 26, a standing-room-only crowd showed its approval for the solemn play.
On Friday, April 24, about 7,000 area elementary school students were the first to take part in the festival which had several booths and performers to captivate little ones.
"It's different," said Linda Self, who moved to El Paso from Dallas last year. "It's good to see children are learning about the First Thanksgiving, and that this event was celebrated before the one we normally remember in November."
Art students at Del Valle High School worked on a mural entitled "The Truth And Our History," depicting El Paso's multicultural origins.
"We drew this mural to symbolize the faces and places that make El Paso what it is today," said artist Rogelio Gaytan. The completed mural is to be displayed at the Ysleta Independent School District Cultural Arts Center.
The Crowds of both adults and children in attendance pleased artistic director Serrano, who thought the reenactment was a great success even though problems exist. "Historically, Cougar Park makes sense as the festival site, and the Socorro community was very supportive and went out of their way to help," he said. But the space provided for a large cast was limited and volunteers could not always attend the festival every day.Image caption: One of the most popular features of the festival were the New Riders of the Golden Age jousting team. Photo by Hector Santiago.
"I'd scale the reenactment down and use fewer people but present more performances a day," said Serrano.
For the past eight years, the El Paso Mission Trail Association has reenacted this historic event at the Chamizal National Memorial. This year's extended festival could not be held at the Chamizal because of space limitations. Sheldon Hall, Chairman of the El Paso Quadricentennial Commission, said "We used to do a one-hour reenactment, and the festival would last a half-day and cost us $40,000."
Hall says the Commission raised over $300,000 for the festival this year. After expenses, 30% of the remaining money will be donated to the Socorro Mission for repairs and restoration. The rest of the money will provide a basis on which to build annual festivals in the future. Hall credits the Quadricentennial Commission for doing a tremendous amount of work. Hundreds of volunteers also worked on the festival to ensure success.
Hall has started an organization called the Historic El Paso Corporation. "This organization is not in competition with the El Paso Mission Trail Association. We are focused on the restoration of all historic sites throughout El Paso County to promote tourism and education about E Paso's history," he says.
"We also want to promote the First Thanksgiving throughout the state and the nation. We would like to assist the El Paso Mission Trial Association and other groups in this endeavor," said Hall, who directed the Mission Trail Association for many years.
Several locations besides El Paso and Plymouth Rock have claimed the first Thanksgiving as their own. Canyon, Texas, claims that Francisco Vásquez de Coronado held the first feast of thanks there in 1541. Popham, Maine, claims that in 1607 the colonists under the leadership of George Popham offered thanks upon their arrival in the New World. And Virginians claim that English settlers held the first Thanksgiving in 1610.
Hall and other supporters of the First Thanksgiving hope that El Paso spreads the word of this festival, and tourists begin to visit El Paso during April's festivities. "El Paso needs to promote itself in other cities," said Hall. "Maybe tourists would visit El Paso instead of making a beeline to Mexico."
While this year's festival did not seem to attract too many tourists, it did how that El Pasoans are interested in their own history. More and more history texts around the country are starting to include the history of the Southwest and Oñate's great feat of bringing hundreds of colonists through a burning hot desert to forge a new land. Maybe next year El Paso will invite the entire country to its birthday party.