LA CONQUISTADORA / Chevalier
Unveiling the History of a Six Hundred Year Old Religious Icon
During the 1970s, I studied Latin at Santa Fe High School for four years with Pedro Ribera-Ortega. Learning a long-dead language served no career goal or specific purpose in my curriculum, but Ribera-Ortega’s custom of producing an annual Roman banquet at the school, where all the students wore togas and swilled grape juice out of jugs, appealed to my sense of drama, history, and symbolism, so I enrolled in his Latin classes.
When “Mr. Ortega” gave us our lessons (to this day, I can recite the pledge of allegiance in Latin), he would often seem sorely beset by the cares of the world and burdened by off-campus concerns. Later, I learned that he had extremely important duties at St. Francis Cathedral (now a Basilica), none of which I understood, but which kept him extremely busy year-round. I discovered that Mr. Ortega had a much more exalted and mysterious title because he was serving, as he had for many years, as mayordomo, leader of the ancient La Cofradía de la Conquistadora, an organization that is devoted to the care and preservation of La Conquistadora, the nation’s oldest Marian statue, preserved in the La Conquistadora Chapel at Santa Fe’s St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral Basilica.
Of Our Lady, shadowy images came to my mind: processions witnessed, as if in a dream, of her standard-bearers during Fiesta processions and other solemn occasions. But, what, truly, did I know of her? The romance of the Christian knighthood that protected her was far more intriguing than the pageantry of high school toga parties.
I determined to learn more and to compile facts about her origins, the stories of her existence, and the people who serve her. What I learned along the way is vastly different from what I set out to do. I began by compiling new evidence about La Conquistadora that had come to light since publication of the definitive work on this subject: Our Lady of the Conquest, written in 1948 by Fray Angélico Chávez (reissued in 2010 by Sunstone Press), and his companion volume from 1954, the quasi-autobiographical La Conquistadora: The Autobiography of an Ancient Statue (revised and reissued in 1983 by Sunstone Press).
The importance of La Conquistadora is as compelling today as it was then: this powerful symbol, the nation’s oldest Madonna, deserves special study due to her proximity to the history of two continents and of the nation’s oldest capital. She witnessed, as it were, more than three centuries of the tumultuous past that created the social upheaval and clash of cultures that has now been transmuted into a place known as being in the vanguard of social reconciliation and justice, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I originally wanted merely to update Chávez’s work with new empirical evidence about La Conquistadora. I believed that the material deserved a certain scientific detachment, and that undertaking a strictly objective analysis of recent developments; such as the scientific analysis of the wood used to make her, the x-ray examination of her interior structure, and the 1973 kidnapping, would amplify understanding of La Conquistadora’s hold on the public’s imagination and illuminate her legend.
But as I endeavored to catalogue the memories of things that happened to her, around her, and about her, I was not prepared for the inner journey this quest triggered in me. I could not separate the strong feelings I experienced from the material, so I beg the reader’s indulgence for places where emotion about the material colored the text, resist it as I might.
The objective facts of her existence have transcended mere history, earthly confines, and science to achieve something more: proof, if you will, of the spiritual lore that has made her a legend; that she is not only an actual statue but simultaneously a symbol, a prayer and a proof of abiding love to many. She is not a mere bulto, a long-dead block of wood, but a living symbol of faith, visited sometimes by over 100 people per hour.
The subject matter of this book made me a student of geography, as I shuttled back and forth along the dizzying trails of La Conquistadora’s many journeys across two continents in two hemispheres. Any student of La Conquistadora must be a time traveler of sorts, seeking an understanding of how her travels over as many as six different centuries have contributed to her mythology.
But most of all, Our Lady brings its subjects on a spiritual journey with her, exploring pathways to the human heart, learning that some things cross all dimensions of time and space, and drift into that ethereal continuum, that drift called the infinite, which divides mere mortals from immortality but which unites us with eternity.