Since Las Vegas was founded in 1835, fiestas have been celebrated at the Old Town Plaza, but a Fourth of July celebration did not begin until 1882.
Before then, grand celebrations were held on the Plaza for traditional Hispanic religious funciones on July 25 and 26, los días de Santiago y Santa Ana (St. James the Greater, patron saint of Spain, and St. Anne, patron saint of mothers and family). These religious feast days have been celebrated by the Hispanic community for centuries, and are still commemorated throughout New Mexico.
The early fiestas always began with Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, followed by many joyous activities on the plaza. These included la corrida del gallo, in which caballeros competed by stooping from their galloping horses, grabbing buried roosters and fighting off their opponents. There were also cockfights, horse races and bullfights.
Another festive occurrence during the funciones was the traditional parade of señoritas and caballeros, who strode around the plaza, exhibiting their eligibility for marriage, followed by fandangos (dances), with musicians singing and parading in the square.
In 1882, 129 years ago, the combined city of east and west Las Vegas inaugurated the first Fourth of July celebration at the Plaza Park, to which all were welcomed by mayor Eugenio Romero. A few years later, east Las Vegas broke away and established itself as a separate municipality, and for some time the eastside held its separate Fourth of July celebration, with festivities at Hillsite (Carnegie) and Lincoln Parks.
Later the two towns resumed a joint celebration at the Old Town Plaza, although for many years each town had competing brass bands. The East Las Vegas ensemble was the Las Vegas Military Band, and Old Town featured the New Mexico Brass Band, organized and sponsored by Don Eugenio.
After the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders held their first reunion in Las Vegas in 1899, attended by their lieutenant colonel and future president, Teddy Roosevelt.
Thereafter the reunion was held in different places around the country until 1952, when the Rough Riders decided to hold their reunion permanently in Las Vegas, “to the last man,” and for many years the reunion became part of our July 4th celebration.
In 1964, four surviving Rough Riders attended their reunion. They were Charles Hopping and A. L. Tuttle, both Californians, Frank Brito of Las Cruces, and Jesse Langdon of New York. Langdon, then in his late late 80s, drove to the reunion from New York, in a sports car, and rode horseback in the parade. (The last reunion was held in 1968, attended by Jesse Langdon alone, who kept the Rough Riders’ pledge to come here to the last man.)
For many years, off and on, our July 4th celebration was a combined Fiesta, Rough Riders reunion and rodeo, the latter held for several decades at the rodeo grounds located where Walmart is today. The rodeo grounds boasted a large grand stand and arena, and featured world-class competition, including Las Vegas legend Dee Bibb, a world champion bulldogger.
Las Vegas has always had an arena of one kind or another at various sites, one of the earliest located west of Our Lady Of Sorrows Church, where bullfights were held during Fiestas. Another was east of Hot Springs Boulevard, about a block from Mills Avenue, where world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson defended his title against Jim Flynn on July 4, 1912.
Entertainment at Fiestas has always been an attraction, and besides the brass bands mentioned earlier, local groups have always performed. In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Maurilio Antuna and his band, and Ernesto Guerin and his ensemble, provided live entertainment, as did for many years the Abeyta family, the Lucero brothers (Benny and Lloyd), and Lencho Sacoman. Internationally acclaimed Mexican artists were also featured, and in the 1950s and ‘60s included Lydia Mendoza and José Alfredo Jiménez, as well as Albuquerque’s Benny Martinez and his Mariachi del Norte, and Tamborín and his Ortiz family troupe.
Amusement rides are usually part of Fiestas, and over the years a carnival has been situated at sundry locations, including Lopez Park, along the north side of the park, and on Valencia Street, in the empty lot behind the Bridge Street buildings.
Our Fiesta has always been graced by a queen and her court, and in times past, a boy king was also selected. For many years the queen was determined by which young lady collected the most money, and glass jars with a contestant’s picture were displayed throughout town, soliciting donations. Wisely, this practice ended some time ago.
No homecoming equals the Las Vegas Fiestas, when we come together from far and near in celebration of our longtime gathering of family and friends!
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.