Fiesta starts in San Antonio this week, a sure sign that the doldrums of winter and sacrifices of Lent are over and that the weather is certifiably warm enough for beer and margaritas. Fiesta is ten-day city-wide celebration of Tex-Mex history and culture that has been going on for 126 years now. What began as a small parade of flower-bedecked carriages in front of the Alamo in 1891 has evolved into an internationally-known celebration that truly offers something for everyone at every age for every interest and at every taste level. Fiesta attracts around 3.5 million visitors each year to San Antonio; the Battle of Flowers Parade, alone, draws almost a half million spectators along its route.
There are several parades during Feista, in the streets and on the River, with flowers, flames, and lights; there’s even one for pooches. There are the foods of Fiesta: Mexican, German, Cajun, Gulf seafood, barbecue, even flaming Cheetos, all with beer and margaritas, of course. There is the music: mariachis, along with the San Antonio Symphony, conjunto tejano, military and marching bands, and rock groups and New Orleans jazz, not to mention the musicians and mimes in Market Square. And then there is the pageantry and tradition of it all, from the stunning coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo and her royal court, to the craziness of “Cornyation,” the irreverent satire and outrageous spoof of Fiesta royalty that has raised millions of dollars for AIDS-related charities. Proceeds from all Fiesta events, by the way, go toward charities and conservation, and the entire enterprise depends on thousands of local volunteers.
Not surprisingly, most of them are women. In fact, the whole Fiesta celebration was begun by a woman, Ellen Sladen, the wife of a congressman, as a salute to the heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. It was her idea to decorate those carriages in front of the Alamo back in 1891, and to have two lines of them confront each other and the occupants pelt each other with fresh flowers — thus, the Battle of Flowers. Today, the Battle of Flowers Parade is the only one in the country to be planned and directed completely by women; it is second in size only to the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Fresh flowers are no longer used on the floats, however; rather, paper and foil flowers are handmade by Mary Rose Garcia and six other women, all relatives of her mother who began doing this in 1923. These women work five days a week, 8 hours a day, from late January to April, to make what is needed for the 38 floats; this year, that amounts to over 15,000 new flowers, many in the new colors of dark green to enhance the 2017 theme of Global World Heritage locations. (The four San Antonio missions, plus the Alamo, were named, collectively, as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015.)
Then there is the Chair of the cascarones, overseeing a group of 25 female volunteers who make the 25,000 to 30,000 confetti eggs that are sold, and cracked over the heads of revelers, during Fiesta. Having a cascarón cracked over your head is supposed to be good luck, and is a Mexican tradition enjoyed throughout South Texas all year long, especially during the Eastertime. (As a teenager, when a boy cracked a cascarón on my head during our spring carnival, it meant he liked me. I used to make cascarones for that spring carnival as a student when I was in Catholic school, but we won’t get into that now.)
And finally there are the seamstresses, the talented and patient women who painstakingly hand embroider and embellish with thousands of beads and sequins the 10 foot trains that trail the dresses of the 25 duchesses and the princess of the royal court. Under the direction of the Mistress of the Robes, who determines the theme, and local designers who then interpret that theme, seven women work from the previous August to create these extravagant garments. (The female royalty is chosen each year by the all-male members of the Order of the Alamo, and King Antonio, who escorts the Queen and who is usually two or three times her age, is chosen from among the all-male members of the Texas Cavaliers. But we won’t get into all that either right now.)
Suffice it to say that, by and large, Fiesta is a woman’s thing, una cosa de mujer. Yes, it is a wonderful event, a genuine source of civic pride and distinction for San Antonio, for South Texas, and for all the various cultures and traditions that co-mingle here, but it has a legion of “behind the scenes” heroines who are all too often unsung. That, too, is a Texas tradition.
So what else is new?