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Viva Fiesta!

It’s that time of year again in San Antonio: Fiesta! The City stops — at least the downtown traffic does — to clear the way for ten days of parades, food, flowers, special events and celebrations all the way down Broadway and along the famed Riverwalk. It is exuberant, colorful, joyful, and fun. And after three years of Covid restrictions and cancellations, this year’s fully back-to-normal celebration is especially welcomed (even if the weather is proving uncooperative and concerns about Covid among the crowds are already being voiced). But in San Antonio, Fiesta is a sign of spring and summer and the rejuvenation of hope in the Alamo City. Hence this year’s motto: Viva Fiesta!

     This will be the 132nd year of Fiesta, founded in 1891 by a group of citizens to honor heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Over the years, Fiesta has only been cancelled a few times, due to WWI (1918) and WWII (1942-45). It was postponed in 2020 because Covid, and ultimately cancelled that year, brought back somewhat but moved to June in 2021, and then resumed, but still scaled back in 2022. So this year is a big deal for Fiesta. The City and the sponsoring Texas Cavaliers are hoping that the projected 2.5 million visitors for the events will show up.

     The celebration culminates with the Battle of Flowers parade, this year on April 28. Back in 1891, that parade originated with having two lines of carriages decorated with flowers parading in front of the Alamo as their occupants pelted each other with flowers. That was the idea of a woman named Ellen Sladen, the wife of a congressman, in a salute to the heroes of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. Hence, the Battle of Flowers Parade. It is still the only one in the country to be planned and directed completely by women and is second in size only to the Tournament of Roses Parade in California.

     Fresh flowers are no longer used in San Antonio, however, having been replaced with handmade flowers crafted by a group of local women whose relatives began making them for the event back in 1923. Colorful blossoms of crepe paper, tissue paper, netting and foils have become a mainstay, not only during the days of Fiesta, but year round as joyful symbols of TexMex culture. They adorn front doors in wreaths, form centerpieces on buffet tables, get strung overhead for picnics and barbecues, and even grace more formal occasions like high-school proms and quinceañeras (the traditional rite-of-passage of a young Latina on her15th birthday). 

     Back when I was an undergrad at a university here in San Antonio, Fiesta was an exciting, eagerly-anticipated event for everyone on campus, but especially for those students who came from far away and had only vaguely heard of the Alamo and the tall tales about everything being big in Texas. Fiesta offered a fun-filled, ten-day crash course not only in the history and culture of San Antonio, but in all the enduring influences of Seis banderas sobre Tejas, the “six flags” of nations that at one time claimed sovereignty over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Confederacy, and the United States. 

     Yes, Fiesta highlights Mexican traditions and Mexico’s central role in Texas, but the true Tex-Mex culture is actually a composite of  the State’s indigenous people (various tribes of Native American Indians) and the influences from all those early Spanish, French and Mexican residents. Then, in the early 19th century as the war for Texas independence was brewing, settlers came swarming in from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, England, and other parts of Eastern Europe, as well as Americans relocating from the Confederacy and, after June Teenth in 1965, freed slaves. (My own ancestors came from Alsace Lorraine into the port of Indianola in the 1840s and settled in Victoria.) Between 1830 and 1840, the population in Texas territory grew from roughly 20,000 people to over 140,000. Seems everyone heeded Tennesseean Davy Crockett’s famous challenge of 1835: “You can all go to hell and I will go to Texas!” 

     You can find elements of all these cultures and histories in the food, floats, music and pageants of Fiesta. For example, Conjunto music has the unmistakable rhythms of the German polka and cumbia Norteña, a two-step dance style done to the beat of a 12 string bajo sexto guitar, began in the late 1800s in Texas dance halls. It is the clear forerunner of today’s cowboy two-step. There’s the Charro Queen and the Charreada, a Mexican-style rodeo emphasizing the elegant style and unparalleled skill of the riders, the charros y charras, who ride in the Battle of Flowers parade. There’s the Queen of Soul pageant, the Miss San Antonio and the Miss Fiesta pageants, all representing local young women and college students, and the Order of the Alamo coronation with the spectacularly-designed court gowns with ten-foot trains (not representing anything but wealth, but certainly a showcase for the skills of the seven local seamstresses who work almost all year to create these fabulous garments). All Fiesta events and pageants underwrite significant contributions to local charities, which is a source of local pride.

     Meanwhile, down at NIOSA (meaning Night in Old San Antonio and pronounced nee-osa) in La Villita (Little Village), you’ll find foods and music and celebrations of every kind, including a good, old-fashioned beer garden. Nearby in Market Square there will be Mariachi music and performances of dancers, some with fans and castanets, some in regional Mexican folkloric costume, some more contemporary.  There’s even Tejano rap. From Cajun cuisine to Gulf Bay oysters to tamales and Southern soul food, there really is something for everyone and every culinary and musical taste at Fiesta.

     When I was in college, we would take the bus downtown to attend NIOSA, where big-name bands often appeared. I remember one night dancing and singing along to “My Girl” with the Temptations  — but I’m dating myself. I also performed on one of the River Parade floats one year: don’t ask me the theme, but I was one of the dancers from my modern dance class on the float representing my college (or some reason), and and I remember being in fear of falling off the side of the barge into the River.

     In my memory, Fiesta was  a fabulous, free, innocent time, at least compared to these days. No one worried about arrests or shootings or being drugged. The biggest offense was drinking beer with a fake ID and the shame of being kicked out of NIOSA. Let’s hope that this year’s Fiesta ends without incident — and that the South Texas weather holds through the weekend.


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