New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Rio has Carneval, Ahmedabad has Utturayan and San Antonio has Fiesta. It is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage, a parade that culminated in a “Battle of Flowers,” a European pageant suggested by a Chicago Presbyterian minister back in 1891.
The parade soon became an elaborate and fantastical depiction of social rank with an elaborate collection of self-styled royal courts where the high and mighty families dressed up in themed fantasies and young women debuted in five-figure gowns as the “Duchess of Harmonious Elegance” or “Princess of Perceived Coordination” or whatever and now this tradition has been going on for over 120 years. Heck, “Cornyation,” which makes fun of this, is itself at least 60 years old and has a book about it.
Then there are the medals. Everyone has a medal for sale, even McDonald’s. You sell them, trade them, give them out and compete with other medals. They represent causes and organizations and businesses and politicians and individuals. Even if you don’t try, you will still end up with three dozen of them and you need a sash to carry them all. We all end of looking like South American generals by late April.
We have Kings. The Texas Cavaliers crowned the first King Antonio in 1927, and this group of business leaders found competition 21 years later when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce crowned the Ugly King – Rey Feo. Now the two Kings get along fine and compete simply to raise money for children’s causes and scholarships respectively.
There are over 100 official Fiesta events, It’s a “party with a purpose” and its signature event is A Night In Old San Antonio®, now in its 71st year. This is our event, which began about 1936 as a Fall Harvest Festival down by Mission San Jose. By the early 1940s it became a downtown Riverwalk event and at the City’s insistence, we moved it up into La Villita in 1948.
It now runs four nights – a total of 20 hours. It utilizes the talents of over 10,000 volunteers to provide food, drink, music, crafts and fun to over 80,000 guests. It raises money for conservation in La Villita and throughout San Antonio. We have 5 year-round full-time staff, two downtown buildings including a commercial kitchen and 18,000 square feet of warehouse just for this four-day event.
Oh yes, and we have volunteers who meet every Thursday morning year-round to make paper flowers and cascarones for the event,
Cascarones? Those are confetti-stuffed eggshells that you crack over your friends’ heads during FIESTA. You can buy them at the local grocery store, just like the medals. For NIOSA® we make our own – about 50,000 each year.
Fiesta as a whole features several major parades, several multi-day fundraisers with food and drink and music, and a huge collection of official receptions, dinners and ceremonies. 100 events. Everyone decorates their house with flower wreaths, papel picado banners, and all manner of colorful acoutrements.
There is nothing like this in any other city that I know of.
It may not have the fame or cachet of Carnival or Mardi Gras, but I love its intricacies, particulars, flights of fancy and aged authenticities. Fiesta is San Antonio’s cultural heritage.
Y’all come visit NIOSA® this week, ya hear?
In October, 1939, San Antonio passed the La Villita ordinance to preserve its oldest neighborhood, stating boldly:
RE-CREATING “LA VILLITA” AS A PROJECT OF SAN ANTONIO: PROVIDING FOR ITS RESTORATION, PRESERVATION AND CONTINUATION; ENUMERATING CERTAIN IDEALS, HOPES, AND PURPOSES: SETTING FORTH IN NARRATIVE FORM SOME OF ITS INTERESTING HISTORY; AT THE SAME TIME ORDAINING THAT VILLITA SHALL NOT BE A DEAD MUSEUM FOR MINCING SCHOLARS, BUT A PLACE FOR THE LIVING, AND THOSE NOT YET BORN.
Whoa. They actually repeated the line about mincing scholars in the ordinance itself, with an illustration comparing the mincing scholar to a jitterbugging couple, adding “Moreover, there are more jitter-bugs than scholars.”
The Cos House, one of the first seven La Villita buildings restored 1939-41.
La Villita was and is to be a collection of historic buildings selling crafts, thus preserving handcraft traditions as well as buildings. Nearly 80 years ago San Antonio was trying to save its intangible heritage through legislation – for the people, not scholars! The ordinance said it was “always aiming to meet the needs of TODAY and TOMORROW, ”
Bolivar Hall – they also named all of the 1941 sites after Latin American heroes – Bolivar, Juarez and Hidalgo, to promote peace and trade. “Promotion of World Peace” was a stated purpose of the ordinance.
The San Antonio Conservation Society had a key role in all of this. After the WPA money ran out, the City implored the private Conservation Society to purchase more buildings, extending the crafts village another block to the east with the purchase of the Dashiell and Bombach houses in 1942 and 1949. We still own these.
Dashiell House today
Otto Bombach House, home to Little Rhein Steakhouse since 1967.
The crafts village had working tile kilns and even today you can see soap made there, along with other handmade items, since that jitterbugging 1939 ordinance is still in effect. (As a scholar, I try to limit my mincing when in La Villita.)
Entrance to Plaza Juarez, La Villita. The cannon may help discourage mincers.
The City also asked the Conservation Society to move its harvest festival from Fall to Spring and from the River to La Villita to help bolster the craft village. So we did that in 1948. And again the next year and the year after. This year we celebrated our 70th A Night In Old San Antonio®, the signature event of Fiesta, in La Villita.
NIOSA opening parade, 2017.
With as many as 15,000 volunteers and over 80,000 attendees, NIOSA® is huge by any standard, and it explicitly hearkens to the variety of cultural inheritances of the city, from Native American and Spanish to African-American, Asian, Mexican, German, French and more. It is appropriately decked out with paper flowers and cascarones made by yet more volunteers. After 70 years, it is itself an important cultural tradition and inheritance.
NIOSA volunteers meet every Thursday morning. Year round. 50,000 cascarones don’t make themselves.
The event itself has to be experienced to be believed. Crowded. Colorful. Steamy. Fun-loving. Every kind of meat on a stick. Standing in line for tortillas. Music and crazy hats. Not a mincing scholar in sight.
The final quadrant of La Villita, Maverick Plaza did not come into being until various commercial and industrial buildings there were demolished in the 1960s. This is the biggest part of NIOSA and it is also the site for 3 new restaurants in the coming years. The economics of the craft village have been challenging, and now the City is asking Chef Johnny Hernandez to help make it a culinary destination.
This approach – and the whole history of La Villita, will make for an interesting discussion at the second Living Heritage Symposium being held by the Office of Historic Preservation on September 5-7, 2018.
The first symposium last September brought international experts from around the world and country to discuss new approaches to preserving culture that have little, if anything to do with architecture. The Office of Historic Preservation, led by my longtime friend Shanon Miller, has already jumped in to these new approaches with its Legacy Business program.
Del Bravo Records on Old Highway 90 – a Legacy Business.
Susan West Montgomery of the National Trust for Historic Preservation told us today that San Antonio and San Francisco are the only cities really dealing with the issue of living heritage.
That is cool to hear. Those are the places I’ve been living the last six years.
One of them has weather. The other does not.
It’s great that San Antonio is on the cutting edge of preservation in 2018, but as we saw above, that was equally true in 1939, when they already saw the end of living history re-enactors and urged not simply preservation of buildings, but the “continuation” of building and craft traditions that would engage the next generation.
It is enough to make this mincing scholar break into a jitterbug.
This year marked both my first rodeo and my first Fiesta, which is San Antonio’s 126-year old celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. The greatest party during the 10-day Fiesta is the San Antonio Conservation Society’s A Night In Old San Antonio®, which runs four consecutive nights.