Dancers from the Odissi Academy in Houston perform on stage at Diwali.
Dancers from the Odissi Academy in Houston perform on stage at Diwali. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Past the green archway and next to the Instituto Cultural de México at Hemisfair, Lexi Buentello led dozens of kids in a Zumba routine to Bollywood remixes of Top 40 songs at Saturday’s Diwali celebration. She teaches Zumba regularly and said she didn’t have to plan routines especially for Diwali.

“Zumba brings together a lot of disciplines and cultures,” Buentello said. “Bollywood’s already a big part of it.”

Nonprofit Anuja SA brought its 10th annual Diwali Festival of Lights celebration to Hemisfair this year. More than 30 dance groups, 11 food vendors, and 40 handicraft stalls took over the scene at Hemisfair.

Yogini Patel joined dozens of other festival attendees in browsing tables of glittering bracelets, rings, and necklaces for sale. She said she makes sure she and her family are plugged into San Antonio’s Indian community and that this was her 10th year attending the City’s Diwali celebration.

“We would like to give our kids Indian culture, so we want them to be involved here. … We want them to know our culture, our religion, what we have here,” she said.

San Antonio’s Indian community has grown over the years to 15,000-20,000 today but is still relatively small compared with cities like Houston and Dallas, said Vijaya Botla, one of the founding members of Anuja SA and a festival organizer. She reveled in the fact that San Antonio could draw such a crowd to Diwali.

“It’s largest city-sanctioned Diwali in the nation,” Botla said.

While the festival usually draws between 15,000 and 20,000 people each year, Botla said police estimated more than 20,000 people might have attended Diwali on Saturday, since the festival took over Hemisfair and stretched from the fountains near the Tower of the Americas to the Arneson River Theatre and La Villita.

“The biggest happiness for us is to see how it grew from our passion,” she said. “None of us get paid. We want to spread Indian culture in the best way to the community. And more than half of the people who come are not even Indian.”

Aparna Seth showcased her hand-embroidered scarves among the clothing booths. This was her third year attending Diwali, and she said she loved seeing the city embrace an Indian festival — especially non-Indian people dressed up in traditional Indian clothing.

“You feel good when someone is appreciating other cultures and when they are open to other people coming from different countries,” Seth said.

Bharti Patel helped her niece Mira place diyas, floating candles used to celebrate Diwali, into the fountains near the Tower of the Americas. People lined around the edge of the fountains, releasing their own diyas into the water, until they glimmered in small, slow-moving clusters. Patel said she loved seeing non-Indian attendees take part in the festival.

“There’s so much diversity here,” Patel said. “Everyone gets together and I like it. Diwali is a festival for everyone to forget everything and get together and have fun.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.