Fiesta made its long-awaited return with its “Fiesta Fiesta” gala opening party Thursday at Hemisfair. The 11-day citywide festival is normally held in April in part due to generally pleasant weather, but the pandemic-postponed 2021 version — reduced by half — was slated for June despite near-100-degree heat.

To open the introduction of Fiesta royalty, Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced, “I’ve been waiting to say this for a long time.” After a dramatic pause, he roused the crowd with an enthusiastic “Viva Fiesta!”

The location of the opening party marked only one unusual feature of Fiesta 2021. Normally, the opening festivities are held at Market Square among closely crowded throngs wandering the narrow walkways.

This year, a sparse crowd — hardly a face covering in sight — wandered toward Hemisfair in blistering heat at 4 p.m., surveying the available vendors offering chicken on a stick, sausage on a stick, cake on a stick, and other traditional favorites.

One booth offered $8 aguas frescas with plenty of ice to offset the summer temperatures.

Along the Nueva Street walkway at the heart of Hemisfair, various nonprofit organizations manned tables offering Fiesta medals, with 2020 medals at a discount.

Clay Page of the Texas Cavaliers exhorted people wandering by to buy a medal in support of his charitable organization. Visibly sweating in his heavy baby blue and red Cavaliers uniform, Page acknowledged, “It is super hot.”

Booth partner Richie Carnahan lightheartedly joked, “I always thought they should have Fiesta in June, it makes more sense.” Carnahan laughed and doffed his cap to daub the sweat from his forehead. “C’est la vie,” he said.

Turning serious, he said, “We’re just glad we’re having it this year.”

A man wears a sombrero decked out in Fiesta-themed decorations during the Fiesta Fiesta parade on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Others expressed similar sentiments. Longtime Fiesta-goer Mari Feist showed up because Fiesta is a tradition she has counted on for as long as she can recall. She wore a festive flower crown, colorful egg-shaped earrings, shorts, and regalia simplified for the heat.

“Well it’s definitely not the same,” she said. “So you just got to make the best of it. But I think people are ready to come out and be social again, along with being cautious.”

Feist said she and a group of friends would normally meet annually at Fiesta, counting on seeing each other, but they haven’t been able to gather since the 2019 festival. “I’m hoping I get to see some of my old friends today,” she said.

At the Fiesta medal tables, Lara and Ray Dominguez purchased a coveted medal featuring the Virgin de Guadalupe. They said they attend Fiesta events mainly to buy medals in support of the many nonprofit organizations that offer them as annual fundraisers and lamented the lost opportunity of the canceled 2020 festival.

“We like all the different organizations and how they raise money, so we come here to buy medals,” Lara said, echoing the frequently quoted Fiesta tagline “party with a purpose,” referencing the millions of dollars raised annually in support of San Antonio nonprofits. They make a point to support The DoSeum children’s museum, the San Antonio Firefighters Association, and veterans groups.

Asked what she thought of holding Fiesta in June, Lara answered quickly, fluttering a hand in an attempt to cool herself off: “No. Go back to April. June is very, very hot.”

Michael Quintanilla, known as Mr. Fiesta, dances during the Fiesta Fiesta parade on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Fiesta 2020 was at first postponed from April to November, then canceled, followed by a subsequent postponement of the planned return of the festival in April 2021. The changes created a bit of chaos. As of midday Thursday, the official Fiesta San Antonio website countdown mistakenly timed the opening at 1 a.m. Friday, and the “people’s parade” started at 6:30 p.m. with Mr. Fiesta Michael Quintanilla’s festive 4-foot-tall flower-and-feather hat falling off, rescued by a member of the UT Health contingent that was honored at the lead spot in the parade.

Leading the freeform march, frontline health workers held “¡Viva Vaccine!” signs encouraging their fellow San Antonians to get vaccinated, with pragmatic phrases on the sign backsides reading “taking a trip,” “dinner with friends,” “staying healthy,” “kids in the classroom,” “returning to joy,” and “going to the movies,” all representing what a mass-vaccinated return to normalcy could include for San Antonio residents.

Pointing out the free COVID-19 vaccinations available at many Fiesta events, Nirenberg announced during his onstage comments, “what we are proving by being out here tonight is that by working together, and by getting your vaccine, we can do anything we want to in this city.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...