Texas Cavaliers walk together through the parade.
Texas Cavaliers walk together through the Battle of Flowers Parade in April 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Saturday, Rey Feo Thomas Aguillon worked on smoking a brisket for the first time. He got a new wood-burning grill for Father’s Day, he said, and has been experimenting with it for the past month.

“It’s just been fun to play with,” he said.

Aguillon has been using the unexpected downtime during the coronavirus pandemic to spend time with his family, cook new things, and work on projects around his home. He also has been brainstorming ways to continue his role as Rey Feo for a second year – an unusually long reign for the elected “king” of the Rey Feo Scholarship Foundation. But after Fiesta 2020 was officially canceled on Friday, Aguillon readied himself for another year of raising money for scholarships.

With the annual celebration gone, the Rey Feo Scholarship Foundation anticipates a big hit to their scholarship funding. Usually, the foundation can give out 200 to 250 $2,000 scholarships to high school students, Aguillon said. This year, that number will be closer to 100 scholarships.

More on fiesta canceLlation

Fiesta Canceled

Fiesta is canceled. For the first time since World War II, the city will not have its beloved springtime celebration as organizers look ahead to 2021.

“Generally, someone would be raising money to become Rey Feo next, and with this pandemic, nobody has been doing that,” he said. “They’re pushing everything back.”

Fiesta serves as a major touchpoint for nonprofit organizations to raise money in San Antonio, as well as one of the largest money-makers for businesses each year. The festival generates more than $340 million in economic impact, according to the Fiesta San Antonio Commission.

Fiesta’s cancellation and the coronavirus pandemic postponed not only the Texas Cavaliers’ 77th annual river parade, but all of their in-person fundraising events and gatherings as well, Cavaliers Commander Barton Simpson said. The Cavaliers have managed to fulfill all of the donation commitments they made to the tune of $2 million, however, to fund local charities that support children.

“Although the River Parade is our deal, a huge focus for us is raising money for these charities … and we’ll continue to do that,” Simpson explained. “Even though our River Parade has been called off, we don’t expect it to have an effect on our charities. The most important time to give is when it’s hardest to give, and that’s something we know. We know the organizations we give to are all struggling. Just like many businesses in San Antonio, we’re going to do everything we can and as long as we can to sustain our efforts in fundraising.”

Not all of the organizations involved with Fiesta have come out relatively unscathed. San Antonio River Walk Association Executive Director Maggie Thompson said all six staff members at the association will be furloughed starting Monday, because of how many events the pandemic has forced the association to cancel. Most of the financial impact came from non-Fiesta events, although losing sponsorships for the association’s annual Mariachi Festival didn’t help. The River Walk Association also provides about half of the boats for the Texas Cavaliers River Parade.

“It’s really sad,” Thompson said. “We’ll still promote coming down to the River Walk. It’s safe. If people are ready, they’re open and ready, but we’re not having events for large crowds.”

The businesses downtown and along the River Walk are severely affected by having Fiesta canceled, Thompson said.

“It does bring people down to the River Walk, and so it affects the finances of those businesses of those restaurants and things like that,” she said. “They take a big hit.”

Many businesses and nonprofits hinge much of their yearly operations on the revenue they raise through Fiesta. The Battle of Flowers Association gives 45,000 parade tickets to the Fiesta Commission, which then sells them to nonprofits for a reduced price. Those nonprofits, such as school groups, sell tickets at market price, which raises a lot of money for them every year, association President Anna Laura Block said.

“Some [nonprofits] are hand to mouth, some have more money, but it’s always hard to skip a year of doing something that brings you revenue,” she said.

Alamo Heights Rotary Club, which was planning the 34th Alamo Heights Night for Fiesta before the celebration was canceled, also anticipates that its scholarship program will be less robust, said Alamo Heights Night operations manager Rick Berchin. He estimated that the club has distributed somewhere between $60,000 to $80,000 in scholarships over the last couple of years.

“That’s going to hurt a lot of nonprofit organizations,” Berchin said. “There are some nonprofits that don’t have any other source of income and they rely on primarily what goes on in Fiesta. Whether they’ll be able to recoup that or do something, they’ll have a problem.”

Losing the concentrated fundraising and money-making opportunity that Fiesta provides is “depressing,” Simpson said.

“From top to bottom, it’s a turning point or coming of age to every vendor,” Simpson said. “The guy that sells cotton candy, the guy that sells Coca-Cola, the people that build the floats, the people who sew the dresses – these folks are losing a year of revenue.”

Fiesta is also the marker of spring for San Antonio and a way for people to celebrate the city’s heritage and culture, Simpson said. 

“It’s sad that we don’t get to do that [this year],” he said. “I hope it will make the next one even bigger and we’ll have even more fun because people will hopefully be ready for a party.”

Block said she was glad that the Fiesta Commission gave organizations enough notice to stop planning November events so they could focus on next April. The organization’s 400 active members work year-round, and putting on two Battle of Flowers parades within five months of each other would have been incredibly hard, she said.

“It really takes a year for us to get everything in shape and the process of reaching out to the community, gathering entries [for floats], sending out waivers, looking at costumes, making sure everything looks good for the float,” Block said. “It’s sad because the community has worked so hard to be an entry, and we have worked so hard to partner with them.

“We’re excited about 2021, but it’s always hard to let something go that you’ve worked so hard for.”

Though the Fiesta cancellation has far-ranging effects on the San Antonio business and nonprofit economy, ultimately the City made the right decision in calling off the celebrations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Simpson said.

“People are dying from this,” he said. “You’ve got to put Fiesta in its place at some point and say, ‘We have a serious issue to get through in San Antonio. We’ve got to do everything that we can to stop it.’ That’s what’s being done, and I think it’s a wise decision.”

Aguillon said of his two children, his 12-year-old daughter is most disappointed in missing Fiesta this year.

“My son enjoys it, but my daughter loves the parades, loves the events, the people, the food, and the medals,” he said. “She was bummed. But knowing we’ll be able to do it in 2021 has been a saving grace in understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.