With the arrival of Fiesta, the 23rd since my family’s arrival here in late 1989, I find myself collecting medals, studying the official calendar of events, breaking out my Dos Carolinas guayaberas — and wrestling with my own deep ambivalence about the next 10 days.

Fiesta: love it, loathe it. Anyone else feel the same?
There have been years where I’ve attended everything, or so it seemed – three parades, Coronation and Cornyation, a few nights of NIOSA, regal investitures, receptions and balls, King William Fair, the exhibition of duchess gowns at the Witte Museum, Oyster Bake, Alamo Heights Night and the ’09 Pooch Parade, and finally the Charreada. We vacuum up the last of the cascarón confetti with relief.

Kings Antonio XCI and Rey Feo LXV look on (background) as members of Fiesta-sponsoring organizations make their way through the crowd and confetti during the "Fiesta Fiesta" opening ceremony.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Kings Antonio XCI and Rey Feo LXV look on (back, center) as members of Fiesta-sponsoring organizations make their way through the crowd and confetti during the “Fiesta Fiesta” opening ceremony. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

On more than one occasion I’ve joined in another local Fiesta tradition: leaving town.

Why do I feel so ambivalent about Fiesta, and why do so many other people feel the same way, even if they are more careful not to say so publicly?

Excess, that’s why. Too often, Fiesta feels excessive. At one end: The beer, the unhealthy street food, the littering crowds. At the other end: Wealth by faux royalty, pretend kings and attendants rushing around in tailored make-believe suits, escorted by uniformed police in official vehicles with wailing sirens, handing out cheap medals to inner city school kids, queens and duchesses parading in gowns and trains they will wear only once that cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and sew. The exclusivity, the invitation-only clubs and organizations, reinforce the class and ethnic divisions of the city and Fiesta’s historical roots.

Texting royalty. King Rey Feo LXV (left), more commonly known as local business man Larry Benson, raised $308,000 for college scholarships. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Texting royalty: King Rey Feo LXV (left), more commonly known as local businessman Larry Benson, raised $308,000 for college scholarships. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Yet another part of me believes people should be free to spend their money as they like, and if participating in ritual celebrations that include a certain amount of grown-up make-believe, so be it. And looking around each year, I have to tell myself, the old order has slowly given way to something not necessarily perfect, but far more diverse and inclusive than what you can find in other cities. Each year seems to be more of a mix.

And then there is the money. Fiesta has become, roughly speaking, a $300 million economic engine for San Antonio. That’s a lot of jobs. A lot of people apply their talents to work that is showcased for one brief 10-day period: the artists who meticulously create the gowns, the craft workers who build the parade floats, the families who have been serving up food on the same street corners for decades.

Anyone who has ever been the recipient of a scholarship from Rey Feo or the Texas Cavaliers would argue passionately in favor of the pomp and pageantry.

So, isn’t it all for a good cause? How different people answer that question explains why feelings about Fiesta vary so widely among people who call San Antonio home. Perhaps the answer depends on whether San Antonio is your adopted home or if you are native, and among those born and raised here,  your socio-economic roots and where you find yourself now. To be honest, many upwardly mobile minority families I know eagerly embrace new Fiesta traditions as one more measure of the full lives their education and hard work have afforded them.

One of more than a dozen beverage vendors at NIOSA in La Villita, 2012. Photo by Corey Leamon.
One of more than a dozen beverage vendors at NIOSA in La Villita, 2012. Photo by Corey Leamon.

Last week, the Express-news published a timely op-ed by Kathy DeWaal, fourth vice president of the San Antonio Conservation Society and chairwoman of A Night In Old San Antonio. In the piece she catalogues the many historical buildings and sites the Conservation Society has saved from the wrecking ball over the years. You can click on the link to read the list or take my word for it: It’s a very impressive list, especially if you imagine San Antonio without these landmarks.

I’m not the only one that disagrees with the Conservation Society at times – they can be a bit overzealous in their cause. There is no doubt, however, that much of San Antonio’s history and charm would have been destroyed without their guardianship, especially in earlier decades when they had far fewer allies in the realm of historical preservation.

The Conservation Society reports half of its $2 million-plus budget comes from Night in Old San Antonio, popularly known as NIOSA. It is now four nights of revelry (April 23-26 this year) staged in La Villita, fueled by food, beer and festivities. Officially, the party dates to 1948, but its roots reach to even earlier in the 20th century. Here is an excerpt from the NIOSA official history:

“What began with a handful of Society ladies serving food and drink from river barges, has grown into a mammoth enterprise orchestrated by over 16,000 volunteers who stage and man the annual four-night event each April. The historic, downtown village of La Villita takes center stage as 85,000 visitors now come through the gates during NIOSA.”

It’s interesting how differently newcomers see it.

Corey Leamon came to San Antonio in 2011 after being hired by Lake/Flato Architects as a graphic designer. She’s also a talented photographer whose images of NIOSA 2012 were showcased on the Rivard Report homepage gallery last week. Managing Editor Iris Dimmick, another recent transplant to San Antonio, engaged Leamon in a conversation about their respective first experiences with Fiesta last year. You can read the whole dialogue and see Corey’s photos here.

Both experienced Fiesta and NIOSA for the first time last year. Here is an excerpt of their exchange:

Dimmick: I moved to San Antonio in February 2012, almost entirely ignorant of San Antonio history or culture. Fiesta, as it was described to me by friends and now-former coworkers at the restaurant where I worked, was just a week of day-drinking and night-drinking at parties downtown that no one seemed to be able to put into context in casual conversation…

My roommate and I introduced ourselves to the festivities by going to NIOSA on a Thursday night – apparently one of the busiest nights. We were warned about pick-pockets and frisky revelers by a friend. It was packed, chaotic, expensive, loud, and I couldn’t seem to avoid stepping in trash and streams of dirty water leaking from some unknown source.

I didn’t find out “NIOSA” stood for “Night in Old San Antonio,” until a few days later.

Leamon: I went after dinner and had a similar experience. I looked up what NIOSA was before going, and it sounded both intriguing and quaint. We all know now it’s anything but quaint. I don’t drink when I photograph, and most of the crowd was very difficult to deal with. I was verbally harassed multiple times (for being a lady), I had beer thrown on me because I was lucky enough to get my camera out-of-the-way first, there was trash and bad smells everywhere, and it was unreasonably crowded.

That exchange, it seems to me, tells the story of Fiesta excess today that organizers either refuse to see or cannot see. It can be found at many other official Fiesta events. The Rivard Report published NIOSA photos from Leamon that display a relatively family friendly atmosphere of the event as seen in the early evening. As the night progresses, the picture becomes a much less appealing one: loud drunks spilling beer on passersby, overcrowded masses of people, the smell of garbage and, here and there, vomit and urine.

A courtyard in La Villita during NIOSA – a bit crowded. Photo by Corey Leamon.
A courtyard in La Villita during NIOSA 2012 – standing room only. Photo by Corey Leamon.

Fiesta Carnival runs every night from April 17-28 on the parking lot of the Alamodome and attracts more than 500,000 people over its 11-night run, mostly working-class families. It’s touted as a family friendly event, but it runs until 11 p.m. weekdays and until midnight on the weekend, a wee bit late for school kids. Many San Antonio natives I know whose families have participated for generations in Fiesta have never been to the Carnival, but the Fiesta Commission’s budget is fueled by the working-class dollars that are spent there. Much to the displeasure of nearby Eastside residents, the Carnival has been sequestered at the Alamodome since 2008 after incidents of gang activity and violence caused city officials to relocate it from its prior home next to City Hall.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Police Chief William McManus both brought the scrutiny of outsiders to Fiesta excesses when they first took up their posts here. The police under McManus have stopped looking the other way at public drunkenness and have cracked down on drunk driving. This year the City is offering overserved revelers $20 debit cards for taxi rides home. That’s incredibly progressive, in my opinion, and the incidental costs to taxpayers is vastly preferable to the official denial that once prevailed.

Traditions live on, however. For better or worse, San Antonio’s reputation as a city that opens the tap wherever and whenever people and families gather, remains solid.

I’ve written for some years about the appalling litter that parade-goers leave behind after the Battle of Flowers Parade and the Flambeau Night parade. It’s family friendly litter, parents teaching the next generation how to disregard public space by leaving garbage behind each year.

The City has started a recycling program along parade routes, sent out trash collecting volunteers and engaged in a low-key public campaign against the practice, but there are no signs yet that a cultural shift is underway. Maybe this is the year. If so, I’ll park my ambivalence.

In the meantime, do you have an extra medal to spare?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.