After a two-year pause in its usual fanfare due to local peaks in COVID-19 cases, Hemisfair was filled with crowds of people Thursday who were happy to witness a Fiesta Fiesta kickoff event that may have outdone even the most memorable celebrations of years past, speaking to this year’s theme: resilience.

“I think it’s definitely gotten bigger,” said Avery Walker, this year’s Fiesta Teen Queen. “People are a lot more excited this year. … After everything being shut down, this is the first big Fiesta again and it’s a lot of fun to see all the cultures come together once again.”

For Ernest Hernandez, who was born on the first day of Fiesta in 1977, he was attending Thursday’s kickoff while remembering loved ones who were only with him in spirit.

The butterflies decorating Hernandez’s 12-pound sombrero were in honor of his many friends who have died since the pandemic, he said, and his sister who recently died of breast cancer. He said he spent a week updating a hat he had worn in 2018 with the meaningful details. 

“After like three rounds of COVID-19 shots, it’s just really hard,” Hernandez said. “The past two years have been really hard, and now that we can congregate, it’s good to associate with people and laugh.”

Along South Alamo street, several photo booths, including Amols’ Fiesta party store’s parade float, allowed attendees to take photos with friends and family members. In 80-degree weather, several people had drinks in their hands and flower crowns on their heads as they walked through booths hosted by media outlets and even the San Antonio Police Department.

At around 6 p.m. on the corner of South Alamo and East Nueva street, people began pulling out their lawn chairs in front of the large concert stage, ready for the music. 

Decorated hats, sashes, medals, confetti and the smell of food surrounded the area as Volcán, a local band, played Tejano and cumbia music. Some danced and others sat on lawn chairs eating chicken on a stick.

For one family, it meant the return of mother-daughter traditions. A Fiesta-goer for almost all 26 years of her life, Alejandra Montellano said this year’s kickoff celebration felt different. 

“It just felt like the last few years have been a little bit crazy, but this just feels like home, San Antonio, comfort, community, all of the above,” Montellano said. 

Every year, Montellano, who was wearing a boots that said “Fiesta San Antonio,” Fiesta earrings and a crown, said that each year that she, her best friend Megan L’Abbe and their mothers attend Fiesta Fiesta together.

“I literally cried this morning, thinking about [how] I was able to go to Fiesta today. I was so excited,” L’Abbe said. The last time the four of them attended Fiesta was in 2019. Montellano’s mother, Mary Montellano, said the best part of this year’s festivities was that they were all together again. 

Several vendors lined the trails of Hemisfair Park selling Fiesta medals. Owner of Monarch Trophy Studio Kathy Drago, who sponsored the event with the Fiesta Commission, said sales were “amazing.” The number one seller, she said, was the Japanese Tea Garden medal. 

For the past 10 years, Drago said her business has attended the Fiesta Fiesta kickoff event, and this year’s felt like things were getting back to normal. 

“I feel like people aren’t afraid,” she said. “I feel like people want to be out there. They want to enjoy San Antonio, they want to enjoy our culture.”

Avatar photo

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.