The birth of Fiesta San Antonio, the spring event that has come to define the city, can be traced to the first Battle of Flowers Parade in 1891. The idea was conceived by a group of San Antonio women who wanted to honor and remember those who fought and died in the battles at the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto.
The Battle of San Jacinto, which took place near Houston in 1836, marks Texas’ independence from Mexico. San Jacinto Day is April 21, but in 1891 weather delayed the scheduled parade, so on April 24 carriages full of women, children and flowers paraded in front of the Alamo. The women threw flowers at each other in a reenactment of the battle.
After the success of the 1891 parade, the organizers formed the Battle of Flowers Association, and by 1895 the celebration had already ballooned into a week-long event. More than a century later, Fiesta has exploded from that one parade of horse-drawn carriages into a vibrant, citywide 11-day event packed with parades, fairs, carnivals, food, philanthropy, fun, sports, art, kings and queens, and lots and lots of color.
“Coming from other parts of the country, other parts of the state even, [Fiesta] looks chaotic and crazy,” said Amy Fulkerson, a curator at the Witte Museum. “This event is so local and has its early history in a very Texas moment that, from the outside, if you’ve never been exposed to any of that, it’s very different.
“It’s a little bit of that Texas exceptionalism, that Texas just does everything its own way.”
The Battle of Flowers Parade is still the largest Fiesta parade and the only one organized and operated entirely by women. According to the parade website, the event attracts around 550,000 visitors every year, which makes it the second largest parade in the nation after the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.
With the exception of the war years of 1918, 1942-1945 and the first pandemic year in 2020, Fiesta has been continuously held in some form in San Antonio since the first Battle of Flowers in 1891. Last year, officials moved the celebration from April to June and reduced its scope.
Why queens and kings?
For those who may be wondering why kings and queens and fancy gowns now figure so prominently into Fiesta, Fulkerson can explain. In her 24 years as a curator at the Witte she has learned almost everything there is to know about Fiesta history.
According to Fulkerson, the Battle of Flowers Parade was eventually merged with a local carnival that businesses in San Antonio had staged sporadically. The carnival had a history of crowning kings and queens, so the tradition eventually became an integral part of the Fiesta celebration.
The carnival and parade continued to be run separately by distinct groups, but organizers agreed it would mutually benefit the two events to run concurrently. The end of April, around San Jacinto Day, was picked as the annual time for the extravaganza.
In 1909, the Order of the Alamo was founded for the purpose of choosing and crowning a queen. The group still chooses a Queen of the Order of the Alamo who is crowned in an elaborate ceremony at the Majestic Theatre. The queen and her court wear handcrafted, bejeweled gowns with long, heavy trains.
Fulkerson, who has curated a collection of Fiesta gowns for the Witte, said the gowns worn by the queens in the early years of Fiesta weren’t always so eye-catching and extravagant.
“The Order of the Alamo was founded on imitating the British royal court,” Fulkerson said. “If you looked at the queen’s dress from 1911 you would never think it had anything to do with Fiesta. But by 1915 they’re starting to have a lot more fun with it.”
Fulkerson said any Fiesta organization can name its own king or queen, and they often do it as a way of honoring members who have contributed significantly to their cause. But the Fiesta San Antonio Commission officially recognizes only two Fiesta kings, King Antonio and El Rey Feo, and seven Fiesta queens from various organizations. King Antonio is picked from among the membership of the Texas Cavaliers, a group of business and civic leaders who has crowned a Fiesta king since 1926.
A shift toward inclusivity
By the 1930s, the festival was being called Fiesta, but Fulkerson said the word was probably a bit of a cultural appropriation because it was still a party mostly reserved for wealthier, mostly white people until after World War II.
“After World War II there is a shift that occurs across the country,” Fulkerson said. “San Antonio is not alone in having this happen, but there is a call for public events to become much more inclusive, so you see the addition of other royals.”
By 1948 the San Antonio Conservation Society had jumped into the Fiesta action with an incredibly popular event called Night in Old San Antonio, or NIOSA. The nighttime street fair is held in the historic arts village of La Villita, and has been so successful it now spans four nights during which attendees can eat, drink and browse their way through 14 different culturally themed areas.
NIOSA helps the society raise money for the restoration and preservation of historic properties in San Antonio. According to the society’s website, the event now raises about $1 million annually, making it the top fundraising event for conservation in the nation.
Also in 1948, Fiesta saw another parade added, the night-time Flambeau. The illuminated parade was another instantly popular Fiesta event, and it’s now thought to be the largest illuminated parade in the nation.
With activities being added to the annual Fiesta celebrations year after year, by 1959 the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce saw the need to create an official Fiesta San Antonio Commission to manage the event. But Fulkerson said it wasn’t until 1970 that the city gave the commission more official weight to organize and coordinate all the various Fiesta events.
In 1968 a local businessman created a pageant for young black women, and the Queen of Soul was born, raising money for scholarships. Queen of Soul became one of the official Fiesta queens in 1974.
Medals and money
The 1971 King Antonio, Charles Orsinger, was the first to make Fiesta medals available to the public, a tradition that quickly caught on as a way for organizations to create memorable medal designs and generate funds for their various causes during Fiesta. Collectors eagerly embraced medal mania, displaying the colorful trinkets on sashes, vests and hats.
As the number of Fiesta events grew so did the revenue sources, and by the 1990s Fiesta was bringing more than $100 million into the city every year. A 2017 study conducted by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Community and Business Research, found Fiesta generated $340 million in economic impact.
Some of that money goes back to nonprofit organizations, prompting Fiesta organizers to adopt the slogan “party with a purpose.” In 1989, the Texas Cavaliers formed a charitable foundation that since its formation has donated millions to groups serving children. Local organizations also sell parade seats, food and other items or host Fiesta-related events that raise money.
Jon Fristoe, president of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission in 2021-22, said this philanthropy has become a defining characteristic of Fiesta and is exactly what sets it apart from so many other big city festivals.
“Ours is the largest cultural festival in the United States,” he said. “It’s the one time of the year we get all corners of our city together, and it’s just an amalgamation of all of our cultures and diversity in one time and one place celebrating the same things. I think that’s very unique.”
While Fiesta has been radically transformed over the last 131 years, Fristoe said the spirit of the original parade has never been lost. Every year as the parades pass in front of the Alamo during Fiesta they lay wreathes of flowers to honor those who fought for Texas’ independence, Fristoe said.
With roughly 100 official Fiesta events this year, Fiesta newbies might wonder where to start. Native San Antonian Michael Quintanilla, a former fashion writer whose love of Fiesta earned him the nickname Mr. Fiesta, says the dizzying array of events is part of the fun.
“It’s food, it’s fabulous, it’s flamboyant people, it’s too much, and I’m ready for too much,” Quintanilla said. “I’m kidding, because it’s never really enough. Just when you think ‘I’m done’ — no, it’s time to overdo it.”
Quintanilla said the best place to start getting into the Fiesta spirit is taking in a parade, any of them, but don’t forget to dress for the occasion.
“Anything that’s fun and silly and outrageous,” he said. “You gotta dress the part. You have to overdo it. And wear a crown. Anybody can be a king or queen.”