San Antonio is pining for a post-pandemic catharsis, and Fiesta is poised to deliver.

Even a postponed, summertime, scaled-down, socially-distanced version of the annual citywide celebration June 17-27 should offer an emotional release for residents, according to Sean Vina, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word and native San Antonian.

Vina said whether or not you choose to attend every crowded Fiesta event, or stay home for two weeks for fear of another COVID-19 spike, the effects of holding the annual celebration should be positive for all.

“I have no doubt that we will see an overall psychological increase of wellbeing for everybody in the city of San Antonio,” Vina said.

The reason is what Vina termed “the network effect,” where if one group is lifted emotionally, others around them will benefit. As an example, Vina described observing a former professor who has never participated in Fiesta, yet still feels a renewed optimism. “He was feeling the sense of hope, because he could feel it in the whole city,” Vina said.

Vina’s wife Amanda Lane Stephens moved to San Antonio from West Virginia just two years ago, and despite never having experienced Fiesta, even she felt the loss of the citywide celebration.

“As she was starting to understand how important Fiesta is, it got ingrained in her cultural identity as a new San Antonio resident,” he said. “We have a unique San Antonio identity, and these cultural identities are very, very important for the individual psychological well being.”

An innie vs. an outie

Whether you are a natural introvert or an extrovert might make the difference in feeling a true Fiesta catharsis, according to Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I’ve talked to introverts who don’t want to come out, they actually liked having an excuse not to have to do a lot of stuff,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “And I’ve talked to extroverts who just cannot wait. They’ve been bored, lonely, frustrated, and they want to get out.”

She said each person will make the decision based on their personality, and what she called a flow chart of yes-or-no decisions, from assessing your personal health status, your COVID-19 experience, your politics regarding pandemic safety measures, your threshold of risk, and whether you’ve been cooped up alone or have coped well with family and partners.

To those frontline workers who have already been frequently in contact with others, Fiesta crowds might not be such a big deal. Those like herself and her husband, who’ve mostly worked from home during the pandemic, may be quite content to stay there. Their San Antonio-native daughters, however, are eager for Fiesta, McNaughton-Cassill said.

“It’s going to be different for everybody,” she said. “There isn’t a one size fits all. The people who choose to go out are going to want to pretend it’s 2019. I don’t think the timid anxious people are going to even go.”

Some more cautious residents may have chosen to participate in the porch parade contest, sponsored by KSAT-12 and the associations of the Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau parades. With both traditional parades canceled, resident-decorated porches have served as a safer replacement. The wallflowers among us can also see the winners of the contest from the security of home by watching the KSAT broadcast on television June 18 at 8 p.m.

Both professors compared the transition to a post-pandemic era to the ends of other horrific events like the Great Depression or World War II, when people took to the streets to celebrate.

But only to a point, McNaughton-Cassill said. “There wasn’t a clear beginning, there won’t be a clear end. So I don’t think it’s going to have that same celebratory feeling.”

After natural disasters, there’s a long period of cleanup, she said, “but the problem with COVID is we’re trying to clean up but we don’t even know if it’s over yet. … It’s hard to celebrate the end of something when there’s no clear end.”

A heavy heart seeking lighthearted fun

One San Antonio resident’s COVID-19 experience has been devastating, but will not keep her from Fiesta.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia has lost seven family members to the disease, and said she mourns the loss of other community elders who also succumbed. Yet she said she is ready to mask up and join in to help restore some sense of normalcy, while staying as safe as possible.

“We need to continue the message of watching out for others,” Rocha Garcia said, even among the festive crowds.

To that end, she has helped with several efforts to boost community safety, including a drive-through vaccination clinic on May 22 where El Rey Feo Thomas Aguillon gave away free Fiesta medals to anyone who got the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Miroslava Martinez, 65, (left) smiles at Jimmie Keenan (right), Senior Vice President of Clinic Operations with WellMed, after she assured an apprehensive Martinez to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Martinez cited the numerous reports of blood clots as the reason she didn't want to get the one-dose vaccine. After speaking with Keenan, she decided to get the vaccine.
Miroslava Martinez, 65, (left) smiles at Jimmie Keenan (right), senior vice president of clinic operations at WellMed, at a Fiesta-themed vaccination event. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Aguillon’s wife — and offical consort — Melissa posted on Facebook her relief that Fiesta has finally arrived, ending with the hashtag #LongestReignEver, pointing out that her husband’s fundraising efforts began in 2017, when he was selected. One of El Rey Feo’s main duties is to raise scholarship funds for local students, and Aguillon raised more than $270,000.

After a successful outdoor Candelight Ball on June 6 to formally open Fiesta season, the Aguillons knew they and their community were ready.

“If you’re vaccinated and you’re able to get out, you should do so, really just for your mental capacity,” Thomas Aguillon said. “I think this all has had a toll on a lot of folks in many different ways. So I think just being able to get out and get back to a little bit of normalcy is extremely healthy and helpful for all of our mindsets.”

Party with a purpose

Rocha Garcia emphasized that at its core, Fiesta is “the party with a purpose,” with most events designed to benefit San Antonio’s nonprofit sector. As a freshman at the University of the Incarnate Word, she recieved a Rey Feo Foundation scholarship that “made a huge difference” in whether she could attend as a first-generation college student.

Her experience helps her recognize the importance of bringing Fiesta back, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“It’s an opportunity to look forward to a rebirth,” she said. “Fiesta has always been a celebration about nonprofits, and this year, it takes on a different meaning.”

She said Fiesta 2021 will be a celebration of “the hard work that everyone has done this year to keep our community protected and to keep our community afloat.”

If you should happen to see Rocha Garcia at one of the many Fiesta events, ask her to show you her mask. She will be happy to oblige.

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...