I like a good party as much as the next San Antonian, but Fiesta always stirs deep ambivalence in me as I watch the 11-day event unfold. After years of experiencing every social gathering and public festival on the Fiesta calendar as editor of the San Antonio Express-News, I found myself anticipating the city’s annual celebration with less and less enthusiasm with each passing year.

Some years ago, I silently joined the legions of locals who regard Fiesta as a good time to get out of town or simply lay low. A significant number of residents define themselves as “Fiesta-goer every other year,” as if short-term memory loss plays a role in their episodic participation.

(Note to trolls: This is where you post your customary comments stating, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave the city/state/country?”)

I appreciate a high-stepping, finely tuned marching band as much as the next guy, and I know 100 nonprofit organizations benefit from the free flow of Fiesta booze and bucks. Yet, for me, Fiesta amplifies a fundamental truth about San Antonio: we are a city of haves and have-nots. You are either wealthy, empowered, or both, waving from a parade float, lifting the hem of your gown to show your joggers, marching in a powder blue uniform jacket and waving, half believing you really are members of royalty, or you are a parade-goer, a bystander paying for the privilege of sitting on a sidewalk or along the River Walk.

The Queen of the Order of the Alamo and her duchesses, most hailing from wealthy white families, are attired in elaborately sewn, bejeweled dresses and trains costing tens of thousands of dollars. Left unsaid is that the artists who assemble the costly gowns, mostly anonymous Mexican and Mexican American women who labor for months, are never publicly acknowledged.

The city and its river weep every year after those parades, choking on massive litter, a colorful, impressionistic mess of beer bottles and cans, plastic, styrofoam and cascarón confetti. We bystanders will pay again as the city turns a blind eye to the Fiesta Commission’s main byproduct and deploys an army of public works employees to sweep away the mess at taxpayers’ expense. 

Trash is collected along the Battle of Flowers Parade route on Friday.
Trash is collected along the Battle of Flowers Parade route on Friday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It will take a far greater army of volunteers from River Aid San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority’s River Warriors, and other committed citizens to return the Mission Reach and its badly littered river banks to something approximating a natural setting. That work is actually dangerous.

For those who see this city’s culture of littering as a reflection of socioeconomics, be advised that litter does not flow upriver to the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, creeks and trails. All that trash thoughtlessly cast out of car windows or by hand migrates into sewers and flows downstream. It’s coming mostly from somewhere else.

I am told there is such a thing as an environmentally friendly cascarón, its innards consisting of hole-punched leaves that decompose. I haven’t done my research, to be honest. Not all traditions are necessarily worth perpetuating.

My wife, Monika, wishes Fiesta medals were made from recyclable materials. Instead, we settle for those made in China where forced labor and child labor are facts of life. All those medals people so eagerly buy and trade must travel halfway around the world for a few days of appreciation before they are put away in old shoe boxes and on stored sashes. 

I recently met some members of the current class of Leadership San Antonio at Beethoven Halle and Garden. Almost every outdoor picnic table was filled with Fiesta medal sellers and traders. I arrived early and eavesdropped.

“I could have bought that medal for $7 a few years ago, and now you want $30? I’m not paying $30. You should just trade me,” an indignant woman scolded another seller, who sat there, nursing his beer and unmoved. I briefly regretted not rummaging through my office boxes to retrieve old medals that now might be valued commodities.

Monday evening I pedaled my bicycle slowly through downtown, taking in the garlanded River Parade goers, watching impatient vehicle drivers weaving their way through the clutter of downtown street improvements as flag wavers beckoned them into makeshift parking lots. Pausing at the bridges to take in the crowds roaring as the first floats came into view, I couldn’t help but remember that Fiesta for many is a time of joy and tradition.

For myself, and many others I know who are more guarded in sharing similar views, Fiesta simply is not central to our life and work in San Antonio. Yet it is for many. I wish organizers could envision the festival with new values that reflect a deeper appreciation of our city’s potential and its challenges. 

I did attend Cornyation Thursday night and enjoyed my colleague Rick Casey’s amusing column published here last week explaining to the state’s morality police why the annual spoof is not a drag show. Like Casey and many others, I watch the biennial legislative session with a mixture of fear and dread. Each session over the last decade has included concerted efforts to attack or marginalize the LGBTQ community and others who don’t fit the Republican leadership’s definition of “the people of Texas.”

I can only hope the latest movement to ban drag shows does not lead to the performers, including former King Anchovys like Casey, being led out of the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre in handcuffs. If it is going to happen, let’s opt for cite-and-release.

Happy Fiesta!

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.