Austin vs. San Antonio.

There has no doubt been enough ink spilled already about the two disparate cities separated by about 60 miles of interstate highway.

In every comparison, the question always is, Which city is better? There were the so-called Taco Wars that commenced a few years ago, but remain scarcely a competition. Even the Mandalorian agrees this city is The Way.

Ever since I moved from the state’s capital to the Alamo City four years ago, I have indulged, relished even, in this debate.

If you want to know the difference between Austin and San Antonio, it is encapsulated in these two cities’ spring festivals, South by Southwest and Fiesta, respectively.

Known formally as the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals, Austin’s flagship event is held in March every year, though, like Fiesta, had been on COVID-19 hiatus. Its music festival, film industry showcase and technology conference has no doubt helped put Austin on the map, drawing more than 280,000 attendees at its official events and generating $355 million in economic impact in 2019.

Speaker panels featuring industry experts are South by Southwest's bread and butter. This 2019 panel focused on Texas startups.
Speaker panels featuring industry experts are South by Southwest’s bread and butter. This 2019 panel focused on discussions about Texas startups. Credit: Erika Rich for the San Antonio Report

Since the first SXSW was held in 1987, the event has become increasingly influential. In 2007, it was where Jack Dorsey gained a legion of new microbloggers for the social network he co-founded called Twitter. 

And I’d hazard to say it’s been a big part of the migration to Austin over the past dozen years or more. It’s not hard to imagine: a tech millionaire comes to Austin, their first-ever trip to Texas, to attend SXSW and falls in love with its keep-it-weird charm, as well as its burgeoning wealth of talent.

Getting a SXSW badge is like the gateway drug to gentrifying inner-city Austin. Never forget when a sleazy real estate developer razed a beloved East Austin piñatería and literally justified it by saying he was simply exterminating the “roaches” from the property. Months later, Donald Trump launched his bid for the presidency by calling Mexicans druggies, criminals, rapists, etc.

But I digress. The point of this piece isn’t to trash Austin. People I love live there. It has some of the best things about this state, and it’s a place with ambition that oozes so much that it seeps into many other parts of Texas.

I’m simply pointing out that SXSW and Fiesta are emblematic of each city’s priorities.

Austin appears to be OK with the fact that SXSW is inaccessible even to some of its higher-earning residents. Badges that ensure access to the festival’s premier events range from about $900 to over $1,200. Most resident Austinites grumble about the ever-more-onerous levels of traffic during the 10 days that comprise the festival, and few take part even in the lower-priced unofficial events during the event. 

Especially in recent years, SXSW has been seen as more of an out-of-towner’s affair. And not to “in-my-day” y’all, but in college I saw several of my favorite bands in downtown Austin during SXSW (not to mention a stray sighting of Janeane Garofalo walking up Red River Street) and mostly only paid for libations.

And sure, Fiesta in San Antonio brings about its own local grievances. Business parking and patronage becomes a challenge when roads get barricaded to make way for Fiesta events, and some people straight-up aren’t fans of San Antonio signature’s event. Even the most insufferable curmudgeons can find community in one of Fiesta’s many offerings, though — from the Battle of Flowers to a Night in Old San Antonio and Cornyation, there’s something in it for everyone. Admission to most events is about $20, and you’re likely to run into people from all corners of the area at the festival.

I’ve yet to meet a native San Antonian who hasn’t experienced Fiesta one way or another, and you can tell there’s a lot of community-building and family bonding that’s happened over that spring fortnight that’s converged on the city since 1891. Of course, Fiesta itself is an economic boon for San Antonio, raking in $340 million in annual sales, according to a 2017 study. Fiesta also supports many of the area’s nonprofits, by allowing local charities to sell seats to spectators at the various Fiesta parades as well as tickets. Importantly, the “party with a purpose” is a party anyone in town is invited to.

And after two years of absence, it is impossible to miss the joy that is so obviously returning to this city with every skewered chicken and jalapeño consumed and the papeles picados draping the town. There’s something about Fiesta that’s just quintessentially San Antonio. Oh, how we’ve missed it.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.