When it comes to defining the essence of Fiesta San Antonio, the diversity in perspectives rivals the diversity found throughout our sprawling city.

The festival draws people from all socio-economic backgrounds, parts of town, and cultures, allowing for a variety of celebrations that take place over 11 days each April – some honoring the history and tradition surrounding Fiesta’s founding, others showcasing culture, most involving copious amounts of fried food and cold beer that make Fiesta live up to its name.

Ask random Fiesta-goers on the street what it’s all about and you’re likely to get different answers.

“It’s just a microcosm of the city,” said Laura Hernández-Ehrisman, a professor who wrote Inventing the Fiesta City, a book focused on San Antonio’s cultural history. “All of the communities who exist in the city, more and more they’re launching their own Fiesta events. They’re kind of interpreting Fiesta for their own communities … for their organizations, so it’s kind of a multifocal mirror of San Antonio.”

From the surface, Fiesta appears to be nothing but a huge party, with cascarones, papel picado, music, and color pouring into the streets of downtown. Many residents and visitors alike see it as an opportunity to let loose and celebrate simply being alive with tens of thousands of others, most notably at events such as A Night in Old San Antonio in La Villita or Fiesta de los Reyes in Market Square.

(From left) Alejandro Arruti, Roberto Cortez, and Isolde Amador enjoy their food and drinks at NIOSA.
(From left) Alejandro Arruti, Roberto Cortez, and Isolde Amador enjoy their food and drinks at NIOSA. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Fiesta is about coming out and enjoying downtown and our mixed cultures and different organizations as a community,” said Fred Martinez at the Battle of Flowers parade Friday. “It’s a time to have fun with your friends and family.”

Tradition is a huge part of the festivities, though the form it takes ranges depending on the organization or group. Several groups, such as the Battle of Flowers Association, are tied to a certain event they host each year or honor a particular moment in history with their programming.

Emily Liljenwall, Battle of Flowers Association member, participates in her organization partly because her grandmother also was in it years ago. She believes in preserving local history and keeping up a tradition that she’s been part of since she was a child.

Members of the Battle of Flowers Association hold yellow balloons in preparation to kick off the parade. Photo by Scott Ball.
Members of the Battle of Flowers Association hold yellow balloons in preparation to kick off the 2016 parade. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It’s a sense of community, it’s celebrating our history,” she said. “I walked in the parade when I was a kid and so being on this side is fun, too, and it’s just fun to support the community.”

Local activist Denise Hernández acknowledges certain contradictions involved in celebrating Fiesta. In recent years, she’s delved deeper into her quest to understand the complex history surrounding the local Latino community and, thus, Fiesta.

Texas’ victory in the Battle of San Jacinto – which gained Texas its independence – inspired Fiesta’s founding event, the Battle of Flowers parade, in 1891. The event involved local women pelting each other with flowers in front of the Alamo to honor the fallen heroes in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and commemorate the victory at San Jacinto.

In a commentary titled Fiesta San Antonio: Throw Confetti To Celebrate Oppression, which was republished by the San Antonio Current, Hernández wrote about Fiesta’s history and points to a”violent and oppressive” time that followed that victory.

After the Battle of San Jacinto, numerous Texans ignored laws against issues like slavery, and many Mexicans in modern-day San Antonio were indentured servants, falsely imprisoned, and even lynched as a result of discrimination. That discrimination touched the generations that followed, still tainting San Antonio, one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the nation.

Therein lies Hernández’s internal conflict. Like a number of San Antonians, she has fond memories of participating in Fiesta dating back to her childhood, but associating the event with the oppression and exclusion of Latinos in the community leaves a sour taste in her mouth.

Denise Hernández and her mother at the Battle of Flowers Parade in 1994.
Denise Hernández and her mother at the Battle of Flowers Parade in 1994. Credit: Courtesy / Denise Hernández

Hernández believes certain aspects of the celebration today, such as cultural appropriation of Latino culture in the form of clothing, music, décor, and food, and exclusive clubs that appoint mostly wealthy, white people as “Fiesta royalty,” make participating in Fiesta as a Latina controversial. But educating herself on local history as it relates to Fiesta is empowerment since she can work toward “reclaiming” her culture throughout the festivities, and encourages others to do the same.

“I’m not trying to say, ‘Screw Fiesta, don’t go,’” she told the Rivard Report. “But for me, it’s important to know the base history of it.”

A Texas Cavalier hands a medal to a girl at the Battle of Flowers Parade.
A Texas Cavalier hands a medal to a girl at the Battle of Flowers Parade. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Over the years, strides have been made toward increased inclusivity and diversity in the celebrations. This year, the prominent all-male fundraising group the Texas Cavaliers appointed its first-ever Latino King Antonio, and the Fiesta Commission – the organizing body that oversees Fiesta – elected its first Native American president, Erwin De Luna.

De Luna, who has been volunteering with various groups during Fiesta for nearly 20 years, said he’s observed more efforts among different organizations to collaborate and support each other. His group, United San Antonio Pow Wow, for example, has reached out to organizations like the Texas Cavaliers, El Rey Feo Consejo, and the Order of the Alamo, to learn more about their missions and attend some of their events. Those groups, he said, have done the same with his diverse organization.

We’re not a very affluent group, but sharing our culture is very important to us,” De Luna said. “All of those groups coming together to share and learn about my culture – that’s fantastic.”

Amy Shaw, Fiesta Commission executive director, said the varied perspectives on Fiesta is “the beautiful thing about it.”

“San Antonio has just kind of grown organically and every part of the community kind of has their own take on it and invites other people in to experience their world,” she said.

People talk about how we all come together when there’s a Spurs championship, which we do, but I wish we could count on a Spurs championship every year.

“That’s only one day, and [with Fiesta] we’re guaranteed 11 every single year.” 

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com