The theme of Fiesta 2021 might be “at least it’s happening.” Since the delayed and reduced version of the annual festival opened Thursday, this sentiment has often been expressed by festivalgoers, Fiesta royalty, and the executive director of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission, Steve Rosenauer.

“I just think having it has been just great,” Rosenauer said as he prepared to greet leaders of the San Antonio River Authority and San Antonio River Foundation, who jointly organized the Saturday morning Mission Reach Flotilla Fiesta along with Mission Kayak.

Rosenauer was joined by Fiesta Commission outgoing president Walter Serna and president-elect John Fristoe, who together announced that Fiesta 2022 would begin March 31. Serna promised that Fristoe would ride in next year’s Flotilla, drawing applause from the small crowd gathered in the sunny Mission Reach parking lot.

“We’re excited to be here, and we’re excited that we were able to do Fiesta this year,” Serna said.

Fiesta on the river

The parking lot served as the gateway to the Flotilla, with a small check-in tent awaiting the 220 San Antonians who had pre-registered to participate in the free event.

Steven Schauer, SARA director of external communications, joined participants in his own kayak, which he said he has paddled all the way through Goliad to San Antonio Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Saturday, however, Schauer would limit his kayaking to the quarter-mile route planned for the event in the calm-water paddling trail section of the Mission Reach. An obstacle course consisting of floating inflatable turtles and alligators gave minor challenges to kayakers.

People kayak on the San Antonio River during the Mission Reach Flotilla Fiesta on Saturday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Jennifer Alvarado heard about the Flotilla Fiesta on Facebook, and brought her husband Jason, daughter Zoe, and son Ryan, preferring the outdoor, less-crowded side of Fiesta. At age nine, Ryan would ride in a tandem kayak with his father, but at 15, Zoe would have to go it alone — which she said would be “a little scary.”

After the 30-minute paddle, the whole family made it safely back to shore.

In the Flotilla’s first year as an official event for Fiesta 2019, a gala awards ceremony awaited paddlers at the Mission County Park pavilion. Because of lingering COVID-19 safety protocols, the Alvarados were content to celebrate with snow cones from the Mrs. Snow food truck stationed in the lot and wander the gaggle of tents seeking medals and souvenirs.

The UT Health mobile vaccination van was on hand giving free COVID-19 vaccinations to walk-ups, including one family who attended specifically to get the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. Schauer said providing attendees the opportunity to get vaccinated was one plus despite the pandemic-reduced event.

“We’re looking forward to next April,” he said, “to be back and having a full-on big party. So, [we’re] making do this year with what we have, and having a good time.”

Remembering the Alamo

Rosenauer would make an appearance later in the day in the shadow of the Alamo, for the investiture ceremony for Texas Cavalier Phillip Peacock Bakke, also known as King Antonio XCVIII.

Given the pandemic gap year of 2020, the 2019 King Antonio Roger C. Hill III had an extended reign, finally handing over the King’s medallion, saber, and red plume that symbolize King Antonio’s reign over Fiesta and San Antonio, presumably with a shortened reign until April 2022.

A Texas Cavalier member lights a torch during the investiture of King Antonio XCVIII Phillip Peacock Bakke at Alamo Plaza on Saturday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

In Alamo Plaza, feted by patriotic music in front of a crowd of military members, Fiesta royalty, and 500 members of the public, Bakke daubed sweat from his forehead as he recounted the oft-told tale of the 189 Alamo defenders who gave their lives fighting to establish an independent republic of Texas.

While a recent book suggests the traditional Alamo narrative best be forgotten, the Cavaliers proudly reminded all gathered to remember their Texas forebears.

Near the back of the gathered throng, Iran native Soheil and wife Nayeli (last names withheld), born in Los Angeles, said they weren’t aware of Fiesta, but had heard of the Alamo. On a day trip from their Austin hotel, they made San Antonio a stop on their 20-state driving tour of the U.S.

They had hoped to visit the Alamo, unaware that this is one day of the year the tourist destination is closed to the public for a few hours while the Cavaliers privately recognize new members and honor those who have passed on.

Ken McAnear, a member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, looked on nearby, saying the ceremony meant “quite a bit” to him, recounting that his ancestors were part of the rear guard of Davy Crockett’s wagon train from Tennessee, about 700 miles north when the Alamo battle took place.

After receiving the key to the city from Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bakke announced, “In the weeks ahead, our streets, our plazas, and our beautiful river will be alive with music, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, with dancing, singing, feasting and laughing. Fiesta is here again!”

Bakke then issued his first order.

“This is my royal command to the people of San Antonio. Let your hands be joined together in friendship and understanding and love for our great heritage. Let every heart be light, to let joy be the order of the day.”

And thus it was decreed.

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...