As this year’s Rey Feo, the 73rd in an august line of Fiesta royalty, Augustine “Augie” Cortez Jr. brings a salt-of-the-earth sense of rootedness to the role.

“I wanted to just go more earthy, I wanted to be more of an earthy tones kind of Rey Feo this year,” he said, pointing to the polished mineral stones in his crown, where normally there might be faceted gems, and a strip of fur trim where normally there would be gold lamé.

Not only did a less flashy approach to playing the “ugly king” match his personality, but to Cortez, a more down-to-earth attitude fit better in the pandemic era, with its many sacrifices and privations.

Exceeding expectations

He began his reign with appropriately reduced expectations on how much money he and his court could raise for the annual Rey Feo scholarship drive. The Rey Feo Scholarship Foundation funds benefit San Antonio-area college-bound high school students with annual payments of $2,000 to help cover the many expenses of higher education.

But the same work ethic that has contributed to the success of the restaurants Cortez owns with wife Sandra — Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse on North St. Mary’s Street, and the newer Augie’s Alamo City BBQ Steakhouse on Broadway — has helped the Rey Feo court raise more than $300,000 and counting for the scholarship fund.

Together with members of their court, the couple has visited upwards of 80 area schools to spread Cortez’s message, “empower your mind and always be kind,” to impress upon students the importance of continuing their education.

“I’m letting them know in my speeches this is our No. 1 most important factor with Fiesta is us doing this,” Cortez said. “Yes, we have fun during Fiesta, we’re all over town and eating and drinking and all this and that,” he said, but the reward for him and his courtiers will be meeting the students and parents when it comes time to hand out the scholarships.

Rey Feo LXXIII, Augustine "Augie" Cortez, Jr stands for a portrait on Tuesday.
Rey Feo LXXIII, Augustine “Augie” Cortez Jr. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

One such recipient was Tommy Calvert, who graduated from Tufts University near Boston and went on to become Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 4, the first African American on the Commissioners Court.

Calvert said that while the Rey Feo scholarship helped with practical things like books and shower curtains for his dorm room, it also helped foster a commitment to giving back to the community that supported him.

“For a lot of young people … it may be the very first time they’ve gotten a community organization to invest in them,” he said. “And so there’s a seed planted there about returning one day … and helping to make that door open and that scholarship available for those coming behind. I think a lot of the scholarship recipients have done that.”

Calvert is now the first African American to serve on the court of Rey Feo and said he appreciates the opportunity to give back by helping to raise money for other students. Proudly wearing his court uniform during a Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning, Calvert delivered the official proclamation recognizing Cortez as Rey Feo LXXIII.

Giving back to the community

Receiving the proclamation, Cortez emphasized his message to San Antonio students. “We believe that there’s a special gift in every student, and if they’re smart in the classroom, if they’re smart in their hearts, they’ll be better citizens in the future of our beautiful city.”

Another among the 7,000 scholarship recipients to date is Adriana Rocha Garcia, the first in her family to attend college, and now Councilwoman for District 4. Her Rey Feo scholarship helped her afford books for her classes at the University of the Incarnate Word.

“I had sticker shock when I saw how expensive college books were,” she said. “For kids like me, it really takes those scholarships to help with books” and other unanticipated expenses as their college quests begin.

Rocha Garcia had been impressed by the grandeur of the Rey Feo court since attending Fiesta events as a young girl, but receiving the scholarship drove home the importance of the organization and its role as “the people’s king.”

Rey Feo LXXIII, Augustine "Augie" Cortez, Jr, walks through the hallways of Jefferson High School, his alma mater, before speaking to high school seniors on Thursday.
Rey Feo LXXIII, Augustine “Augie” Cortez J., takes a photograph with the Jefferson High School Fiesta Especial King, Ivan Garcia, a junior. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The scholarship recognizes the importance of education and that “not everybody has the same access,” she said. “None of these organizations knew who I was. They didn’t know if I was going to be going into public service. They just had a heart for giving back to their communities.”

Now, Rocha Garcia said, she is in a position to do the same. “I’m giving back to my community as much as possible by being a mentor, by pushing education, by pushing job skills and training to develop people, because people believed in me. They didn’t know me, and they gave me a chance. And I think that it’s my turn to pay it back. That’s what Rey Feo has done for me.”

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...