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In April 1918, with Fiesta festivities such as the Battle of Flowers Parade and the Coronation canceled due to World War I, a group of the city’s restless elite decided to hold a “womanless wedding.”
A form of cross-dressing theatrical, it was a common fundraising tool in the country at the time. The proceeds for San Antonio’s event, sponsored by several women’s clubs, would go to buy war bonds. The San Antonio Light reported on April 7, 1918: “As the name implies, the entire bridal party will be made up of men and … there will be bridesmaids galore and dainty little girls to strew posies in the path of the blushing bride.”
The all-male cast featured San Antonio’s most prominent citizens, including “bride” Atlee B. Ayres, the architect who was designing palatial homes for the wealthy in the posh new suburb called Monte Vista, north of the city.
The Light went on to report, rather snarkily: “In point of exclusiveness, this affair will take the place of the Coronation, which always is the most pretentious function of the Fiesta season, and it is safe to say, the ‘Womanless Wedding’ will be the one really important social gathering of this year, which has been conspicuous for the absence of such affairs.”
This year’s postponement of Fiesta to November marks only the third time major events of the city’s annual celebration have gone dark: the world wars, including World War II from 1942-45, and the cancellation of the Battle of Flowers Parade in 1979 after sniper Ira Attebury opened fire, killing two and injuring more than 50.
Fiesta’s turning point
The WWII period of inactivity marks a crossroad or turning point in Fiesta history, or perhaps a hinge is a better way to visualize it, as Fiesta gradually evolved from a celebration dominated by the city’s elite — a sort of playground, as the womanless wedding shows — into a more inclusive, culturally diverse conglomeration of events under the umbrella of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission.
According to the organization’s website, what began as “a one-parade event to honor the memory of the heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto … has grown into a celebration of San Antonio’s rich and diverse cultures, and today is one of this nation’s premier festivals with an economic impact of more than $340 million.”
“Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, official events continued to be organized by elite organizations; I’ll call them the heritage elite,” said Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, a San Antonio native and St. Edwards University faculty member who wrote the 2016 book Inventing the Fiesta City.
“After World War II, decisions were made to create events run by more middle-class organizations,” she added. “I think generally you could say that, with the inclusion of other events like the night parade and the establishment of other organizations and royalty such as Miss Fiesta and El Rey Feo, the military royalty, the Queen of Soul, after the war, you could trace the changes to broader social movements that were going on across the country. And then in the ’60s with the Chicano movement, there was criticism – and more discussion in the newspapers – of the focus on the Alamo because it had been used to reinforce white supremacy associations. I think Fiesta has moved farther and farther away from the Alamo.”
Fiesta Commission President Jeanie Travis wouldn’t argue with that assessment, even though the annual Pilgrimage to the Alamo and wreath-laying remains a part of the Fiesta calendar. “It was a fresh new start after WWII,” she said. “People wanted to work together to find a new strength.”
The roots of contemporary Fiesta can be traced to developments during the WWII years. For starters, the city’s population nearly tripled from 161,000 in 1920 to 408,000 in 1950. Much of that growth was in the Latino population and the middle class; many soldiers who trained here during the war returned to make San Antonio their home.
According the conservation society, by 1941 the organization was heavily involved with the rehabilitation of the city’s five missions, and in 1942 held a fundraising event in Villita Plaza that would become the Fiesta celebration A Night in Old San Antonio.
While men were at war, women played key roles locally: “Instead of forming committees for Fiesta Week, members of the Battle of Flowers Association joined the Gray Ladies (American Red Cross volunteers), trained for Nurses Aides and enlisted in the Motor Corps,” according to a 2012 history of the all-female parade organization.
Different kind of ‘war’
When the announcement came in mid-March that Fiesta would be postponed until Nov. 5 due to the coronavirus outbreak, it was initially a shock to the city. For the 2.5 million Fiesta revelers, and for all the nonprofits that profit from it, what would spring in San Antonio be like?
“It certainly throws the rhythm of the city off,” said Trinity University associate professor of sociology and anthropology Amy Stone, author of the 2017 book Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition. “It’s just this big void.”
But delaying Fiesta, which would have begun Thursday, April 16, is certainly not as serious as the WWII years, emphasizes Michaele Haynes, retired Witte Museum curator and author of the 1998 book Dressing Up Debutantes: Pageantry and Glitz in Texas.
“Frankly, I can’t imagine that people felt the need to ‘cope’ without the usual spring festivities during either of those two wars,” Haynes wrote in an email. “Everyone knew someone or had a family member in the military. While the metaphor of ‘war with the virus’ is used, I don’t think that it really captures the feelings people must have had back then, the fear of loss of loved ones or even invasion of the country. We use that metaphor so often (war on cancer, etc.) that I think it loses its effect.”
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Sure, Haynes added, San Antonians will miss the traditions, “whether it is watching the Battle of Flowers parade with your family in the same place every year or participating in one of the royal events.”
“But since it wasn’t canceled, but postponed, I imagine that most people are trying to find some benefits, such as it being cooler (of course, there is always the chance of rain). The people I do worry about are the small businesses and nonprofits who count on that income during April and need it then — not in November. Those are the people whom I think are having to cope.”
And, before we put all our cascarones in one basket, what it … nothing has changed by November, and we’re all still camped out at home?
Perish the thought, say Fiesta organizers, already embarked upon reorganizing for November.
“Postponement was the logical, but not easy decision,” said Travis. “At first, it was, ‘Oh, no.’ But then it became, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ Then, of course, we have to turn around and organize another Fiesta – a year’s worth of work – in just five months time for the following April. But the spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm has been a humbling thing to see.”