San Antonians know that April is the time for the traditional citywide celebration that defines their city – except when there’s a global pandemic that has quashed hundreds of public gatherings.
But anyone seeking a Fiesta fix can get a firsthand glimpse at the traditions, finery, trinkets, and philanthropy of the yearly festival at the Witte Museum’s Te Amo Fiesta exhibition opening Thursday.
“It’s a love letter to Fiesta,” said Amy Fulkerson, curator of the exhibition and an enthusiastic fan of the elaborate gowns and rituals Fiesta inspires.
Fulkerson described the show as a little bit of everything Fiesta, including not only the costumery of Fiesta royalty, the Texas Cavaliers, El Rey Feo, the Charro Queen, Miss Fiesta San Antonio, and others, but also special collections of Fiesta medals including those worn by three-time Mayor Lila Cockrell, an homage to El Rey Fido – a canine member of Fiesta royalty to bring attention to the San Antonio Humane Society – and video of past Fiesta Commission President Jeanie Travis sharing her experience having to call off Fiesta 2020 as the coronavirus crisis approached.
“It’s really a look into all the ways that we didn’t get to celebrate Fiesta last year, and hoping to get ready for at least some Fiesta fun this year,” Fulkerson said.
The exhibition doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the first cancellation of the annual spring festival in more than 75 years, Fulkerson said, with presentations of the gowns of 2020 royalty including the Fiesta Teen Queen and Reina de la Feria de las Flores’ mermaid-themed dress.
Crowned in 2020, Teen Queen Hannah Geppert will not get to repeat her year as a royal, Fulkerson said, as the position requires being a high school senior and Geppert is already off to college at Texas A&M University.
“She didn’t get a Fiesta event, but we do get to share her train in the exhibit, which is really lovely,” Fulkerson said.
On the other hand, the current Miss Fiesta will be the first to reign for three years, Fulkerson said. Calista Burns missed out on her coronation in 2020 and will experience only limited events for the 2021 abbreviated version of Fiesta in June. The Fiesta Commission felt it important to give Burns an extended platform for the educational cause that she represents, so she will stay on as Miss Fiesta through 2022.
Being a Fiesta royal is not just about wearing the crown, Fulkerson said. “It’s how do we spread the word about these different organizations. … It’s about what is it that they want to do to help change the community and to have a positive impact,” reminding San Antonio that its primary celebration is nicknamed “the party with a purpose.”
The exhibition highlights the many participating organizations – more than 100 each year – that contribute to the health of the city’s nonprofit sector and do charitable work in the community and the 75,000 volunteers that help make Fiesta possible, Fulkerson said.
While acknowledging the losses of the last year, the exhibition is still meant to re-create the celebratory air of Fiesta, she said.
“We’ve tried to keep everything fairly lighthearted, even though we do address some serious issues,” Fulkerson said. “We still want people to come away and feel joyful at the end. We want people to feel positive about having come and that they’ve had fun while they’ve been here.”
Te Amo Fiesta opens to the public on Thursday and runs through Aug. 1.
A ticketed “Cocktails and Culture” event Apr. 22 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. will ramp up the Fiesta-style festivities with chicken on a stick, turkey legs, and other traditional food favorites, along with karaoke mariachi music and a chance to don Fiesta finery and exchange medals at a safe distance. Tickets are available here.