Duchess of Treasured Textiles Gwendolyn Elizabeth of the House of McGee from Riverside, Connecticut waits to be announced.
Duchess of Treasured Textiles Gwendolyn Elizabeth McGee, of Riverside, Connecticut, waits to be announced. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Fiesta is less party and more work for photojournalists. Our uniform during the 11 event-packed days is a pair of tennis shoes, a heavy camera bag large enough to carry at least three lenses, and, for some of us, kneepads to cushion the hours spent kneeling on the ground during parades, waiting to get that perfect shot.

On Wednesday, when inclement weather threatened to put a damper on one of Fiesta’s signature events, I had two nighttime assignments: first, take photographs to illustrate our arts and culture reporter’s story about his first experience at NIOSA.

I covered my camera with a plastic bag and photographed through the raindrops until the storm passed.

My hair, usually pinned back, quickly became unkempt and frizzy in the humidity.

I was surrounded by Fiesta-goers in ponchos and rain boots, dripping in the celebration’s signature medals and getting their fix of chicken-on-a-stick and plenty of beer.

I got the images I needed and rushed to my second event of the evening: the Coronation of the Queen of The Order of the Alamo at the Majestic Theatre.

My walk down Houston Street became a transition into another world. With each passing block, rain boots turned into heels and medals became exquisite jewelry. My outfit, which had allowed me to blend in with the NIOSA crowd, became an embarrassment. I flashed my media badge and slipped into the darkness of the theater.

The show was about to begin, and I found my way to the first row of the second-floor balcony, where I photographed some of the faces in the dazzling crowd. When the lights went down, the stage lighted up. Young girls in tiaras sauntered down the center aisle.

Then it was the duchesses’ turn.

I have seen Fiesta gowns at the Witte Museum and the Steves Homestead Museum in King William – I photographed quite a few for an assignment earlier in the week.

I have watched the queens show their shoes during the colorful parades.

Yet I had never seen the duchesses make their way down an illuminated runway in those elaborate garments. I stared at the glittering trains of the dresses for minutes before I even picked up my camera. I managed to get a few shots from the balcony but immediately knew I had to get closer.

I rushed down the stairs and ducked under the velvet rope to get to the area where the duchesses await their turn to walk on stage. I stopped for a moment to take in the light on the face of the Duchess of Treasured Textiles, Gwendolyn Elizabeth McGee. I took a photograph of her nervous, quiet expression. When she stood up in preparation for her entrance, I was mesmerized by her silhouette and knew I had to capture it. I brushed past another photographer and set myself up for the shot I knew would be striking.

The crown and the gown became a scene from a Disney movie. The theater went quiet and time stopped for the few seconds it took me to take this frame. When the duchess walked away, I put down my camera and gazed ahead as she walked into the light.

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Bonnie Arbittier

Bonnie Arbittier worked as a photojournalist for the San Antonio Report.