(From left) Carol and Ray Gonzales wear ponchos at the end of the rain storm as they enjoy their dinner.
(From left) Carol and Ray Gonzales wear ponchos at the end of the rain storm as they enjoy their dinner during NIOSA at La Villita. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Readying for the parade that opened the 70th annual A Night In Old San Antonio (NIOSA), a sombrero-wearing Christopher Wallace said he found the mild weather “better than it has been in a few years past.”

As “Huichol Shaman,” the traditional NIOSA trickster and parade leader, Wallace said he was hopeful that the Rain Rock would work its magic, even as he cast an apprehensive – and prescient – eye toward the sky over La Villita.

The spectacle of NIOSA holds many mysteries for a first-timer like myself, having recently relocated from Milwaukee. First off, is it pronounced “knee-oh-suh” or “nigh-oh-suh?” What’s a Rain Rock? Are there clowns in Clown Alley? Which liquid just got spilled all over my shoes?

So many questions, so little time to run over to Mr. Chicken to beat the crowds laser-focused on procuring their chicken-on-a-stick.

The popular treat is a can’t-miss feature of NIOSA, according to board member Linda Alwine, a sentiment also heard from many festival regulars. Fellow rookie Rachel Reyes concurred: “Chicken-on-a-stick is what everybody tells me,” she said as her son Jonathan prepared to drum in the parade.

A police officer eats chicken on a stick as she watches over crowds.
A police officer eats chicken-on-a-stick as she watches over crowds. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

One mystery was solved just before the parade began. Dual kings may reign over Fiesta events, but the mayor still cuts the ribbon. Surrounded by NIOSA officers and flanked by King Antonio and El Rey Feo, Ron Nirenberg snipped the special 70th anniversary ribbon to officially open the festival, with a shout of “Viva Fiesta!”

Another mystery deepened, however, as the parade approached Maverick Plaza for official pronouncements.

“I say nigh-oh-suh,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) as she walked in the parade. “I grew up coming to NIOSA,” she said, and followed in her father’s footsteps by working in a booth in Clown Alley, one of 15 themed areas of the festival interspersed throughout La Villita.

Viagran said that back then, she wasn’t aware of the festival’s connection to historic preservation, as the main fundraiser of the year for the San Antonio Conservation Society. “As I got older, it became the ‘party with a purpose’ we now know,” she said.

After opening pronouncements in which NIOSA Chair Margie Arnold, San Antonio Conservation Society President Susan Beavin, and Nirenberg all distinctly pronounced the “knee” syllable, Fiesta San Antonio Commission Secretary John Fristoe echoed Viagran’s tagline.

“The Fiesta Commission and participating member organizations bring over $340 million worth of economic impact to the city of San Antonio every year,” he said, citing a 2016 study, “and all that money goes back to the nonprofit organizations that participate in Fiesta.

“So it’s in fact a party with a purpose,” he said.

NIOSA will take in an estimated $1.5 million this year for the Conservation Society. Much of the money arrives in $20 bills cheerfully handed over by partygoers festooned in multicolored, festive regalia, to match the rainbow of tissue-paper flowers, Fiesta wreaths, and cascarones that decorate La Villita for four nights. The decorations are made by an “army of volunteers,” as NIOSA press materials say, who work throughout the year.

Irma Gonzalez sells cascarones to NIOSA-goers.
Irma Gonzalez sells cascarones to NIOSA-goers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Their efforts and money raised through the festival have helped the Conservation Society recently pledge $300,000 to restore the pump house in Brackenridge Park, and to sponsor heritage education tours for area students to learn about the history of their city, among other projects.

On NIOSA’s second day, another mystery deepened. According to lore, the Rain Rock was first hung on the porch of the NIOSA headquarters on the corner of Presa and Nueva streets to ward off bad weather. This year’s rock-hanging ceremony went off without a hitch, said volunteer Judy Simon, who spoke as she supervised the hanging of the festival’s 15 ethnic-themed area banners on Monday afternoon.

Alas, monsoon-like thundershowers descended upon downtown San Antonio on Wednesday afternoon, throwing the festival into chaos.

The opening of NIOSA’s gates was delayed 30 minutes to 6 p.m. because some festival volunteers were held up by the poor weather, said SAPD Officer Natal as he controlled foot traffic across Nueva Street. More than 100 revelers waited at the entrance in light rain, most in plastic ponchos or with umbrellas.

Seeing the line, Martin Hernandez was undaunted. “When it comes this time of year, rain or shine, it don’t matter, you can’t let this hold you back,” he said, gesturing to the sky. Hernandez had worked 14 days straight at his H-E-B bakery job, he said, and wouldn’t let a little weather keep him from his yearly celebration.

“It’s the beauty of Fiesta that people still come out here and bring out the energy,” he said.

Hernandez and other early arrivals found food and drink tickets hard to come by, as volunteers hadn’t yet manned the ticket booths. Nonetheless, already prepared with tickets from opening day, 50 hardy souls had made their way to Mr. Chicken by 6:15 p.m. The crowd was a far cry from that of the previous night, when 10 lines of 50 people deep stretched all the way back to the Froggy Bottom stage.

Weather notwithstanding, over four nights NIOSA estimates that more than 80,000 people will pack La Villita for the festival, said Media Coordinator Jeanne Albrecht.

And by late Wednesday, the earlier inclement weather was all but forgotten as revelers strolled the tight, cobbled lanes and walkways of La Villita. Though the crowd was lighter than usual, Arnold said as she surveyed from the NIOSA headquarters porch, she felt confident that the festival would recover.

“A little weather moves in and moves on, and we press forward. We bounce back,” she said, looking forward to the remaining two nights.

Thursday is unofficially known as college night, Arnold told me. Festival volunteer Lauren Ybarra, who sells sausage-on-a-stick in the Sauerkraut Bend area, said college night has been a highlight of her NIOSA experiences every year since high school. “Oh, it’s packed,” she said. “You can’t even move.”

Personally, I look forward to seeing what gets spilled on me, as NIOSA veterans warn.

Admission to NIOSA is $15, with some discounted tickets available at select locations throughout San Antonio, including H-E-B stores and Lackland Air Force Base. More information can be found here. Inside the gates, food and drink tickets cost $1 each, with most items in the seven-ticket range.

Senior Reporter 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...