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Old 04-14-07, 10:14 PM
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Fiesta brings us together, but it's not all we are

Fiesta brings us together, but it's not all we are

Web Posted: 04/14/2007 07:34 PM CDT

Marina Pisano
Express-News Staff Writer

Bright paper flowers, lavish gowns, rousing bands, noisy crowds.

The city's biggest bash means all that and more.

For Henry Flores, though, Fiesta brings back one unforgettable day when his personal life intersected with the civic pageantry of the festival's seminal event, the Battle of Flowers Parade.

"It was April 15, 1971, right after I got back from Vietnam, and my family took me to the parade. I remember it was a little too much stimulation for me. It wasn't comfortable," recalls Flores, then an Army captain, who served in combat during the Vietnam War and had just been discharged.

"But then the Brackenridge High School band stopped right in front of me and started playing 'Jeremiah was a bullfrog' ('Joy to the World'). It was funny. It wasn't really the song. It was that it seemed like they were playing it just for me. It said, 'Welcome home.' It lifted my spirits."

Nowadays, Flores, professor and dean of the graduate school at St. Mary's University, would rather catch the bands and flower-covered floats on television than fight the parade's estimated 350,000 spectators and all the snarled traffic. But his story underscores how this historic, 116-year-old spring festival has not only become part of our collective civic memory but also woven itself into the private memories of generations. For some, that speaks to its relevance and unifying power, even though the city has grown.

"These celebrations and rituals are important," says Gilberto Hinojosa, a professor at the University of the Incarnate Word. "Fiesta is not one celebration but a variety of them that come together at the same time, and it has changed over time. Anthropologists say, as a community gets bigger and interdependence is not as evident, the community needs such rituals that emphasize the 'imagined community.'"

According to the Fiesta San Antonio Commission, which coordinates the whole shebang, Fiesta gives the city a $254 million economic "surge." Some 3.5 million people, some from other states and countries, are expected to attend this year's 103 events, put on by more than 95 nonprofit organizations over the 10-day period from Friday to April 29.

But, major economic boost, feel-good memories and the creation of an imagined community aside, there is a larger question: Does Fiesta truly define San Antonio?

First, it's necessary to define what is meant by "define." In this case, it's the thing that gives the city its distinction or distinguishing characteristics? Next, don't expect a definitive answer.

Longtime observers of the city have differing, sometimes ambivalent views.

In fact, for many, the Spurs are the city's defining entity. The popular three-time NBA championship team enjoys a huge fan base and gives San Antonio the kind of exposure and name recognition that transcends sports .

The Spurs are popular, sure. But, "Fiesta still defines the city," says Lewis Fisher, author of "Saving San Antonio," the story of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which runs A Night in Old San Antonio. "It may not be the single unifying force, but it's the greatest single unifying force."

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros disagrees. "Fiesta is a great party, an opportunity when we can let our hair down and enjoy for 10 days. And for newcomers, I suspect, it's the place where you learn to appreciate and fall in love with the city," he says. "But, do I believe it captures the essence of the city? No, I don't think so. We're a lot more serious than that. We've gotten a lot more sophisticated. San Antonio is a lot more than Fiesta, margaritas and Mexican food."

Cisneros, chairman of CityView, a real estate development firm, cites the presence of corporate headquarters for Fortune 500 companies, such as Valero Energy and AT&T, the influx of thousands of jobs and a stream of new people. Along with its longstanding military bases and big new employers such as Toyota, the city has nationally recognized medical research centers and a healthy convention and tourism business — witness all those fancy new hotels.

Flores, who grew up on the West Side and is Cisneros' longtime friend, takes a more nuanced view. "I think Fiesta is one of the things that defines our city, culturally. There are signature aspects for every city. They may not tell the complete truth about what a city is about, but they do help define a city for people who don't know it."

That question of "complete truth" came up most dramatically with New Orleans. For many, that city was defined by the most famous of American city festivals, Mardi Gras. But the poverty, racial divisions and chaos exposed by Katrina and the hurricane's aftermath presented a grimmer side of the city to the world.

Fiesta masks our shortcomings too, says Trinity University professor of history Char Miller. "We're still a city that, for all its economic boom of late, still has upwards of 20 percent to 25 percent of our population that lives below the poverty line. It's a world to which Fiesta does not speak."

With some 1.8 million people in the metropolitan area and the city's astonishing expansion out to far-flung neighborhoods with their own recreation and retail centers, and even beyond to Boerne, Bandera and New Braunfels, Fiesta may be peripheral for many.

"The cultural impact of sprawl is to diffuse us," Miller says. "All those neighborhood cul de sacs may have get-togethers, but it's not about the larger cultural whole."

Developments like the upscale Shops at La Cantera, home to Tiffany & Co., cater to the city's new affluence, and on weekends, the trendy restaurants along Loop 1604 are packed. Many of those eateries are clones of their incarnations in town and have moved to be where the action is.

"Stone Oak is a universe apart," Miller says. "Fiesta is not a physical landscape that those people inhabit. It's a population for whom Fiesta and such celebrations are considerably less important. So, I don't think Fiesta does define the city. Why should one single event define the diversity of experiences in this massive, metropolitan center? It's not the same place it was 20 or 30 years ago."

Or a century ago. Look at the evolution of Fiesta, says anthropologist Michaele Haynes, curator of the Witte Museum, and you see a reflection of social, political and economic currents in San Antonio. From its diverse civilian and military royalty to the geographic spread and sheer variety of events, Fiesta, like the city, is more inclusive and representative than ever.

Of course, it all started with the Battle of Flowers in 1891, when a group of women decided to hold the kind of mock flower battle seen at festivals in Spain to honor the heroes of the Alamo and the victory of Sam Houston's troops over Mexican forces at the Battle of San Jacinto (April 21, 1836). Soon there was a six-day spring carnival, precursor of Fiesta.

The ladies envisioned a genteel affair with members pelting one another with blossoms from decorated carriages. But as University of Texas at San Antonio art historian Judith Berg Sobré, the author of "San Antonio on Parade," explains, mayhem broke out that first year as spectators ripped flowers out of the ground on Alamo Plaza, a fistfight erupted, a carriage was turned over and a man was dragged under a carriage.

Today, a more orderly Battle of Flowers offers a holiday for schoolchildren and a cavalcade of school marching bands, floats, colorful costumes and more crowned royalty than the Hapsburgs. Some families pack coolers and stake out favorite spots along the parade route the night before. Ritual triumphs over commerce, and the streets fill with strutting drum majors and smashed cascarones.

Fiesta's roots are Anglo, but as Miller observes, the organizers soon adopted and embraced the vibrant trappings of Hispanic culture and festivals. "It was the appropriation of something you've triumphed over (at San Jacinto) — a double victory in a sense. You beat them in war. Now, you take over their festival and make it your own."

The city's elite ran the show for a while. Some parts of the community were marginalized. As Haynes says of her research, "The only African Americans I saw in Fiesta photographs up to the '30s and '40s were the grooms leading the horses."

The evolution of Fiesta toward more inclusiveness is most visible in its monarchs, and there the effect has been invigorating. The first Fiesta queen was chosen by the Battle of Flowers Association. But with the founding in 1909 of the Order of the Alamo, that exclusive men's club selected a young woman (and court) from a prominent family to reign as queen of Fiesta. Miss Fiesta, a more egalitarian queen, made her debut in 1949; the Queen of Soul joined her in 1970, and others followed. The men's club's chosen one rules as Queen of the Order of the Alamo, not all of Fiesta.

In the same way, some Mexican Americans protested the predominantly Anglo King Antonio, chosen since 1926 from the Texas Cavaliers, a private organization of businessmen. Rey Feo, who originated in 1947 and joined official Fiesta royalty in 1980, rose as the "People's King."

For some, the expansion of Fiesta from its intimate early days downtown has brought with it a sense of nostalgia and loss. Félix D. Almaráz Jr., professor of history at UTSA, remembers that when he was a child, everyone knew everyone at the fairs and parades, friends and neighbors shared the magic. "Now, Fiesta has become crass commercialism — big 'bidness.' Growth has created impersonalism, not the civility we once had. For me, Fiesta is for someone else. I stay home."

In truth, thousands of locals pay little attention to the hoopla and avoid the throngs wielding pointy anticucho sticks and sloshing drinks. It is not everyone's cup of iced tea.

That said, geography doesn't necessarily dictate participation or lack of. Even from those far-flung neighborhoods, schools proudly send their bands to march in the Battle of Flowers Parade or Fiesta Flambeau. Out in 1604 Land, UTSA students hold their event. In distant subdivisions, friends pile kids into SUVs and head down to the King William Fair or the Fiesta Arts Fair.

Judith Goode, a professor of anthropology at Temple University who studies cities, says that, increasingly, festivals are a way for cities to market themselves. But these events thrive only when they have a steady infusion of local people. "If you don't have regular citizens participating in it, it tends to lose its meaning and simply becomes a way to sell products."

With more than 75,000 volunteers from many parts of the city working at events such as Taste of New Orleans and St. Mary's University Oyster Bake, Fiesta has that covered.

In the end, Goode observes, the purpose of civic festivals is to "celebrate differences and show unity at the same time — unity in difference. While there are different sections of the city, they all make a symbolic whole."

Fine, but the question remains: Does Fiesta define the city?

"I think Fiesta is part of our identity," concludes Flores, as important as his memory of that 1971 parade.

Defining or not, for Sobré, it's simple. "In the end, Fiesta is a way to celebrate ourselves. We're saying, 'Hey, we're here, and we're really cool."
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San Antonio Express-News publish date April 15, 2007

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