Fiesta Excess: When Commemoration Turns Sloppy

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A young girl reuses piles of confetti to surprise unsuspecting passersby. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A young girl reuses piles of confetti to surprise unsuspecting passersby. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

With the arrival of Fiesta, the 23rd since my family's arrival here in late 1989, I find myself collecting medals, studying the official calendar of events, breaking out my Dos Carolinas guayaberas -- and wrestling with my own deep ambivalence about the next 10 days.

Fiesta: love it, loathe it. Anyone else feel the same?
There have been years where I've attended everything, or so it seemed – three parades, Coronation and Cornyation, a few nights of NIOSA, regal investitures, receptions and balls, King William Fair, the exhibition of duchess gowns at the Witte Museum, Oyster Bake, Alamo Heights Night and the '09 Pooch Parade, and finally the Charreada. We vacuum up the last of the cascarón confetti with relief.

Kings Antonio XCI and Rey Feo LXV look on (background) as members of Fiesta-sponsoring organizations make their way through the crowd and confetti during the "Fiesta Fiesta" opening ceremony.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Kings Antonio XCI and Rey Feo LXV look on (back, center) as members of Fiesta-sponsoring organizations make their way through the crowd and confetti during the "Fiesta Fiesta" opening ceremony. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

On more than one occasion I've joined in another local Fiesta tradition: leaving town.

Why do I feel so ambivalent about Fiesta, and why do so many other people feel the same way, even if they are more careful not to say so publicly?

Excess, that's why. Too often, Fiesta feels excessive. At one end: The beer, the unhealthy street food, the littering crowds. At the other end: Wealth by faux royalty, pretend kings and attendants rushing around in tailored make-believe suits, escorted by uniformed police in official vehicles with wailing sirens, handing out cheap medals to inner city school kids, queens and duchesses parading in gowns and trains they will wear only once that cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and sew. The exclusivity, the invitation-only clubs and organizations, reinforce the class and ethnic divisions of the city and Fiesta's historical roots.

Texting royalty. King Rey Feo LXV (left), more commonly known as local business man Larry Benson, raised $308,000 for college scholarships. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Texting royalty: King Rey Feo LXV (left), more commonly known as local businessman Larry Benson, raised $308,000 for college scholarships. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Yet another part of me believes people should be free to spend their money as they like, and if participating in ritual celebrations that include a certain amount of grown-up make-believe, so be it. And looking around each year, I have to tell myself, the old order has slowly given way to something not necessarily perfect, but far more diverse and inclusive than what you can find in other cities. Each year seems to be more of a mix.

And then there is the money. Fiesta has become, roughly speaking, a $300 million economic engine for San Antonio. That's a lot of jobs. A lot of people apply their talents to work that is showcased for one brief 10-day period: the artists who meticulously create the gowns, the craft workers who build the parade floats, the families who have been serving up food on the same street corners for decades.

Anyone who has ever been the recipient of a scholarship from Rey Feo or the Texas Cavaliers would argue passionately in favor of the pomp and pageantry.

So, isn't it all for a good cause? How different people answer that question explains why feelings about Fiesta vary so widely among people who call San Antonio home. Perhaps the answer depends on whether San Antonio is your adopted home or if you are native, and among those born and raised here,  your socio-economic roots and where you find yourself now. To be honest, many upwardly mobile minority families I know eagerly embrace new Fiesta traditions as one more measure of the full lives their education and hard work have afforded them.

One of more than a dozen beverage vendors at NIOSA in La Villita, 2012. Photo by Corey Leamon.

One of more than a dozen beverage vendors at NIOSA in La Villita, 2012. Photo by Corey Leamon.

Last week, the Express-news published a timely op-ed by Kathy DeWaal, fourth vice president of the San Antonio Conservation Society and chairwoman of A Night In Old San Antonio. In the piece she catalogues the many historical buildings and sites the Conservation Society has saved from the wrecking ball over the years. You can click on the link to read the list or take my word for it: It's a very impressive list, especially if you imagine San Antonio without these landmarks.

I'm not the only one that disagrees with the Conservation Society at times – they can be a bit overzealous in their cause. There is no doubt, however, that much of San Antonio's history and charm would have been destroyed without their guardianship, especially in earlier decades when they had far fewer allies in the realm of historical preservation.

The Conservation Society reports half of its $2 million-plus budget comes from Night in Old San Antonio, popularly known as NIOSA. It is now four nights of revelry (April 23-26 this year) staged in La Villita, fueled by food, beer and festivities. Officially, the party dates to 1948, but its roots reach to even earlier in the 20th century. Here is an excerpt from the NIOSA official history:

"What began with a handful of Society ladies serving food and drink from river barges, has grown into a mammoth enterprise orchestrated by over 16,000 volunteers who stage and man the annual four-night event each April. The historic, downtown village of La Villita takes center stage as 85,000 visitors now come through the gates during NIOSA."

It's interesting how differently newcomers see it.

Corey Leamon came to San Antonio in 2011 after being hired by Lake/Flato Architects as a graphic designer. She's also a talented photographer whose images of NIOSA 2012 were showcased on the Rivard Report homepage gallery last week. Managing Editor Iris Dimmick, another recent transplant to San Antonio, engaged Leamon in a conversation about their respective first experiences with Fiesta last year. You can read the whole dialogue and see Corey's photos here.

Both experienced Fiesta and NIOSA for the first time last year. Here is an excerpt of their exchange:

Dimmick: I moved to San Antonio in February 2012, almost entirely ignorant of San Antonio history or culture. Fiesta, as it was described to me by friends and now-former coworkers at the restaurant where I worked, was just a week of day-drinking and night-drinking at parties downtown that no one seemed to be able to put into context in casual conversation...

My roommate and I introduced ourselves to the festivities by going to NIOSA on a Thursday night – apparently one of the busiest nights. We were warned about pick-pockets and frisky revelers by a friend. It was packed, chaotic, expensive, loud, and I couldn’t seem to avoid stepping in trash and streams of dirty water leaking from some unknown source.

I didn’t find out “NIOSA” stood for “Night in Old San Antonio,” until a few days later.

Leamon: I went after dinner and had a similar experience. I looked up what NIOSA was before going, and it sounded both intriguing and quaint. We all know now it’s anything but quaint. I don’t drink when I photograph, and most of the crowd was very difficult to deal with. I was verbally harassed multiple times (for being a lady), I had beer thrown on me because I was lucky enough to get my camera out-of-the-way first, there was trash and bad smells everywhere, and it was unreasonably crowded.

That exchange, it seems to me, tells the story of Fiesta excess today that organizers either refuse to see or cannot see. It can be found at many other official Fiesta events. The Rivard Report published NIOSA photos from Leamon that display a relatively family friendly atmosphere of the event as seen in the early evening. As the night progresses, the picture becomes a much less appealing one: loud drunks spilling beer on passersby, overcrowded masses of people, the smell of garbage and, here and there, vomit and urine.

A courtyard in La Villita during NIOSA – a bit crowded. Photo by Corey Leamon.

A courtyard in La Villita during NIOSA 2012 – standing room only. Photo by Corey Leamon.

Fiesta Carnival runs every night from April 17-28 on the parking lot of the Alamodome and attracts more than 500,000 people over its 11-night run, mostly working-class families. It's touted as a family friendly event, but it runs until 11 p.m. weekdays and until midnight on the weekend, a wee bit late for school kids. Many San Antonio natives I know whose families have participated for generations in Fiesta have never been to the Carnival, but the Fiesta Commission's budget is fueled by the working-class dollars that are spent there. Much to the displeasure of nearby Eastside residents, the Carnival has been sequestered at the Alamodome since 2008 after incidents of gang activity and violence caused city officials to relocate it from its prior home next to City Hall.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Police Chief William McManus both brought the scrutiny of outsiders to Fiesta excesses when they first took up their posts here. The police under McManus have stopped looking the other way at public drunkenness and have cracked down on drunk driving. This year the City is offering overserved revelers $20 debit cards for taxi rides home. That's incredibly progressive, in my opinion, and the incidental costs to taxpayers is vastly preferable to the official denial that once prevailed.

Traditions live on, however. For better or worse, San Antonio's reputation as a city that opens the tap wherever and whenever people and families gather, remains solid.

I've written for some years about the appalling litter that parade-goers leave behind after the Battle of Flowers Parade and the Flambeau Night parade. It's family friendly litter, parents teaching the next generation how to disregard public space by leaving garbage behind each year.

The City has started a recycling program along parade routes, sent out trash collecting volunteers and engaged in a low-key public campaign against the practice, but there are no signs yet that a cultural shift is underway. Maybe this is the year. If so, I'll park my ambivalence.

In the meantime, do you have an extra medal to spare?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


Related Stories:

The Spirit of Fiesta

Gallery: First Impressions of NIOSA

Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition Takes Downtown by Surprise

The Feed: Show Down + Síclovía = Fit City, USA

St. Patrick’s Day: More Than Green Beer and Shamrocks in San Antonio

Reflection on the March: Why San Antonio Has One of the Biggest MLK Day Parades


15 thoughts on “Fiesta Excess: When Commemoration Turns Sloppy

  1. This article is cute. Hate on something that is an easy topic. With your vested interests aside. I notice you tend to be critical on some of the softest issues.

    This article reminds me of the brackenridge article you all wrote a while back.

    Whether you realize it or not, your over tones reek of classism among other ism’s…

    How about an article about collective journalism being capitalized on by for profit companies…?

    Anyway, keep at it, while I may be a critic the reason I provide feedback is in am effort to bring change and awareness.

    Happy Fiesta!

  2. Last time I attended a fiesta event (the free concerts in front of San Fernando), the first thing I saw after parking was a giant uneaten turkey leg discarded on the sidewalk and overflowing trash cans. It’s probably my age, but after years of Fiesta, the piggish, careless crowds turn me off, the events seem to be more about waste than culture, and the original simplicity is long gone.

  3. You think NIOSA is crowded? Visit Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras! You think folks at Fiesta parades generate a lot of trash? Visit Canal Street in New Orleans during Carnival!
    Truth is, San Antonio doesn’t hold a flambeau to the festivities in the ‘other’ River City.
    But like N.O., if you don’t like the crowds in S.A., you don’t have to go there. Watch the Endymion Parade with the families along Saint Charles Avenue if you abhor the sardines-in-a-can cloister of the French Quarter. And take part in Alamo Heights Night if you dislike the crowds of La Villita during Fiesta.
    And don’t worry about the trash — or the smells. It will be gone a day or two after the event. It’s a party — and like any good host, we entertain our friends first, then take out the trash the next day.
    Our city fire department, police team, and sanitation crew do an excellent job dealing with our ‘excess.’ Go out and have a good time, buy your friend a beer, smile when you get hit with a cascarón, and cry for visions of of the queens’ footwear during the parades. Have a great Fiesta!
    Dionysus Don

  4. This event is literally 90 percent only for another reason to drink and well, lets just say it, be stupid…

    The event is so blah, so lame, without real show or much talent – albeit the few artists that craft something…

    If your dopamine bleed for Fiesta and all its events, I fear for your soul.

    This is literally one of the lamest celebrations I have ever seen in all my travels.

    As a long resident in San Antonio, I pass.

    Let the drunkards and wannabe’s revel. whatever. their right. but its dumb and with almost zero purpose outside a chance for the entire city to amass for a beer and nothing else.

    find me the local watering-hole

  5. Interesting article Bob. You did hit on a lot of the angles of Fiesta, which can be a lot of things to a lot of people. Tonight I attended the WEBB Party and it was interesting to see the party after 21 years, especially from a founder’s perspective. It is now the single largest fundraiser for SAAF, providing unrestricted funds for the hospice at a time when public funding for AIDS related issues is so restricted.

    With regards to recycling and sustainability, it’s an ongoing challenge of Fiesta. I know we’ve differed on the approach and results. However, this past year I traveled to Portland to visit the Portland Rose Festival AND volunteer to help clean up the Grand Floral Parade. It was a great experience, providing some good information in my role as chairman of Fiesta Verde. The one thing I took away from Portland is it takes time to change traditions and attitudes. Portland’s green parade initiative was in its 15th year when I visited and you could see the people of Portland finally got it regarding clean up. However, when I visited CityFair, their equivalent of the Fiesta Carnival, their efforts were actually not as good as our work has been, with lots of trash and very little recycling. Portland knows that and is working to improve recycling at events.

    The bottom line is that it takes time to change a tradition.

  6. I’m confused. You write about the things they make the city unique and amazing, but fail to embrace what actually makes this city amazing. Sure, we are bad at recycling. So is everybody. Get off the horse, embrace the event, and work to make it better instead of urge people to go out of town and leave the city during fiesta.

  7. Interesting, fair and important article. It reminds me of some ponderings illustrated in my friends’ documentary: CUUTING LOOSE by Andrew Young and Susan Todd —-

    I now live in Taiwan – a very ‘work and little fun’ oriented culture. Reading this article from here makes the excessive aspect of Fiesta seem, in fact, quite excessive. Yet, I still have fond memories of time spent at Fiesta and agree with the various pros and cons that applies to many festivals and events in the US and world at large, including Mardi Gras and the Olympics.


  8. This is a necessary conversation about one of the events that defines who San Antonio is as a culture. Without narrative venues such as these there can be no improvement for Fiesta. Fiesta is very different today than say 40 years ago when I first started going to Fiesta/NIOSA. It has progressively become more crude, rude, and more uncivilized…the people, not the events. The events are much more overly produced and elaborate. They’ve lost all authenticity.
    The thing that we need to discuss is the cosmic shift in people’s public behavior. First and foremost Fiesta is about people. At the risk of dramatically increasing NIOSA’s head count, in many instances people’s public behavior there can only be described as pornographic. It’s not the event that is at fault. It’s the attendees. They’re eventually going to spoil themselves out of a Fiesta. The paying customers are going to the smaller neighborhood events and avoiding the big downtown ones. Although you’d never know it by the size of the crowds in La Villita. People gripe about the crush but it doesn’t seem to keep anyone away.
    A case can be made for the Conservation Society cramming too many people into tiny La Villita. Crowd control has been an issue for many years for those of us with shops in La Villita. But the production costs of staging NIOSA have gone sky high, continue to increase and La Villita is a finite space. So the only variable that SACS can manipulate in order to make a profit is by increasing the number of customers crammed into the village. So the sardine can crush of revelers gets worse year by year. And Don, a previous writer, NIOSA doesn’t smell. It stinks. No, that doesn’t even do it justice. It reeks. And the stink doesn’t go away in a few days. It hangs around for weeks on end until all the toxic stew of organic matter, i.e. sour spilled beer, urine & feces in the flower beds, rotting turkey legs,etc. decomposes. We know because we have to breathe the rancid air. The only solution is to limit the entries and that’s not going to happen. That would cut into SACS bottom line and maybe even make NIOSA no longer cost effective. Actually, I can see that day coming when it will cost more to produce than what it can bring in. But we don’t have to worry about NIOSA disappearing. SACS will simply increase their real estate foot print. Enter redeveloped HemisFair Park just across the street. And voila! NIOSA continues on into the next century. What joy! Gas masks anyone? Viva Fiesta! Viva NIOSA!

  9. Anyone have a practical solution? NIOSA in particular seems out of control and scary– there is a potential tragedy there if people panic for some reason. It seems to me that you can do three things: expand the area somehow, perhaps by taking over adjacent streets, increase ticket prices to the point that some people are unwilling to pay, and set a maximum number of people at a time, with the gates in communication and only letting a person in when one has left. Part of the trash problem is caused by the fact you cannot get through the crowd to a trash can, and if you can, it’s full. Any other ideas?

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