Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Colors in all the shades of a serape reach from floor to ceiling of this former furniture store where shoppers go in droves for all their piñatas, cascarones by the dozens, and Fiesta fashions this time of year.
The Fiesta Store at North Star opened two years ago. This year marks the 25th anniversary of its predecessor, the Fiesta Store on Main, which has been located in a historic home on the edge of Tobin Hill since 1994.
About 2,000 people a day visit the newer store during Fiesta, about 10 times the foot traffic the rest of the year. The store’s enormous inventory includes supplies for holidays throughout the year, common household items and art, clothes for all ages, and wedding decor.
The fact is the popular shop has had an impact on San Antonio and the lives of artisans that goes deeper than any fiesta.
“We used to have a store downtown, right at the Alamo,” said Luis Cortez, whose family owns the business that his mother started in 1989. “We are the people who introduced Mexican [folk] art to the downtown area outside of El Mercado. It was at the corner of Alamo and Commerce, in the basement. It was called America’s Marketplace.”
The Cortez family soon learned that locals were more interested in their imported goods than tourists were and moved the store to the corner lot on Main Avenue and West Ashby Place, closer to everyday customers.
There, colorful streamers, papel picado, and piñatas displayed on porch railings wave in the breeze. Inside, themed rooms are stacked with deep displays of folk art, traditional clothing, party supplies, hand-blown glassware, embroidered textiles, and stacks upon stacks of confetti eggs. Out back is a courtyard filled with painted clay pottery and patio and garden décor.
“This all started because there was a need of people in Mexico that were doing things by hand, mostly women – they were sewing items, and they weren’t selling,” Cortez said. “Mexico is a smaller market for those items, even though right now people are more into buying local art. At that time, in the 1980s and before, they weren’t. So we saw that need and we wanted to help them out.”
Fiesta store owners still meet with the artisans in their homes, have a meal, and negotiate prices. “My family has been here for a very long, long time, and even though everybody is from Mexico, San Antonio has been the focal point through our generations and they’ve been coming here for forever,” Cortez said.
Over the years, the store in Tobin Hill has grown until it has come to hold 10,000 different imported products, much of it hecho a mano by skilled artisans from Mexico, Latin America, Peru, and El Salvador.
When the Fiesta Store owners began leasing the Rector location – formerly Fisher’s Furniture store – in November 2017, they opened it as both retail store and warehouse. In addition to more space, it has at least three times the parking spots as Fiesta on Main, Cortez said.
Later this year, some of the extra space on the second floor of the store will become a permanent installation of Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) artwork featuring famous artists from Mexico.
“We were also one of the first to bring Day of the Dead items from Mexico to San Antonio,” Cortez said of the papier-mâché skeletons, sugar skulls, and clay figurines. “Many people did not know about the [holiday] and did not have the art, and so we brought it over from Mexico, and a lot of people started asking questions about it.”
Fiesta Store owners order products from 200 artisans who show their crafts daily at a co-op in Mexico. It can take six months to two years to get some items from maker to store, and even longer in recent weeks as the current crisis at the border has slowed traffic into the U.S., Cortez said. He relies on long-held connections at the border to help him manage that process.
“We thank the people of San Antonio, of the U.S., for actually understanding and providing” an outlet for Mexican makers, Cortez said. “It’s San Antonio’s thing, it’s not our thing. It’s more than this store.”
Having a market for the wares also helps to perpetuate the craft. While the Talavera pottery artist depends on sales of his hand-painted work to feed his family, he is also able to pass the skill on to his children and others. But a woman who once created witches for Day of the Dead passed away and the item is no longer produced.
On a recent tour of the Rector store, Cortez showed how some of the Mexican peasant tops and dresses he sells are still embroidered by hand. It can take weeks to produce just one.
“All of this, somebody actually touched this,” Cortez said, admiring the handiwork. “Working in this for this long, it just amazes me what humans can actually create with their hands. Doing things more efficiently, we’ve been trying to get machines and robots to help us out. But if we do that, where’s the human ingenuity go? A lot of this stuff still has that … it has that rareness. Not one piñata is alike.”
Many items are made from recycled materials, including discarded glass, paper, and tin, which is cheaper for the artisans than raw materials. For cascarones, the egg shells come from bakeries in Mexico, the color from food dyes, and the confetti from the holes punched for spiral notebooks.
These are most certainly not the synthetic confetti eggs Cortez recently spotted at area discount stores, he said with some disdain. At the Fiesta Store, only about 1 percent of what they stock comes from China, things like paper plates, napkins, table coverings, and giant confetti cannons.
But the Fiesta Store supplies its imported goods to wholesale buyers both near, like those floral crown sellers often spotted during Fiesta, and as far away as New York. Seven Cortez family members manage the store, its wholesale operations, and customer service at both sites.
New on the shelves for this year’s Fiesta is a different style of floral headband and foil piñatas. Both Fiesta Stores are open Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., as well as noon to 3 p.m. on Sundays (except Easter) at the Rector store, through April 28.
On April 29, Cortez will begin the process all over again, planning for San Antonio’s biggest party of the year 2020.