Apr 19, 2023 - News

Unraveling the complex history of San Antonio's Fiesta celebration

Illustration of papel picado with cutouts in the shape of the Alamo.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Fiesta, the 11-day annual party that unites thousands of residents and visitors, is rooted in a complicated history that some say is divisive.

Why it matters: Fiesta attracts more than 2 million attendees annually—many of whom aren't aware that the Mexican-themed event celebrates the defeat of Mexicans in the Texas Revolution. Critics say organizers haven't done enough to separate the modern celebration from its origins.

Context: Fiesta began in 1891 to honor the Texans who fought and died in the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto, the decisive defeat of Mexican forces. The war was spurred at least in part by Mexico's abolition of slavery, historians say.

  • "It's all about celebrating the Texas Revolution, but the Texas Revolution was not a good thing for people of color," Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, Mexican American studies program coordinator at the University of Texas at San Antonio, tells Axios.
  • Valerie Martínez, assistant history professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, tells Axios the conception of Fiesta was rooted in anti-Mexican sentiments.

State of play: Fiesta has grown into a citywide celebration with more than 100 events supporting nonprofits.

  • The Fiesta Commission, which did not respond to interview requests, describes the event as a way to honor the battles, but now also as "a celebration of San Antonio's rich and diverse cultures."

Between the lines: Two Fiestas have emerged as the celebration has evolved.

  • There are Alamo-centric commemorations and exclusive groups, like the Order of the Alamo, which is private and predominantly white.
  • Fiesta's schedule also includes events like the Flambeau Parade, Oyster Bake, Fiesta de Los Reyes and more that are open to the public, diverse and popular.

What's happening: Local art historian Ruben Cordova penned opinion pieces in recent years calling for the "decoupling" of Fiesta from the war.

  • He tells Axios that changing the dates of Fiesta from April — which coincides with the Battle of San Jacinto — would be a start.
  • Cordova says marking the battle with a celebration that uses Mexican imagery is an "affront" to the city's residents with Mexican roots and changing the dates would make it more inclusive.

Flashback: This isn't the first time Fiesta has been challenged, notes Laura Hernández-Ehrisman, author of "Inventing the Fiesta City: Heritage and Carnival in San Antonio."

  • Dropping "San Jacinto" from the event's name in 1959 was an early move away from the war, she tells Axios.
  • Residents have contrasted the exclusivity of the Order of the Alamo and King Antonio by creating more accessible and diverse figures and events like Rey Feo and Cornyation.

What they're saying: Hernández-Ehrisman, who is from San Antonio, says as long as Fiesta remains tied to the Texas Revolution, it will continue to be problematic and divisive.

  • "Fiesta's complicated because it's a call to celebrate unity but among people who have profound differences," Hernández-Ehrisman says.
  • "Take away the war. Let's look at it through a different lens and say, 'This is a celebration of San Antonio's culture,'" says Yolanda Rodríguez-Escobar, director of OLLU's Center for Mexican American Studies and Research.
  • As Hispanics become the state's largest demographic group, Saldaña says it's time to have a "historical consciousness" about the origins of Fiesta.

Yes, but: While the history of Fiesta is complicated and may pose an internal conflict for attendees, Hernández-Ehrisman says there are still ways to celebrate and support local groups.

Of note: Fiesta's participating member organizations are all nonprofits, which means the money spent at the parties and parades goes back into the community.

  • Considering the variety and amount of events, Hernández-Ehrisman says there is room to "shape Fiesta how you want."
  • She encourages Fiesta-goers to "define the celebration in a way that is consistent with the way that you engage in the city in general."

Details: Fiesta features plenty of events that are not connected to commemorating the 1836 battles.

  • Taste of New Orleans, which started as a Juneteenth celebration, supports college scholarships.
  • Mission Reach Flotilla Fiesta, a kayaking event, supports the River Foundation's stewardship of the San Antonio River.
  • Piñatas in the Barrio, hosted on the West Side, benefits scholarships for struggling artists.
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