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A Brief History of Fiesta San Antonio

  • Published
  • By Steve Arionus
  • AFPC

Fiesta San Antonio is an annual ten-day festival, usually held in late April, which pays homage to the city’s cultural heritage.  This year Fiesta will occur earlier than normal (March 31 – April 10) and will mark its first year since the pandemic began. For many, Fiesta is a time to gather with friends and family, explore the rich cultural traditions on display in various spaces throughout the city, and, of course, eat lots of delicious food. The invention of the Fiesta San Antonio tradition is also one steeped in the rich history of the city.  

The origins of the first Fiesta celebration date back to 1891 when a group of women from elite San Antonio society—the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT)—bedecked themselves and their horse-drawn carriages in flowers. They proceeded to march toward the Alamo whereby they divided themselves into two groups and pelted each other with flowers in mock battle. This paid homage to the defenders of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, which won Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836. At the same time, this provided DRT and the city a good reason to restore and recondition the Alamo, which had fallen into disrepair by the late 19th century. This tradition came to be known as the Battle of Flowers Parade, a singular event in contemporary Fiesta celebrations.

Another tradition that is uniquely San Antonian is the selection of the Fiesta Court. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Order of the Alamo selected the queen from among the city’s most prominent families while the Texas Cavaliers chose a king from the same class of San Antonians. This created the very real sense of elitism amid the pageantry and celebration. King Antonio and Queen of the Order of the Alamo were an odd amalgamation of old world knighthood mixed with southern antebellum gentility as the king was adorned with martial accruements while the queen played the debutante. Together they presided over various Fiesta events as the representatives of the city. 

Beginning in 1947, the oldest Mexican American civil rights advocacy group in the nation pushed for a more inclusive Fiesta. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which originated in nearby Corpus Christi in 1929, began crowning their own Fiesta court: El Rey Feo (the Ugly King, though sometimes colloquially referred to as the People’s King) and La Reina de la Feria de las Flores (roughly Queen of the Flower Festival). As the names suggest, these characters served as a popular counterpoint to the elite-controlled Fiesta Court celebration while paying tribute to the city’s large Mexican American population. These two would not become official court members until 1979 after the (small ‘d’) democratization of the San Antonio sociopolitical landscape.

Eventually, all across the city began to host their own Fiesta events. One example of this would be the short-lived People’s Parade. In the early 1980s, LULAC hosted a flotilla of vehicles that drove through the city’s West Side as another counterpoint to the river barges turned into floats during officially sanctioned Fiesta parades. Similarly, St. Mary’s University in the deep West Side hosts the annual Oyster Bake and Alamo Heights has their Pooch Parade. Not to mention one can go to Beethoven’s Hall in the King William district and pay homage to San Antonio’s German heritage with Gartenfest. The federated nature of contemporary Fiesta events means that although the city still hosts the official celebrations, each community has the ability to make Fiesta their own.