One always hears things about Texas. We all know its famous public relations slogan: everything’s bigger in Texas. Was this some bon mot born on the lips of a uncompromising pig farmer, resting against his split rail fence among the sagebrush and oil rig elbows of the panhandle? No, I imagine the phrase was conceived in the air-conditioned womb of a boardroom, maybe in one of those glittering polyhedrons scraping at the high Plains sky above Houston.
This is the push-pull of Texas: the intractable independence and great corporate sociability of the place. The strange blend of attitudes and cultures, of blue bloods and immigrants, of marque numero dos para espanol and politicians named “Wayne Christian” (current Republican candidate for Texas Railroad Commissioner), of brown and white and everything in between—the contradictions are endless. To outsiders like myself, Texas is at once incomprehensible and delightful.
I had the pleasure of attending my first Fiesta a few weekends ago. Yes, that’s Fiesta with a capital F—the trademarked Fiesta San Antonio, an expansive festival that takes over that city for almost the entire month of April and rivals even Mardi Gras in its geographic spread, social reach, and historic provenance.
My boyfriend and I traveled to The Alamo City midweek to attend a Thursday wedding (you don’t get married on Saturdays in San Antonio during Fiesta). We planned to spend the remainder of the weekend with his mother, M., a dyed-in-the-guyabera San Antonian. M.’s father and brother, I would come to learn over the course of our visit, were Texas Cavaliers, a strictly members-only men’s group that organizes many Fiesta events. M.’s niece was to ride on a float in some kind of flower parade. Later, we would attend a pool party. It all sounded hunky-dory to me. I pictured my hometown’s Tulip Festivals: modest upstate New York affairs with their Tulip Queens—social work majors in TJ Maxx dresses—processing to a red-faced bagpiper. At Tulipfest residents walk around the local park gumming fried dough and shivering along with the tulips in the “spring” breeze coming off the still-frozen local Superfund sites. At Tulipfest it’s always raining.
Friday morning after the wedding, hungover and already daubing sweat from our brows, we trundled down to the Alamo Heights Pool. Alamo Heights is one of San Antonio’s society neighborhoods, its Buckhead or Upper East Side. The pool is not a private club, but its lush manicured lawns and mid-century modern clubhouse smack of a kind of postwar largesse—as if nothing in the neighborhood had changed—economically or socially—since 1950.
Flocks of immaculately highlighted Cavalier wives and their more naturally towheaded children were boarding a long line of coach buses parked outside the club. The Cavaliers milled about in their uniforms: bright-red pants, long pale-blue suit coats, and pale blue captain’s hats. Imagine an airline pilot uniform designed by Gianni Versace circa 1996. They drank Bud Light Platinums and tousled their sons’ hair. The wives wore a kind of uniform too: towering Tory Burch platforms, wrists of jangling gold bangles, jewel toned embroidered tunics I would later learn had been handmade by seamstresses in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Hellos were squealed in that manner unique to Southern women who are seeing each other for the first time since their book club two days ago. Older children cracked confetti-filled cascarones on each other’s heads and traded dangling faux-military pins—official Fiesta badges representing local clubs and businesses and even families.
On the bus we enjoyed the Texas-style air conditioning (so cold it makes you almost as uncomfortable as you would have been out in the heat) and watched the kids misbehave while their parents gossiped over seatbacks. One boy in particular thumped up and down the aisle, alternately riling up his friends and throwing himself against the bathroom door at the back of the bus. “Cointreau,” his mother admonished between pauses in her conversation and sips of her Styrofoam cup chardonany. “Cointreau, no.” Her accent was Hill Country-thick. When we disembarked, I asked my boyfriend if he could believe that woman had named her son Cointreau. “Oh, no, it’s Cuatro,” he explained. “Like, you know, the Fourth. It’s a Texas thing.” We made our way over to Broadway. This main thoroughfare had been shut down for the day for Fiesta’s ur-event: the Battle of Flowers parade.
The festival was born here in 1891, when a group of San Antonio women decided to “honor the fallen heroes of the Alamo” with a parade of horse-drawn floats and local militias in which participants pelted each other with flowers. It sounds more hippie than Texas, but in three short years the Corsicana oil fields would open and the Gusher Age would dawn—after which the event would begin metastasizing into the Fiesta we know today. The parade began crowing a queen in 1895 and began equipping her with a “King Antonio” and full court of “duchesses” in 1909.
The public events and private parties multiplied from there: night parades, river parades, street fairs, food festivals, mariachi competitions, garden parties, charreadas, cocktail hours, Tejano music concerts, luncheons, and multiple coronations. The aforementioned king and queen, crowned by another exclusive men’s club, the Order of the Alamo, are never going to be anything but white and rich. Excluded groups have thus taken it upon themselves to crown their own monarchs, which seems to be something that can only happen at our distinctly American intersection of institutionalized racism, democracy, and an insatiable thirst for some kind of royalty to worship. There’s a Reina de la Feira de las Flores, crowned by the League of United Latin American Citizens. There’s also a Charro Queen, a Queen of Soul, a Miss Fiesta San Antonio, a Mr. Teen San Antonio, a Rey Feo (Ugly King), a Cornyation (repeatedly described as “camp,” which leads me to believe this is where San Antonio’s gay king is crowned), and even a Lutheran Coronation thrown in for good measure.
And they all came down Broadway in this parade. Teams of escaramuzas looked flawless and sweat-free despite the fact that they were riding horseback in bodices and tiered ankle-length skirts in 90-degree heat. High school bands from every neighborhood in San Antonio roused our nationalism. Old cars blew their jalopy horns and tossed carnations into the crowd. The Fiesta queen and her twenty-odd duchesses rode enormous floats covered in shimmering car lot tinsel. Each of the duchesses wears a hand-beaded dress with a twenty-foot train that illustrates the “theme” of her duchy. There is a Duchess of Rare Sacred Shells, a Duchess of Serene Twilight Summers, a Duchess of Cherished Historic Traditions. The floats are designed to show off the trains, which hang down display platform, shaped like a ski jump, at the back. We could clearly see, for example, the very literally interpreted train of the Duchess of the Splendors of the Earth; its beading illustrated lumpy chunks of minerals being mined from various strata of the earth. The duchesses seemed small atop these giant floats, dwarfed by their own dresses, their giant rhinestone crowns in the style of Glinda the Good Witch. But they appeared to take it all in stride. They smiled and waved and, if you called out “Show me your shoes!,” would lift their heavy hems and kick out their tooled cowboy boots.
In our bleacher seats, we sat next to a group of five or six-year-old girls visiting from someplace decidedly not-Texas—somewhere more decidedly Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh or Cleveland. They wiggled frenetically at the prospect of seeing real princesses. They whipped through the exhaustive parade program to find out which duchess would be next, and what she would be wearing: “gold-set Austrian rhinestones,” “a sweetheart neckline of Swarovski crystals,” “Italian silver lame,” “hand-sewn French sequins.” (The repetitive noting of the beads’ European origins seemed determined to overcome any possible insecurity about their semi-precious status.)
So you can imagine their excitement when they deduced that we circled in the royal orbit of one of the princesses. My boyfriend’s cousin had been crowned the Duchess of Cherished Friendship. So we had pinned her official Duchess badges to our shirts, and the little girls matched the badges’ intricate teal pattern to the image of her train in the program. I don’t really know how the pattern represented Cherished Friendships (all the interlocking circles?) but her dress was absolutely gorgeous, and the little girls thought so too. “That’s definitely the prettiest one,” they agreed. “If I were a princess I would wear it every day.”
“She had to wake up at 6AM for hair and makeup,” M. told me. “And she was at the Queen’s Garden Party till 3AM the night before! Can you even imagine?”
It all brought to mind that excellent Britney Spears ballad, “Lucky,” in which that real-life Disney princess croons:
Early morning, she wakes up
Knock, knock, knock, on the door
It’s time for makeup, perfect smile
It’s you they’re all waiting for
She’s so lucky—she’s a star
Later we made our way back to the Alamo Heights Pool for the Cavaliers’ post-parade party. The weather seemed ordained to be perfect: hot and breezy, the sky as blue as the uniform jackets the men had stripped off and left hanging on the backs of folding chairs. Fiesta’s trademark rainbow flags—a Texas version of the Tibetan prayer flag—fluttered in the oak branches. Kids (including, presumably, Quatro) burned off their seemingly limitless energy by taking great screaming jumps into the pool. We served ourselves Tex-Mex from silver chafing dishes and greedily drank the same cold Bud Light Platinums now available at an open bar. The Cavaliers clapped each other on the shoulder, ran their hands through sweaty hair, sat on coolers and leaned back in laughter. Grandmothers carried gorgeous thick-cheeked babies. Grandfathers clapped their hands together and said “Wonderful—wonderful!” in gorgeous drawls.
Pride of place is rootless without familiarity, and while I found Fiesta fascinating, I was still mystified as to its point. Yes, civic pride was at flood stage, born aloft on a heady current of fossil fuel profits and tourism dollars. Yes, the Cavaliers do their best to redirect much of that money to San Antonio children’s charities—surely that was the point—but why not just donate directly, without celebrating the self? Yes, that wild mix of Latin and frontier influences that blend into Texas culture was being celebrated in every possible way. Yes, almost every San Antonian I met was wonderfully warm and welcoming—nevertheless, I still felt as if I were peeking behind the curtain of a secret society to which I would never been invited—because I would never be able to speak its vernacular. Maybe the duchesses would have felt just as mystified by my Tulipfest. But maybe the point of Fiesta is that it is a celebration of Texas. A giant party for a lone, but never lonely star that only celebrates, never justifies or explain, its Swarovski crystal sparkle.
We found a table in the shade, and sat down with our plastic plates of tostadas. At the next table over, an older gentleman—shiny bald head, nut-brown tan, sinewy arms—kept springing up to introduce his cougar-ish date, resplendent in a cream linen slip dress, to all his friends. His voice had a hard-living rasp. He had a pack of Marlboro Reds stuffed in his undershirt breast pocket. I watched as he helped himself to a bottle of vodka from behind the open bar—and why not? He had paid for it—so that he could make his own drinks. He stirred the vodka into the ice with his finger and told bawdy stories about that time in Puerto Vallarta. He seemed to be the very essence of Texas.
(All black-and-white photos reprinted from the San Antonio Express-News photo file.)
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.