In San Antonio, Viva Fiesta

Published by the The New York Times “In Transit” blog on April 22, 2013. To read the original article, click here.

Texans love to boast about the republic they enjoyed after divorcing Mexico, but no place celebrates the six flags over the state quite the way San Antonio does. The city has started a celebration of its history called Fiesta, whose signature event is the Battle of the Flowers parade on Friday.

More than 100 events take place as part of the festival, which is particularly embraced by those with Mexican and Spanish roots. Celebrations range from flower shows to battles of the bands to parades. Some events are held in sacred places, including Alamo Square and La Villita — the city’s historic arts village and first neighborhood — and others in balmy backyards.

One popular celebration takes place on Monday night. Embellished river barges meander along the waterway with city officials and leaders on board. The riverfront where spectators gather is converted to a child-friendly park: amid the folding chairs and oak trees are cascarones — eggshells that have been filled with confetti and sealed with pastel-colored paper — that children can crack over one another’s heads, sending bits of blue, green, and neon pink bursting into the air.

Credit: Globespotter San Antonio

As for the Battle of Flowers parade, a tradition begun by local women in 1891 to honor those who died in the Alamo and celebrate the victory at San Jacinto, spectators can expect motorized floats adorned with artificial greenery, replacing the horse-drawn carriages decorated with fresh blooms of the earliest incarnations.

But many of the parade’s traditions remain intact. Texas women donning yellow dresses still run it. And the city still appoints a king and queen of April merrymaking, a custom that dates back to the 19th century. “King Antonio” reigns over the city for a year, riding in cavalcades and on floats, his blue military attire festooned with glittering medals. He shares the spotlight with the “Rey Feo” — the people’s King — who is meant to be a counterpart to an aloof Spanish monarch. And flanked by the Queen, who, along with other young San Antonio women, make their debut during Fiesta in hand-beaded dresses, replete with 12-foot long trains and headpieces that  can weigh upwards of 50 pounds.

For all its regal pageantry, Fiesta is democratic in spirit. Its events are open to all comers, and many are sponsored by nonprofits and military organizations seeking to raise funds for scholarships and charitable causes. Rey Feo candidates compete to raise $150,000, for example, and the Texas Cavaliers donate net proceeds from the River Parade to their charitable foundation.