Confessions of a Convert

by Josef Woodard

SOUNDTRACK FOR THIS COLUMN: Spencer the Gardener’s newly released CD, Fiesta. (Column soundtrack idea stolen from former Independent columnist Mark Fahey.)

Yes, there are some of us left in that fringe group of People Who Actually Grew Up in Santa Barbara, locals long before the place got Rob Lowed, Oprah-fied, and otherwise turned into an exorbitant playground of the moneyed and of urban escapees. We’re an increasingly marginal bunch, perhaps elite in our way, or perhaps hapless and hopeless, unable to imagine a better place on the planet to call home.

Many restless natives have had an evolving relationship with the longstanding Santa Barbaran bacchanalia of Fiesta. This columnist grew up on the south side of Goleta, home not of the blues, but Sprouse-Reitz, and has gone through the varied stages of Fiesta response over the years. As a kid, with few questions about authority or the state of things, Fiesta seemed innocent enough, an excuse to go downtown and bask in the glow of celebratory hoohah. In adolescence, alerted to the sociopolitical conscience through sources like the lefty rag, the News and Review (this journalist’s first gig), and satirical parade coverage by Proctor and Ward on the old KTYD, Fiesta took on a whole other flavor. Suddenly, its dark side became clear: Why were we celebrating the Spanish imperialists, and what’s with all those fat white guys on horseback?

Fast forward to now, and Fiesta seems once again enchanting. If you can get past the dubious underpinnings and quell such questions as, “Where is Old Chumash Days or Old Mexican Days?” the five days in August is a savory guilty pleasure.

Even the parade seems better than remembered. Paraders came in many colors and concepts, from the Royal Presidio Soldiers group, the Rotary Club’s Mission-themed float, and the float featuring the Castro family, involved since the first Fiesta, 82 years ago. The properly named Black Cowboys of the Golden West defied the stereotype that the parade is about fat white guys trotting up State Street.

As usual, some Fiesta highlights are off the beaten path. The 11th annual Mariachi Festival, Saturday at the Bowl, was exhilarating, begging the case for greater appreciation of this noble, Jalisco-born music. And the most soulful mercado outpost is tucked away on the Eastside, at Our Lady of Guadalupe. A packed house on Sunday evening plunged into scrumptious food, ring toss, lotería booths, and the two-beat spices of a norteño band onstage.

At the risk of impinging on Barney’s beat, this columnist was easy prey to the concept of “eating through Fiesta,” a proper ritual for anyone seeking a highly personal relationship with Fiesta. Plus, there’s just something heart-warming (and belly-warming) about eating Mexican in De la Guerra Plaza while watching Spanish-style dancers over lunch.

Here’s a short list of consumed foodstuffs: downtown, there were the three tacos/$5 at the San Nicolas Soccer Club booth, hard-shell tacos at Special Olympics, and a “world famous torta” at La Casa de la Raza; at El Mercado del Norte: carne asada super chips at Club Social Santa Rita; and at Our Lady of Guadalupe: assorted tacos and a tamale served by a nun.

After Sunday’s Mexican gastronomic and musical feast on the Eastside, the official Fiesta finale at the Sunken Gardens was a trip back to Europe. Flamenco and other dancers moved stylishly, confirming that this is a strong dance town — one of the morals of the Fiesta story.

Closing out Fiesta under an August moon peaceably dangling over the Courthouse, Father Virgil, from the Mission, spoke. He rightly noted that music and dance speak to the idea of “a spirit or soul clamoring to be awakened.” But he also noted that while “here we are, celebrating the arts, there are dissension and warring factions among us. God is a creator of differences. Let’s love differences, sing, and dance. Amen.” Hear, hear, and viva la. (Got e?

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