I used to be a Fiesta hater, one of those otherwise proud Santa Barbarans who would flee the city during its busiest week due to fears of traffic, crowds, pricey fairground food, silly nightclub cover charges, and those pillaging out-of-towners who come to litter our streets and falter away in a hungover Sunday daze. Such an attitude was bolstered by many locals who felt the same, from those who simply bemoaned tourists to those who cast aspersions on the historic merits of the celebration.
But somewhere along the line, I decided to stick around for these so-called Old Spanish Days, and over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that most of my worries were unwarranted. There are crowds, sure, some of the food can be overpriced, alright, and there’s certainly a limit to how many flamenco dances you can watch, granted, but with the right amount of strategic scheduling (read: participate early in the week and early in the day, rather than midday to evening Saturday and Sunday), I’ve come to learn that even the crabbiest locals can find plenty to celebrate during Fiesta.
Plus, as my understanding of our city’s economy and history has deepened with my decade or so of research and experience as a journalist, I now believe that Fiesta is exactly what it’s supposed to be: a party to celebrate both residents and visitors, a display of the unique Hispano-Anglo-Mexican-Yankee-Native American multiculturalism that makes Santa Barbara unique, and an annual cash bomb to the economy, both the for-profit merchants along State Street and the nonprofit organizations slinging tacos and tortas in mercados throughout town.
This year, I may be off to my strongest start ever, and with a young child, I’m also getting a taste of how much fun Fiesta can be for all ages — and we haven’t even checked out the horse parade on Friday or the Noches de Ronda at the Courthouse. Our Fiesta started on Tuesday night, when we gathered with friends on the lawn between Mission Santa Barbara and the rose garden, chowed down carne asada tacos, and watched a dress rehearsal for Fiesta Pequeña. We could see the dancers without jostling for position and run on the lawn without tripping over the thousands of others who come for the real Fiesta Pequeña on Wednesday night.
A about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, I was driving up Santa Barbara Street, and realized that the food vendors might be in action. Better yet, there was still parking on De la Guerra, so I hopped out, hit up the birria taco stand, got three for $6 plus a tasty strawberry lemonade for $2 more, and chowed while watching Linda Vega’s tiny dancers stomp on the stage. I’m not sure where you eat lunch around Santa Barbara these days, but $8 for a full belly and sated thirst is a decent deal to me.
After work on Wednesday afternoon, I ditched my office clothes in favor of the perfect Fiesta T-shirt: my “St. Barbara: Mistress of Imminent Doom” black edition, designed by my colleague Nick “Angry Poodle” Welsh in conjunction with artist Max Kornell, a former Indy designer-turned-kid’s book author. (Read my review of his debut Bear with Me here.) After a brief time-killing beer at Derf’s near my house, my wife and boy picked me up and we headed to the Samarkand, where we easily found parking on the top side of MacKenzie Park, walked down to Mercado del Norte, checked out the redesigned scene (I can’t wait to hit up the nicely placed Crazy Horse Cantina one of these days), and listened to some local kids rock out on stage. Soon enough, it was time for more tacos, and three adobado ones for $6 did the trick; throw in a horchata for $3, and a $9 dinner under the setting Santa Barbara sun was affordable and delicious.
That night, it was time for what’s become an annual tradition for my friends and quite a few others: Spencer the Gardener blessing in this year’s Fiesta in a locals-studded concert at the Casa de la Guerra’s Cantina till the wee hours. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that a nonprofit I cofounded, the New Noise Music Foundation, is coordinating the Casa Cantina this year, which means that it’s extra rockin’, particularly with Friday night’s Rey Fresco with Moonlight Trio and Saturday’s Very Be Careful shows.) The Firestone was a-flowin’, the feets were a-dancin’, and the money was a-piling up for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which counts the cantina as one of its biggest fundraisers of the year. And Spencer even threw a line out for me, “I Like Matt Kettmann,” related to my recent embarrassingly shameless creation of a public Facebook page for my journalistic life. (You can like me here.)
I watch my son on Thursday mornings, which made the perfect opportunity for another visit to the Mercado de la Guerra, where, through waves of smoke from the tri-tip torta booth (gotta get me one of those eventually, plus two of those massive ribs I spotted, too), we watched dancers from Lompoc’s Garcia Dance Studio frolic across the stage. Seeing dancers whose skin tones ranged from stark white to soft brown to dark chocolate, I was reminded of what was truly the first Fiesta: the 1820 re-dedication of Mission Santa Barbara, which took eight years to properly rebuild after the devastating earthquake of 1812. That multicultural celebration lasted a number of days and featured a wide variety of ethnicities participating in the fun, from the Mexican vaqueros running bear versus bull fights, Spaniards sipping their brandies, and Chumash playing violins to the Yankees, Creoles, and other assorted peoples dancing, singing, and drinking along.
Certainly, times were far from joyous for everyone way back then, but the same can be said for today. Life’s not always easy, but when your entire city turns into one big party that offers a bit of fun for everyone, it’s not the time for complaining. It’s the time for celebrating, and that’s what I’ll be doing the rest of this weekend, at least at the right times.