She was a shy child, but she always loved to dance. Classical ballet, Mexican folklórico, and even a little flamenco—if music, movement, and pretty dresses were involved, Lia Parker was interested. She was 12 years old when a respected Santa Barbara elder saw her dancing and thought she’d be the perfect act to lead a parade of civic celebration. That man was Francis Figg-Hoblyn, and the parade was Old Spanish Days, also known as Fiesta—the annual festival that since 1924 has celebrated Santa Barbara’s cultural heritage.
Sitting in the courtyard at Garden Court, the downtown retirement home where she now lives, Parker recounted her response to Figg-Hoblyn’s invitation. “Why me? Couldn’t a horse do better? Or a priest with a cross?” she remembers thinking. “I had to be talked into it with a Coke and a chocolate bar.” In August 1949, Parker became the first young woman to dance down State Street leading the Fiesta parade. Thus, a Santa Barbara tradition was born.
Parker turns 80 this October, but she retains a girlish charm, especially as she recounts her years as the first-ever Spirit of Fiesta, a role she held for three years, and which has since become a sought-after honor for many young women. Even last week in her black lace shawl and colorful skirts, her gray hair swept back and crowned with a floral hairpiece, Parker looked as if she were ready to set off twirling down State Street. Yet she insisted she’s still as timid as she ever was.
“The first year I led the parade, Life magazine came to the house to interview me,” she said. “I was so scared, I ran and hid in the back of the house and refused to come out. My mother had to get rid of them. They never came back.”
Despite her nerves, Parker loved dancing in Fiesta. “When you start the parade, you feel a certain responsibility in your spirit—a love for your city,” she said, and her voice began to quaver. “It’s touching me now—they loved me enough to choose me.”
This Thursday, Garden Court is hosting a free Fiesta kickoff party in the courtyard. There will betacos and margaritas, live mariachi music, and an appearance by this year’s Spirit of Fiesta, 18-year-old flamenco dancer Corrie Jimenez. Asked whether she might join her young counterpart on the stage, Parker demurred: “I don’t know; I’m so shy, it would be a miracle.”
Jimenez, for her part, is thrilled at the prospect of dancing for the adoring crowds. For her, being chosen as Spirit of Fiesta is a dream that was a long time coming. At age 11, she was chosen as runner-up for Junior Spirit of Fiesta. This was her third year trying out for Spirit. In preparation, she trained intensively with her L.A.-based flamenco instructor, Timo Nuñez. Parker expressed amazement at the technical ability and poised performances of modern Spirits such as Jimenez. “We were so amateurish in comparison,” she said.
Today, the role of Spirit involves much more than leading the Fiesta parade; Jimenez and Junior Spirit Kailani Cordero will be opening many events, including Fiesta Pequeña: a night of song and dance held at the Old Mission. When we spoke, Jimenez said she had gone to the Mission steps the previous evening, just around the time of day when Fiesta Pequeña will begin. “It was so overwhelming; I almost lost my breath,” she said. “I’m really going to be out there. I’ve been dreaming about this for years.”
It’s been nearly 70 years since a shy little girl set off dancing down State Street, leading a parade of horses and civic leaders in a celebration of the spirit of Santa Barbara. After all this time, there’s still something magical about the title “Spirit of Fiesta” and the tradition of honoring one young woman with a character befitting the honor. Speaking to Jimenez, I discovered that she’s planning to pursue a career in health care. She had no idea that Parker had worked as a home health aide for most of her adult life. That’s no surprise, given how modest Parker is. Before leaving Garden Court, I pointed out a plaque on the wall behind her: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. —Mahatma Gandhi.”
“My idol,” Parker said simply. “He always was.”
The Fiesta kickoff party at Garden Court will be held tonight, Thursday, July 25, from 5-8 p.m. Old Spanish Days runs July 31-August 4, with the historical Fiesta parade taking place on Friday, August 2, at noon. For a complete schedule, visit oldspanishdays-fiesta.org.