A sold-out crowd of 430 guests gathered in the Plaza del Sol at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort on July 30 to kick off this week’s Fiesta events. The event honored current Presidente Rhonda Ledson Henderson and 21 past Presidentes during a lively, entertaining affair.
The event was put on by the nonprofit Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara, Inc., which seeks to preserve and celebrate the Rancho Period of our history (1820-69). In this period of prosperity under Mexican and American rule, the people are known for their beauty, friendliness, civility of manners, and love for fiestas (“Spanish” Days refers to the language spoken).
Guests were warmly greeted by an official receiving line that included Henderson and her family, members of the Old Spanish Days board, Robin Hill Cederlof representing Santa Barbara, and the Spirit and Junior Spirit of Fiesta.
During the cocktail hour, guests mingled in the grand Plaza del Sol while taking in views of the ocean through the classic arches. Many had donned formal Fiesta attire while others opted for more casual Western wear. The energy in the plaza was palpable, guests were excited not just for the evening’s festivities, but for the multitude of Fiesta activities to come this week.
For the first time, the evening featured a reunion of past Presidentes and their Spirits, which was a surprise even to the past Presidentes. After a three-member troupe from the Soldados de Cuero gave a classic salute, bugle and drum introduction, each Presidente entered from one side of the plaza while a Spirit or Junior Spirit of Fiesta (most from the same year as the Presidente) sashayed in from the other side. They met for a huge, celebratory embrace in the middle, where they made the short journey together arm-in-arm up the red carpet to the stage.
The last to take the stage was the oldest living past Presidente, Terry Daly, who held the title in 1966, (51 years ago). Daly was accompanied by the very first Spirit of Fiesta, Ms. Lia Parker, who held the title in 1949 (68 years ago), 1950, and 1951.
Henderson shared how she truly wanted to celebrate our history and was so excited to have surprised the past Presidentes with their Spirits. In echoing her chosen theme this year of Unity Through Community, she proclaimed “Viva la Fiesta - Viva la Comunidad!
Just as music and dance were integral parts of life during Old Spanish Days, so, too, was this evening filled with music and dance. Spirit of Fiesta Norma Escárcega and several of her friends performed a couple of lovely Flamenco dances and Escárcega gave an equally beautiful solo performance. Junior Spirit Eve Flores, age 10, also delighted the audience with a Flamenco dance.
The two-time Grammy award winning Mariachi Divas filled the plaza with festive mariachi music before DJ Hecktik shifted the tone to dance tunes and guests filled the dance floor.
Father Larry Gosselin led guests in prayer, concluding with the traditional “amen” followed by an exuberant “¡Viva la Fiesta!” Guests enjoyed a Mexican-themed buffet dinner featuring tri-tip, salmon, and chicken.
Henderson is a fifth generation Californian whose family established a dairy farm on the Rancho Los Osos during the Great Rancho period. She has been in Santa Barbara since 1983, where she is a founding partner at Radius Investments. Her daughter, Michelle, just graduated from San Marcos High School and has been a Flower Girl/La Senorita for the past 10 years. Henderson is also board chair this year at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
This fundraising event helps make possible many free events this week. For a complete list of events, go to oldspanishdays-fiesta.org.
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By Gail Arnold