Romance is about chemistry but also inspiration and opportunity. Fiesta serves up both on a moonbeam. From the fleeting El Paseo tryst and Casa de la Guerra first kiss to marriage proposals and vows exchanged, Old Spanish Days has united countless couples whose paths might not have otherwise come together. This year’s El Presidente, Cas Stimson, knows this to be true, as he met his wife, Kathleen McClintock, at a Fiesta party in 1989 and for that reason chose Fiesta Romántica as this year’s theme.
“It was like a rocket,” said Stimson of the cupid’s arrow that pierced them. Stimson homed in and played a full-court press. After a bit of prodding, McClintock fell hard — and then head over heels. “I was usually very conservative about my feelings,” McClintock confessed. “But we were dancing and having a great time, and all of a sudden, I looked at him and blurted out, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ He said, ‘I know.’”
With romántica in mind, I started to casually ask around: “Do you have a romantic Fiesta memory, and do you mind sharing it in a very public way, like, to the tune of 40,000-plus readership?” The stories slowly surfaced, and then, suddenly, gushed in. After weeks of listening to love stories, when I finally sat down to review my interviews and write, I reflected on one of my most savory Fiesta moments: the time I serenaded my husband at Casa de la Guerra, where we were married the year prior. I’m no singer, but the mariachi trio filled in the blanks, and I belted out one heartfelt Spanish love song about the suffering that comes from truly loving someone: “Usted es la culpable, de todas mis angustias.” My husband rose and kissed me with a dip as the Casa cantina crowd howled in delight. I will never forget the look on his face — enraptured joy.
Stimson and McClintock believe that the true “spirit” of Fiesta is not about a dancer or competition, but rather “about a force of nature, the way we chose to live our life,” Stimson said. “Over all these years, Kathy has just filled me with the passion and romance that we feel in this town toward Fiesta, and I knew that had to be my theme. There is something unusual happening this year, something in the air, and people want to be part of it.”
Romance with Ninth-Generation Roots
Patricia Velazquez and Ruben Dunn will make their way to Fiesta from Nebraska to keep an important date: their wedding ceremony, to be held Sunday at the Presidio Chapel. And some of the guests will come from even farther; Dunn’s mother and extended family are from Madrid, Spain, and they’re making the trek to be here, too.
Velazquez is no lightweight when it comes to historical clout. She is a ninth-generation descendant of José Francisco de Ortega, first commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara. Her three cousins were all Spirits of Fiesta — Angelina, Elia, and Felice Valenzuela — and her aunt, Carol, was one of the early Fiesta dancers, performing with El Paseo nightclub king José Manero.
Velazquez, who now lives in Omaha, danced flamenco through many Fiestas herself, first with Kathy Cota and then Linda Vega. “I love everything about Fiesta. It’s home, and it represents everything about who I am and the deep roots I come from,” Velazquez said. “Last year my fiancé came with me to visit Santa Barbara to meet my family and to experience Fiesta. His automatic reaction was, ‘This is where we have to get married,’ so we booked a venue that week. It was amazing.”
Dunn said he felt immediately at home. “My first impression of Santa Barbara was ‘¡Que maravillosa!’” Dunn said. “It reminded me so much of Huelva, a city in Spain — absolutely beautiful views. I have always wanted to get married where I am from, so I figured this is the closest I am going to get to it without actually being in Spain.”
Dunn was both humbled and proud to see the strong Spanish influence Santa Barbara has preserved so well. “It brings out a great feeling of pride in my culture seeing the Spanish flag hanging everywhere and how much Santa Barbara embraces that part of their history,” he said. “I cannot wait for my family from Spain to experience Fiesta for themselves and celebrate the greatest day of my life, marrying my best friend in her beautiful hometown, which also feels like home to me. ¡Viva la Fiesta!”
Two Ships Almost Passing in the Fiesta Night
It was 1987, and Rosa Chavez was 16. A few of the roommates in the Hope Ranch house she helped take care of invited her to the Fiesta mercado at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on the Eastside. “When we got there, I thought ‘I’m going to dance tonight,’” she said in Spanish, remembering that the party was packed with handsome young men around her age. Then one caught her eye. “He was shy. So was I. He asked me to dance. I liked him,” Chavez confessed, speaking in Spanish. The two exchanged phone numbers.
“But when I got back to my room, I threw the phone number away because I already had a boyfriend back in Colorado,” Chavez explained. “The next day, I thought, ‘I know very few people here in Santa Barbara. It would not be bad to have another friend here.’”
Chavez’s instincts told her to dig the number out of the trash and beg the woman of the house to allow her to use the phone. She called Ernesto Cardenas. “I told myself that if he answered the phone, then it was meant to be,” she said. In a time before cell phones, Chavez saw it as fate that Ernesto Cardenas had just walked in the door from work and was able to take the call.
“We set it up to meet back at Guadalupe,” she said. “But when I got there, it was so crowded, I looked and looked and couldn’t find him anywhere. I thought maybe he changed his mind,” she said. “When I got back home, he called me and told me he had looked everywhere for me and couldn’t find me either.”
The two shy souls persisted. They set a plan to meet back at Guadalupe for the last day of the festivities. “When we saw each other, it was cupid’s arrow,” she said. “We’ve never been apart since then.”
Married with two daughters, Jocy and Erandy, the Cardenases have faithfully participated in Fiesta every year. You’ll see the couple in full charro, silver-studded regalia, riding together in the horse parade.
No Crying Over Spilled Beer
Longtime Fiesta aficionado Barney Brantingham has written about the celebrations for five decades. No wonder that he had his own story to share: a romantic turning point one warm Fiesta day when he was courting his now wife, Sue De Lapa.
Barney was the dashing News-Press reporter, Sue the paper’s trusted archivist and librarian with the sweet smile. “It was Fiesta, and hearts were as warm as the afternoon,” said Brantingham. “Sue looked so delightful in her gorgeous dress that I couldn’t resist inviting her for an after-work drink. We settled down at an open-air café just off De la Guerra Plaza. Just as we began chatting, I spilled a beer all over her brand-new Fiesta dress. Sue just laughed. ‘It’ll dry.’”
De Lapa now recalls, “I was having such a lovely time I didn’t mind.”
Barney said his date’s lighthearted nature in that stunning dress made him realize what a gem he had uncovered. “Today, years later, we’re still together, and I’m more careful with my beer,” he said.
Blind Date Turns to Love at First Sight
It was Fiesta 1929, and the train from Los Angeles was about to pull into the Santa Barbara station. A young college chap and Santa Barbara native, Ben Burkard hid behind a pillar at the station, waiting to see what his date would look like when she stepped off the train.
See, Ben was being set up with his college roommate’s girlfriend’s best friend, Annabel. The girls came up on the train to join the college roommates at a new festival called Old Spanish Days Fiesta.
“My dad tells the story that he was so worried, hiding behind a pole, wondering what she’d look like and whether he’d be stuck with someone he didn’t like the whole Fiesta weekend,” said Patricia Burkard, telling the story of how her parents met, and she and her five siblings later came to be. “The train pulled in, and off come the girls. And there she was, my mother, a real beauty with pretty red hair, gregarious, a smile on her face, looking like she was ready to have fun. It was instant love for my dad. He was just smitten by her. My mom always said that she thought he was pretty nice, too.”
Ben and Annabel — who have both passed away — spent a wonderful Fiesta together, strolling along the shore, dancing by moonlight, watching the parade. They were engaged by Valentine’s Day of 1930, and married that August.
Although she and her friend were already 22 years old, there was much discussion as to whether the two girls should be allowed to make the trip to Santa Barbara at all. “There were many letters that went back and forth before the parents decided that it was okay for the girls to come to Santa Barbara without a chaperone,” Patricia said. “It was decided that the girls could come, as long as they were chaperoned by Ben’s parents.”
Obviously, Fiesta always held a special place in her parents’ hearts.
“Fiesta always brings back memories of them for me,” Patricia said. “They watched Fiesta grow over the years but liked to remember the old days, always under the full moon. It was all very romantic for them.”
Fiesta Heat Spills into Laundry Room
It had all started with two friends taking in a few Fiesta events together. But as the days passed, the Fiesta heat kicked in, and romantic aspirations stirred between Pantea Rahimian and Daniel Koenig, leading to a knee-weakening, life-changing kiss. The two had first met in 2005 when Koenig came from his native Austria to Santa Barbara to study English.
“Fast-forward four years to 2009, when Daniel came back to Santa Barbara to visit me and we had the opportunity to spend time together during Old Spanish Days, watch the flamenco dancers under the stars at the Santa Barbara Mission, and devour pancakes at the Kiwanis Club breakfast,” Rahimian said. After a day of Fiesta-going, the two wound up back at Rahimian’s apartment, in the laundry room of all places, suddenly locked in an “extraordinary” kiss.
“We were magnets being drawn to one another with a sensation of explosive fireworks,” Rahimian said. “We were both surprised by how well we matched once our lips connected, and we were fused together as soul mates. This may sound a little cheesy, but that’s the best way I can describe it.”
Two years later, Rahimian and Koenig were married at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, followed by a reception at El Paseo Restaurant. “We had friends and family come from all over the world, including Iran, Austria, Germany, and Italy,” said Rahimian, who was born in Iran but has lived in Santa Barbara singe age 9. “What makes our story incredibly romantic is that we are from different parts of the world but somehow we both ended up in Santa Barbara, fell in love, and got married. Fiesta will always remind me that true love and friendship will always win, and that I am fortunate to have fallen in love with a man who moved from across the world to establish a life with me in beautiful Santa Barbara.”
Few Santa Barbarans have witnessed as much romance as the Rev. Jerry Bellamy. He’s performed more than 6,000 weddings here over the past 42 years.
“Years ago, both Father Virgil of the Old Mission and I agreed that he had performed more weddings than me, but I think that I am finally catching up,” said Bellamy. “People come to Santa Barbara every day of the year, and they all fall in love with Santa Barbara. They then often fall in love with the person they are with.”
Fiesta, Bellamy said, is particularly romantic, and extremely popular for proposals, weddings, and honeymoons.
“It is during Fiesta when couples realize that love is the most important part of their lives,” he said. “It’s the great sense of romance that this city exudes — from the bricks, the streets, the architecture, the street names, the very pores of Santa Barbara. As I circulate among the guests after weddings, all of them tell me that they trying to figure out how to sell their homes and move to Santa Barbara.”
Bellamy has been in the love business since the age of 8, serving as an altar boy at weddings on the weekends. He became an ordained Catholic priest in 1972, and was assigned to Santa Barbara’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The unmarried life of a priest was not meant to be, and Bellamy left the priesthood to marry the love of his life, Adrianne Nuñez, and start a family. The two have two children, Timo, a model and professional flamenco dancer and teacher, and Beatrice, 1994 Junior Spirit and 2000 Spirit of Fiesta, and now an attorney. Bellamy will preside over Beatrice’s wedding later this month at the Presidio Chapel.
“I am now married to a most amazing woman and we have been blessed with a wonderful family,” said Bellamy, a non-denominational ordained minister. “I guess Santa Barbara romance rubbed off on me and won out.”