PAST IS PROLOGUE: For the past 29 years, Marc Martinez, a painter by trade and a passionate Santa Barbara history nut by avocation, and his wife, Donna Egeberg, have donned the uniforms worn by Spanish soldiers, or soldados, in the late 1700s for Fiesta Pequeña, Fiesta’s opening event on the Mission Santa Barbara steps. For 29 years they escorted the woman portraying Saint Barbara, all the Fiesta Spirits and Junior Spirits, and whichever mayor happened to be banging the gavel at City Hall. But when Martinez called Old Spanish Days officials a couple of weeks ago to find out when rehearsals would start, he was notified that there would be no more Spanish soldados at the Fiesta Pequeña.
Kaput. Over. Gone. Banished.
He never got a clear explanation why and up until the Santa Barbara Independent’s deadline, neither have I. In fact, as far as I know, it remains a mystery. At an Old Spanish Days meeting a couple of weeks ago, the words “offensive” and jail-like pall were thrown about to describe the presence of soldados at the mission. Worse were the words “authenticity” and even the odious “branding.” Each of those words, in my estimation, is armed and loaded; combined, they constitute a drive-by shooting.
It was never clear to Martinez — or to many Old Spanish Days veterans who trace their lineage nine generations back to the original soldiers — just who was pushing the change. To these descendientes, the whole thing felt high-handed. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, every teapot needs a tempest. Within the orbit of Fiesta, what wasn’t discussed before became the only thing anyone was talking about. My phone was ringing as late as 11 at night.
A small but key point is that this year’s Fiesta has been dedicated to Father Virgil Cordano, who, in his prime, could whip out a few lines of genuine grace with no advance warning. Before Fr. Virgil died in 2008, he spent 58 years, some as pastor of the mission congregation, preaching “unity through community.” Nonjudgmental in the extreme, he made Unitarians appear dogmatic. It was also Fr. Virgil who got Martinez and the soldados into Fiesta Pequeña in the first place. Seems a weird way to honor such a beloved guy. So much for unity in the community.
When I first moved here, I thought Fiesta was a bunch of gringos dressing up as Spaniards dancing on the graves of dead Indians. I’ve since amended that. For better or worse, Fiesta is by far the single most inclusive party Santa Barbara throws for itself. Every strata of Santa Barbara’s demographic rainbow comes out, parties, gets drunk, and cracks eggs — even grumpy, self-loathing white people. That being said, Fiesta does celebrate a colonial heritage that did little for indigenous peoples. There’s been a long-simmering dispute over who was more destructive: the Spanish soldiers or the Spanish fathers. Champions of the military contend their bad deeds have been exaggerated and were often initiated at the behest of the friars. They are lobbying for a plaque. It’s complicated. I figured maybe Martinez and his wife were collateral damage in that debate.
Multiple efforts to track down this year’s La Presidente went nowhere. Finally Old Spanish Days public info officer David Bolton called to assure me this debate had nothing to do with the disappearing soldados. His explanation, however, was oblique in the extreme:
“We respect all histories and all cultures that make up the Santa Barbara community.” What does that mean? Bolton added to the smoke by stressing that there would be more soldados — not fewer — in this year’s parade despite the changes at Pequeña. He suggested that as a matter of historical fact, the soldados hung out more in the downtown Presidio than they ever did at the mission. Martinez countered — also as a matter of historical fact — that each mission was assigned no fewer than six soldados. They protected the priests and maintained order. They also did the flogging when a priest wanted an Indian whipped.
Naturally, I wanted to consider this debate at the same historical level of those over the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins, or the Carpinteria High School Warriors. One old-timer tried to set me straight. This had nothing to do with political correctitude or authenticity; flamenco, I was reminded, was never indigenous to Santa Barbara, nor was the Ricky Ricardo–Chiquita Banana brand of Cuban music popular at 1950s Fiestas. “It’s personal,” I was told, “not political.” Martinez, who enthusiastically organized the Old Spanish Days floats in the parade for more than 20 years, apparently got on the wrong side of “the Mean Girls and Mamma’s Boys” within the organization. Five years ago, Old Spanish Days screwed up big-time by picking a Junior Spirit who didn’t seem to qualify by being a year too old and living out of town. She couldn’t be disqualified, however, because the fine print wasn’t clear enough. To settle the matter, Old Spanish Days picked not one but two Junior Spirits. Big mess. When a spokesperson for Old Spanish Days issued an “explanatory” press release, Martinez called her out for prevarication. According to his supporters, Martinez had the documents to prove his point. She resigned. It was another big mess. Apparently, it still is.
Last I heard, the dispute was resolved. Then it wasn’t. Only one way to find out for sure: Show up at the mission Wednesday night, and see for yourself. Unity through community.