A Love Letter to Santa Barbara’s Fiesta
Our Appreciation for Old Spanish Days Burns Brighter than Ever This Year
By Camilla Barnwell | August 3, 2022
I love you. I’ve missed you. I haven’t been myself without you. None of us have, really.
Things have gone sideways since you left.
In 2020, we waited for you, but you never really came.
In 2021, our hearts were broken again. You tried to be here, but we didn’t recognize you.
Two empty summers full of longing and loss under the weight of a global pandemic.
Parades, mercados, Noches at the courthouse, Pequeña at the Mission, cascarones, flower girls, dancing at El Paseo … our 98-year-old tradition of carefree community merry-making replaced by face masks, test kits, social distancing, vaccine mandates, closures, reopenings, closures, reopenings. Social and political trials. Isolation. Disappointment. Fear of getting sick or dying … fear of the unknown.
You’re back now, but we’re all a little changed.
Pandemic life has taken a toll. Our spirits are depleted.
Fiesta … we need you now more than ever.
We need to heal. We need to restore ourselves. We need a moment to get out of our own heads — to be part of something beautiful and bigger than our own worries. We need to reconnect with each other and with ourselves through the strength and magic of this deep-rooted tradition that is part of our community identity.
We also need to let go a little. Let’s face it, we all need some fun!
My friend and former colleague (and Indy Columnist Emeritus) Barney Brantingham gets it. He came to Santa Barbara to work for the Santa Barbara News-Press in 1960 during the T.M. Storke era. Over his 60-year journalism career, Brantingham has covered his fair share of Fiestas — like 50 of ’em.
“I’ve always said that Fiesta is the time to fall in love. And I did,” said Brantingham, 90, remembering a romantic turning point one warm Fiesta day when he was courting his wife, Sue De Lapa, who passed away in 2015. “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.’”
It was a Fiesta love match.
We’ve been through so much as a community, Brantingham said, and perhaps Fiesta can be the ultimate booster we all need.
“Our hearts have been hard at work all year,” he said. “It’s time to unloosen those heartstrings and feel the romance of Santa Barbara. Let loose and feel the humanity and love that we have kept undercover for too long. We’ve lost contact with a lot of old friends that we only saw during Fiesta, and we miss them. Somehow, we need to float away from that stress and strife. Leave it all behind.”
My own romance with Fiesta began in 1996, when I moved here to cover the schools for the News-Press. I’d never heard of Old Spanish Days Fiesta. One late Friday afternoon, my editor told me to go up to the courthouse to get some “Fiesta color” for a story for the next day’s paper. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Press pass around my neck, I walked up a confetti-riddled State Street, and through a back entrance, I found my way inside the grand halls of the courthouse. There were hundreds of costumed performers and musicians milling around “backstage.” I approached one of the organizers and told her that I was a reporter there to “get some color” for my story, hoping she would know how to answer.
At that same moment, one of the flamenco studio groups was lining up near the entrance to the stage. Their friendly teacher, Linda Vega, introduced herself, and we became fast friends after sharing that we’d both spent years living in Spain. She told me she’d give me a colorful quote for my story when their routine was done. I peeked around her and looked out to the stage and beyond. There were hundreds of people gathered on blankets — like a colorful patchwork quilt woven into the bed of the sunken gardens. Just then, the organizer came over and said, “Our second emcee didn’t make it. You’re a reporter, right? Can you do it?” I thought she was talking to someone else.
The take-charge Vega said, “Yes, of course, she can do it!” then wrapped her Spanish shawl around my shoulders and pulled a flower out of thin air to attach to my hair. Then she nudged me out onto the stage with my co-emcee, a local radio deejay whose main contribution was announcing over and over where the bathrooms were located. But somehow, we pulled it off! Two-plus hours later, I hustled back to the News-Press to write up my story before deadline. Only the sports reporters were still there typing away. I told my editor, “I think I found the ‘Fiesta color.’”
It was more like a Cupid’s arrow to the heart.
I’ve gone on to write about Fiesta from every angle I could think of — the Best Fiesta Margarita-Crawl; how the event used to be scheduled to take place under the full August moon, and why it isn’t anymore; the true origins of the horses that grace the parade; backstage Fiestamama madness and surviving the week with my dancing daughter; as well as the Spirits of Fiesta, the food, the vendors, the seamstresses, the costumes, the shoes, the dance forms, the musicians, the romance, the history, the backstories, the subculture, and the subtext that make this week-long party what it is.
And I’ve also experienced Fiesta for myself: danced my heart out under that full moon; crowded into Joe’s after the parade; bounced from one blanket to the next to share my famous sangria with friends; decorated a wagon and put my kids in costumes for the children’s parade; serenaded my husband accompanied by a mariachi trio; battled it out for the primo parade curb spot and El Paseo table; and dressed up for all of the parties and helped others do the same with what I now consider a decent Fiesta costume closet of possibilities.
The Fiesta we know and love went away for two years, and it was like saying goodbye to a dear friend, agreed Rose Marie Cruz — a local dance studio owner for nearly 50 years. Her daughter, Linda Cruz, was Spirit of Fiesta in 1977.
“The families, the dancers, the grandparents and the grandchildren, people from out of town, out of state, out of the country … none of us know what to do without Fiesta,” said Cruz, who has attended the festivities with her family since birth and even danced with legendary Fiesta icon Jose Manero. “Fiesta brings us together with the joy and fuel we need for our souls, and I say ‘Amen to that!’ The world is so unsettled, and the headlines are filled with so many tragedies: climate change, the war, the cost of living, the shootings, the pandemic. It all just pierces my heart. We need to be lifted up, and I can already see how Fiesta has the power to do that. This year, the dance teachers, the seamstresses, the dancers, the parents — we’re part of a community again. You can see it; we are standing taller again. Our shoulders are back; our chins are lifted. We are so happy to be back out there.”
Cruz said she and the many others who are part of putting on the show feed off the crowd, and there’s power in that.
“You’re up there dancing, at the mercados, at the Courthouse, at the mall, on a float in the parade, and all you see are smiles, people sitting, standing, with walkers, wheelchairs, the young and old — they’re all just beaming. The audience brings you so much joy; it’s a mirror reflection, and that’s the fuel. Don’t leave town or say things like, ‘Oh, Fiesta again.’ Get out there! Fill your soul; appreciate the work that goes into this. Fill yourself with that joy and humanity, and let’s go for some tamales. Live for today. Tomorrow is not promised.”
Since the first official Fiesta in 1924, Old Spanish Days has managed to keep the party going every year, with the exception of the 1940s, when several Fiestas were straight-out canceled from ’42 through ’45 due to World War II. In 1948, Fiesta was ostensibly canceled due to a drought, but more likely due to the need for some reorganization. Even after the historic 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, the State Street parade was canceled due to the rubble, but festivities elsewhere in the city continued, said local historian Erin Graffy, my go-to Fiesta resource, who has written several books on the topic.
For the last two years of the pandemic, Old Spanish Days organizers did their best to put a placeholder on the occasion, even though “Viva la Virtual Fiesta” just didn’t have the same allure for most of us.
“Fiesta needs to be celebrated in person,” Graffy added. “The magic of Fiesta is that it’s a culturally shared community experience over time that we can all identify with and feel part of and relate to, whether it was two years ago, 20 years ago, or 52 years ago…. Everybody goes, ‘Yeah, I did that. I was there!’”
Graffy agrees that Fiesta has the ballast to withstand the vagaries of history and troubled times. “It’s not just good for our souls; it’s good for the economy on so many levels,” she said. “Fiesta pays for itself in spades.”
A Fiesta devotee, U.S. Congressmember Salud Carbajal said the event can help us feel normal again. “In light of what’s transpired, it can help us ease back into normal life. We need Fiesta. It’s a tradition that we have become accustomed to … part of our ethos as Santa Barbarans. It can be a fresh start. Al Pizano and I started the Mariachi Festival years ago, which added a whole new component to the festivities and made it more inclusive to the Mexican-American community.”
Everything that is Fiesta — the gatherings, the activities, the artistic performances, the volunteering, and the merry-making and mischief — could offer a cathartic experience that helps us work through pent-up emotions and release stress.
Carbajal said Fiesta can heal us in so many ways. “Our relationships. Our mental health. I know I’m looking forward to the annual mariachi festival at the Bowl. I don’t believe I’ve ever missed one. I’m looking forward to the mercados, the tortas, the churros, maybe a night of Noches, as many events as I can. Nick Welsh and I have a war going on with confetti eggs. This year, I’ve recruited a few helpers, so he should be on alert.”
Along with helping our Congressmember crack a few confetti eggs on Nick’s head, this Fiesta, I want to sing, I want to dance, I want to see my old Fiesta friends and make new ones. I want to feel the way I felt when I first got pushed out on that stage 25 years ago. Excited. Nervous. Up for anything. Falling in love.