Friday, August 1, 2008

A few Fiesta reflections

There must be a way to take in Fiesta, without getting Fiesta-ed out. Somewhere, there must be some middle ground, somewhere between the spirited shouts of “Viva La Fiesta” heard from costumed revelers all over town this week, and the discreetly screened, limited edition “F*** Fiesta” T-shirt a friend subversively created years ago to express his distinct lack of enthusiasm for the annual event — today it’s a collector’s item.

But finding a Fiesta comfort zone is frankly a bit difficult when the celebration takes over the local parks, streets, and parking lots; on the day of the parade, virtually the entire city’s downtown commercial district is closed for business for much of the day. Even City Council Members don their Fiesta finery on display on the dais the day before the official celebration begins; there’s just no escaping the festivities. And many don’t want to.
There’s much to admire: the talent and commitment of dancers at Las Noches de Ronda and musicians all over town; the sweetness of the children in the El Desifile de los Ninos. We can offer support for the nonprofits and their volunteers who work so hard in their Mercado booths to make money for their worthy organizations. We can appreciate the beautiful costumes, and skill of the equestrians on their striking steeds. We can respect the family ties strengthened through the annual gathering—especially evident at low-key activities like the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast and the Mercado at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Indeed, they seem right in line with the original intent of Fiesta as detailed in the 1941 WPA guidebook, Santa Barbara, “…proponents of the fiesta stressed simplicity and a revival of genuine hospitality with a simultaneous banning of the tawdry or purely commercial.”
In direct contradiction, though, are the down-market carnival attractions and rides and tacky junk for sale, the emphasis on overindulgence in food and alcohol, and the alarming requirement for extraordinary security measures at a time when violent gang activity has everyone just a little on edge, worried about what, when and where it will happen next.
It’s those contradictions that bother me. While the rodeo might be traditional, there are many animal lovers who believe, in this modern age, the activity should be banned. And then there’s La Fiesta Pequena, the traditional opening ceremony on the steps of the Mission, sponsored by the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians. There are students of history who might find that relationship curious at best.
California’s fourth-grade curriculum requires students to learn the history of the state that details the expeditions of Spanish conquistadors, the conquest of native people through the establishment of military and religious outposts—presidios and missions—Mexican rule, secularization and the rancho days of vaqueros and Californios. They may even read Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 classic “Two Years Before the Mast” with its colorful depiction of a Santa Barbara fandango—complete with a description of cologne-filled cascarones and a multi-day celebration.
From its earliest days, promoters capitalized on the romance of Hispanicized California to lure seekers of health, wealth and beauty to visit and settle the Golden State. Santa Barbara wasn’t the first community to cash in on the craze, and keep it going. But we’ve surely done it best.
Hemet has hosted its Ramona pageant since 1923, one year before Fiesta. Based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s groundbreaking-for-the-time novel “Ramona,” the dramatization of the sad tale of the doomed romance between Alessandro and Ramona takes place three weekends each spring. But a quiet afternoon spent watching the dramatic hillside performance of the mythical tale is a one-time experience for most. And it’s a far different experience from the party-til-you-drop atmosphere that envelops this entire community for nearly a week.
Fiesta picks and chooses, blurs and obscures; it has more to do with mythology than historical fact. It’s this boldly creative interpretation of the past that Santa Barbara does so well in so many ways. This year, I’m hoping for a little more dignity with respect to the past, and a lot less dread based on current events. A little less “Viva La Fiesta” and a lot more “Vaya con Dios” so everyone is back to celebrate in their own peaceful way again next year.
NOTE: A shout-out to the SBPD for nabbing the thieves who stole catalytic converters all over town, the subject of a recent column; a force worth its weight in gold—or platinum.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at


Anonymous said...

At last! A sane and informed article about the fiesta goings-on.

Good job, Cheri.

Anonymous said...

F__K Fiesta! ?, I'd like to have a shirt that spells that out.

I took my kid out to Fiesta, just for the parades.

"It's definitely a scene down there "I thought?

Glad it's over and done with, and we only spent $20.00 total for thee whole family at Our Lady of Guadalupe. One could spend hundreds of dollars for just halfway decent foos at Fiestas.

Peace Cheri,