I propose that the San Antonio celebration known as Fiesta be decoupled from commemorations of the battles of the Alamo and of San Jacinto. On April 21, 1836, Texian forces defeated and massacred the Mexican army and captured Mexican general and president Antonio López de Santa Anna. Fiesta celebrates this battle with lengthy festivities in April. The Covid pandemic forced the cancellation of Fiesta in 2020. It also resulted in a reduced schedule for 2021 — including the elimination of signal events, such as the coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo — and the displacement of the festival from April to June 17-27. (See: “Reduced by half, Fiesta 2021’s slate of events still offers plenty for revelers to enjoy,” San Antonio Report.) That’s a good start. But it is time for Fiesta to secede from San Jacinto. My modest proposal: keep the party, lose the war.
The defeat of Mexico is celebrated annually in San Antonio on a massive scale, often with Mariachi music, Mexican costumes, Mexican food and beer, and tequila-fueled margaritas. The oldest event now associated with Fiesta, the Battle of Flowers Parade, which began in 1891, was likely inspired by a parade in Mexico City at which competing groups threw flowers at one another. One might reasonably conclude that this entire victory celebration is upside down — not just the Alamo church building in Raul Servin’s painting.
During Fiesta, the most exalted cabals of the Anglo American power elite — which until very recently excluded people of Mexican descent — convene private rituals in the Alamo church, where they choose their royalty.
The character of this royalty is perhaps best conveyed by the official description of the queen’s subsequent public coronation:
An evening of beauty and fantasy awaits those who attend the Coronation of the Queen of The Order of the Alamo, one of the central features of Fiesta San Antonio. With a spectacularly set stage, the symphony orchestra performs the accompaniment as visiting and in-town Duchesses make their full-court bows, followed by the presentation of Her Royal Highness the Princess, and the Coronation of Her Gracious Majesty, the Queen. All wear elaborate dresses and trains spangled with glittering beads, crystals, and jewels. After the court is seated within the magnificent stage setting, musicians and other[s] entertain the royalty and the audience.
Founded by San Antonio businessmen and community leaders in 1909, The Order of the Alamo celebrates Texas’ heroic struggle for independence from Mexico. The group chose its first Queen that year and staged her coronation at the Old Beethoven Halle. Thought by many to be one of the most magnificent and unusual events of its kind in the country, the Coronation of the Queen is an unforgettable evening for the whole family.
I agree that in this day and age, and in this country, this coronation is most unusual. Joe Salek, then director of the San Antonio Little Theater, witnessed the 1950 Coronation. He found it so unforgettable that he couldn’t stop laughing, so he initiated a parody called Cornyation in 1951. A wardrobe failure in 1964 caused Cornyation’s cancellation, but it was revived permanently in 1982 — for a time at a brilliantly named gay club called the Bonham Exchange. It, too, is cancelled this year.
Fiesta queens were also mocked in 1969 in a large painting by the estimable Mel Casas, who implied that during Fiesta, the circus was always in town. Born and raised in El Paso, Casas regarded San Antonio as a very “colonized” city. As I have come to understand more about Fiesta and its traditions, I have gained a deeper understanding of what he meant. Casas, when he was named Artist of the Year by the San Antonio Art League for 1968, famously gave a talk in which he stripped the clothes off of a blond Barbie Doll and lectured about white privilege. His prize was unceremoniously stripped away three days later. I wish I had pictures — not only of Mel and his denuded doll — but also of what must have been a very dumbfounded audience of blue-haired matrons. For a discussion of the Barbie Doll in the context of Casas’ analysis of race, sexuality, and representation, see my article “The Cinematic Genesis of the Mel Casas Humanscape, 1965 – 1967,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Fall 2011.
Similarly, Casas strips away the ersatz royals — queens, princesses, duchesses, and whatever you might call them — in Humanscape #58 (San Antonio Circus). His eight vacant queens lack eyes — their sockets are filled only by elements that project from the adjacent queen’s ridiculous tiaras: some crystal baubles, a cherry, a star. They can “see” only through — and by means of — the very regalia that confers royal status. From dollar signs on the left to stars on the right, these tiaras symbolize wealth and celebrity.
Jan Jarboe Russell reported in Texas Monthly in 1994 that Texas bloodlines and bank accounts determined who became queen, not beauty or talent. Consequently, most of the queens came from about a dozen “primarily German and English families,” who sported increasingly ostentatious and unwieldy gowns. Russell quotes one clueless queen who seemingly regarded her coronation as a birthright: “‘I don’t see what the big deal is,’ said one former queen, gaily. ‘I loved being queen. My grandmother was queen. My mother was queen. All my cousins have been in the court. To me, it’s just fun and tradition.’” The queens and their gowns through 2014 can be seen here.
Casas’ queens are flat, unreal, lacking in fundamental substance. They are rendered in patches of color that fail to flesh them out as three-dimensional personages. They are but a masquerade of royalty. Casas gives us a social pyramid of queens, with Her Gracious Majesty, the Queen rising above a subordinate — perhaps Her Royal Highness the Princess — whose tiara resembles a fool’s cap.
The two giraffes mug for the spectators of this painting with their humorously long necks, making a mockery of the human subjects that live only to be seen. Yet, by comparison, the animals are more complete and more psychologically complex than the depicted humans.
Her Gracious Majesty — like the giraffes — has a long neck. She is particularly ghoulish, even in this vulgar company. The red “eye” confers a demonic quality, which reinforces the reading that the twin peaks on her Lone Star crown are indeed horns. She, in particular, could be on the brink of being devoured by the tiger. In a chapter on Casas’ political paintings, I suggested:
Perhaps the tiger, which is behind bars, represents the righteous anger of the excluded people of color, who have been dispossessed of their land and property, stripped of their culture, enslaved, forced onto reservations, incarcerated, denied the full rights of citizenship, and compelled to live in segregated cities [Scott L. Baugh and Víctor Sorell eds., Born of Resistance: Cara a Cara Encounters with Chicana/o Visual Culture, 2015].
The Order of the Alamo’s charter provided for the queen and her court, and also specified a mission to “educate its members and the public generally in the history of the Independence of Texas and perpetuating the memory of the Battle of San Jacinto.” Education, in this context, is the promulgation of the Heroic Texas narrative. It conveniently excludes the enslavement of Blacks as well as Native American removal/genocide. It enshrines Mexicans as the villains of Texas history, and the Alamo myth has always served to obfuscate and disguise the conquest of northern Mexico by the U.S. I’ll have to save the details for a future article, “Why Texas History is so Bad, and Why Texas Wants to Keep it that Way,” but for the time being, see my Glasstire essay “The Alamo, Texas Independence, and Race.”
The Texian victors frequently referred to themselves as Anglo-Celts and claimed cultural as well as racial superiority over Mexicans, whom they referred to as “greasers,” “half-breeds,” and worse. Here are a few tidbits from a vast smorgasbord of racism, from my catalogue The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth (2018):
‘The New Orleans Bee’ printed a letter in 1834 by a Texian who described Mexicans as: “degraded and vile; the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.” A leader of the Texian rebellion against Mexico referred to Mexicans in 1836 as “the adulterate and degenerate brood of the once high-spirited Castilian.” … Two weeks after … San Jacinto, Steven F. Austin invoked racial pollution and natural law in his letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri on May 4, 1836: “A war of extermination is raging in Texas — a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race… Indians, Mexicans, and renegades, all mixed together, and all the natural enemies of white men and civilization.” David G. Burnet, president of the interim revolutionary government, cited the “utter dissimilarity” between the “Anglo Americans” and “a mongrel race of degenerate Spaniards and Indians more depraved than they” as a cause of the Texas revolt. The “insuperable aversion” to mixing with “the Mexicans, a mongrel breed of negroes, Indians and Spaniards of the baser sort” was retrospectively deemed a prime cause of the war. Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, who favored the annexation of Texas in 1844, dismissed most Mexicans as “mixed races… composed of every poisonous compound of blood and color.” Senator James Buchanan, who would soon negotiate the peace treaty as secretary of state, declared on February 14, 1845: “The Anglo-Saxon blood could never be subdued by anything that claimed Mexican origin.”
Given this outpouring of racist contempt, why should anyone be celebrating the Texian victory over Mexico with Mexican foodstuffs and culture?
Having appropriated a Texas-sized chunk of Mexico, the Texians and their descendents also apparently annexed her cuisine, music, and festive traditions. I’m all for keeping the fiesta; just drop the bizarre pretext for it. It is problematic for almost completely segregated elite groups to crown Anglo American kings and queens who preside over brown subjects. For an analysis of Fiesta, and especially of its comparatively segregated traditions, I recommend Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman’s Inventing the Fiesta City: Heritage and Carnival in San Antonio (2016). In her beautifully written book Inherit the Alamo: Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine (1995), Holly B. Brear terms the Alamo church an “empty tomb” and “the stone womb of Texas society.” In this privileged vessel, the Order of the Alamo and the Texas Cavaliers select their royals (the latter group chooses a King San Antonio from its own membership). In this manner, explains Hernandez-Ehrisman, “the Alamo becomes symbolically intertwined with the maintenance and social reproduction of San Antonio’s heritage class.” Jack Morgan discusses Fiesta with San Antonians of Mexican descent (“Why Some San Antonians are Conflicted About Citywide Celebration,” Texas Public Radio, April 30, 2018). One of them, Lilliana Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, argues that Fiesta, with its fake royals, serves to “celebrate white supremacy.”
I made the sardonic suggestion in my Alamo catalogue that one would think that the Anglo-Celts might want to celebrate their victory with their own traditional delicacies. If they cannot accept full integration and real history instead of myths that justify their own power, I say let the Anglo American elite go their own way, with their own traditional foods: haggis (sheep liver, lung, and heart cooked in stomach lining), neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), porridge, black (blood) pudding, watercress sandwiches, boiled cabbage, Bubble and Squeak (fried leftovers, often potato or cabbage), Stargazy Pie (fish pie with the heads sticking out the crust), Toad in the Hole (sausages in Yorkshire Pudding), finished off with Spotted Dick (sponge cake) and Devils on Horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon).
Furthermore, they can extol, eulogize, and acclaim San Jacinto and the Alamo by blowing their bagpipes, strumming their banjoes, Riverdancing on the Riverwalk, and parading around in their tartan kilts.
The rest of us can move Fiesta into May, making it a battle-free, pure party celebrated at all of the missions. Alcoholic revelry is not, in any case, the best classroom for history lessons of any sort. Taking my parting line from Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, I say: “Party on, San Antonio, but leave the fake history and racism behind!”
Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. This op-ed grew out of texts in his catalogue The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth (Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, 2018). This Alamo exhibition and “American History Does Not Begin with the White Man: Indigenous Themes in the Work of Mel Casas” (Bihl Haus, 2018) were the two exhibitions he curated for San Antonio’s tricentennial.