A look a a few of the women behind San Antonio’s biggest celebration
It‘s shaking cascarón confetti out of your hair. It‘s the city shutting down to attend a parade. It’s regular residents assuming royal roles. It‘s trading medals, and tossing back margaritas. In a word, it‘s FIESTA® San Antonio — and it’s A LOT of work!
San Antonio’s biggest celebration doesn’t just happen. Hundreds of volunteers have worked tirelessly all year long to make sure the event is a huge success. Seamstresses who painstakingly sew thousands of beads onto royal trains, flower makers who turn ordinary crepe paper into lifelike bouquets, and the women who make sure that there is never a shortage of cups at NIOSA are just a few of the unsung heroes. They might not ride atop a float, but that doesn’t make these women any less important. In fact, although you might not notice their presence, we can guarantee you that you would notice their absence because without them, the show might not go on. The aptly named Rose Garcia has spent the past 46 of her 64 years cutting and twisting crepe paper into the realistic-looking flowers that festoon the floats in the Battle of Flowers Parade. It is a skill that the San Antonio native learned at the hands of her own mother and aunts.
“It really is a family tradition for us,” says Garcia. “My mom made the flowers, and my dad helped build and drive the floats. Then the whole family got to go to the parade.”
Garcia has kept the tradition alive by recruiting her sisters, cousins and nieces to help with this large seasonal task. The women are given sketches of the floats, color swatches and the dress designs of the royal court from which to draw inspiration. Then from February until the beginning of April, Garcia and her team gather in an old school building near Fort Sam Houston and get to work. They cut patterns into five-inch squares of colorful paper, twisting and shaping them with wire and florist foil until the desired effect is achieved. These talented women have honed their skills to the point that it takes them less than three minutes to create one flower. However, at approximately 600 to 800 flowers per float, and a total of 18 floats to decorate, that‘s a lot of volunteer hours. “We really don’t get caught up in counting the flowers,” says Garcia. “We just look at the float design and start making them.”
The result is something straight out of a fairytale: beautiful flower-filled floats fit for Fiesta royalty. However, it is not the floats themselves that give Garcia the most satisfaction but rather the joy they bring to the throngs of people that line the streets to watch this famous parade. “I love watching the floats pass by on parade day,” she says fondly. “But what I really love is watching the expressions on the people’s faces when they see them.”
president, Battle of Flowers® Association
In 1891, a group of women volunteers produced a parade to honor the fallen heroes of the Alamo and to commemorate the victory that took place at the Battle of San Jacinto. Now in its 123rd year, the Battle of Flowers parade is the largest parade in the country produced entirely by women. “It is actually considered the founding event of Fiesta,” says Anne Ballantyne, who serves as this year‘s Battle of Flowers® Association president. Ballantyne has been a member of the association, which boasts approximately 400 active and 200 honorary members, for 24 years. As this year’s president, she is responsible for the year-long planning and preparation that go into this grand scale event. This year’s theme will be the Magic of Make Believe. “The different sections of the parade select something from within the overall theme to serve as their inspiration,” she explains. But while the parade planning is a large part of what the ladies in the yellow dresses and hats do, it is by no means the only thing. Ballantyne explains that these members serve the community in a variety of other ways as well. For example, they are responsible for the oldest college-level oratorical contest in the state. Since 1926, this event has awarded more prize money to the winning contestants than any other similar competition in the nation. At the middle school level, the association holds an essay contest for seventh-grade students, with the winners receiving the honor of riding in the parade. Finally, the Battle of Flowers Association sponsors the annual Band Festival, a popular Fiesta event that brings together more than 30 high school bands from San Antonio and surrounding areas. This group of more than 3,000 musicians puts on a musical extravaganza that draws a huge crowd to the NEISD Comalander Stadium at Blossom Athletic Center. To further support the arts, a competition is held among high school students to design the cover for the Band Festival program. Thirty entries are selected for judging, and the top five winners receive monetary awards. But even with all the community service and work these volunteers have dedicated themselves to performing, the parade is undoubtedly the cherry on top.
“So many people have been going to the parade for generations,” says Ballantyne. “It is so rewarding to me to be part of this organization that gives back to San Antonio in a way that people enjoy.”
You haven’t truly experienced Fiesta until youve been on the receiving end of a cascarón. These colorful, confetti-filled eggs are smashed by the thousands over the heads of unsuspecting victims as part of the Fiesta celebration. But did you ever wonder where the cascarones come from? Many of them are the handiwork of NIOSA cascarones chair Maureen Berryman. Berryman has been painting and filling cascarones for 22 years. She began by helping her mother with the task, but now she leads her own team, which includes her sister-in-law, niece and granddaughter. Every Thursday throughout the year, from 9 to 11 a.m., this group of approximately 25 volunteers completes close to 15 cases of eggs. At six flats to a case, and two and a half dozen eggs per flat, that’s a lot of eggs!
“It takes about 15 minutes to complete one flat,” says Berryman, who has the process down to a science. “We make anywhere from 27,000 to 30,000 cascarones per year.” The transformation of an ordinary egg to an extraordinary cascarón begins with the delivery of fresh eggs from local restaurants. The eggs have been carefully cracked and cleaned and are ready to be painted and filled. The volunteers, who range in age from 44 to 92 years, form an assembly line, using acrylic paints to decorate the shells, filling the interior with the colorful confetti that the group purchases by the 10-pound box and sealing the tops with colored tissue paper. The final product is then sold at various NIOSA booths during Fiesta. “It really is so much fun,” says Berryman, explaining that every volunteer has a unique way of painting. “Some use brushes, and some use their fingers,” she laughs. “They make a mess and have fun.” Berryman spends even more of her own time decorating what she calls her special eggs. These are the brown eggs that she hand-paints with intricate detail and sells at her own booth in the South of the Border area of NIOSA. “People buy these as souvenirs,” she says. “They aren‘t for breaking.” Berryman has no plans to slow down and says she enjoys the camaraderie of the group of volunteers almost as much as the actual cascarón making. “I love volunteering with the Conservation Society,” she says with enthusiasm. “Being with these ladies every week and having fun is what it’s all about.”
The elaborate gowns worn by the women who make up the royal court during Fiesta are the result of three years of planning and execution led by the Mistress of the Robes. This year’s mistress, Kathy Johnson, selected the theme Court of Sovereign Legends: Celebrating Our Texas Heritage, based on her own deep-seated Texas roots and the history of the Order of the Alamo. “I was born and raised in Texas,” explains Johnson, herself a former Fiesta duchess. “My mother‘s relatives fought to save the Alamo, so it really is steeped in my heritage. “The history of the Order of the Alamo is all about Texas, too,“ she continues. “This theme seemed to be a natural fit for them.” Johnson spent nearly a year researching her chosen theme, learning all of the legends and lore of the Lone Star state. Facts like the state stone (topaz) and the state motto (friendship), along with well-known legends including the rose legend and the legend of the bluebonnet, all provided Johnson with the inspiration she needed to design the elaborate dresses and trains. Court artists rendered sketches and computer images of her visions for the gowns and presented them to the ladies of the court in August 2013. “The presentation of the sketches is my favorite part of this process,” says Johnson happily. “Seeing the girls get their designs and watching them smile because they are happy with them is so much fun.”
Johnson‘s work doesn’t stop there, however. She works closely with a team of six dressmakers, selecting fabrics, embellishments, threads and all the other elements used to create these wearable works of art. She also works with the coronation chair to produce this spectacular event, making sure that the night is one that everyone will remember — especially the girls who make up the royal court. “It really is all about the girls,” says Johnson, whose own daughter has served as a court page. “Getting to know them and watching as they bring these dresses to life is so rewarding.”
Fiesta dressmaker, local designer, artist
Most people know Veronica Prida for her beautiful custom-made furniture and intricately hand-embroidered textiles, bags and accessories. What fans of this talented designer may not realize is that for the past six years she has lent her highly sought-after talent to the Order of the Alamo as a dressmaker. She and her team work diligently, creating gowns so stunningly beautiful they are wearable works of art. Born and raised in Mexico City, Prida began making the Coronation gowns at the request of a close friend whose daughter was a duchess. Although the designer had been making dresses for many years, this was a different type of undertaking. “Coronation is a theatrical production, and the dresses have to be more theatrical in nature,” she explains. “You have to consider things like the weight of the fabric and the boldness of the designs. You have to remember that it has to be seen from a distance so the scale will be different.“ Prida, who along with her team is creating seven of this year’s gowns, spends thousands of hours cutting the fabrics and sewing the seams by hand. She orders hundreds of thousands of beads, crystals and sequins and then hand-stitches each one on the gown to bring the glorious designs to life. It is a full-time job for the team of seven women who work on the gowns for six months. The finished product is unbelievably detailed, with trains that can weigh as much as 40 or 50 pounds. It is no wonder that they can be seen hanging in museums and storefronts long after the last float has passed. “These gowns are like tapestries,” explains Prida. “Almost every square inch has something on it that has been applied by hand. It’s like painting, only with thread and crystals. It‘s neat to see people get to enjoy them and look at them up close.” Working with handmade and embroidered textiles is something that Prida has always enjoyed. She describes the handmade creations as a dying art, but one that is worth the extra effort. “This is how things were made years ago,” she says. “It’s like cooking something from scratch in that it takes a little longer, but the end result is so much better than fast food.”
cup chairman, NIOSA
When you are tossing back a beer in one of those cool commemorative cups at NIOSA, do you ever stop to think about where it came from? No, not the beer. The cup! Shirley Dyer does, because for the past 16 years, she has volunteered as the NIOSA cup chairman. “We joke that all the people that serve beer at NIOSA have to be nice to us or they don’t get their cups,” laughs Dyer. Considering that 225,000 of the 12-ounce commemorative NIOSA beer cups were used last year, not to mention 38,000 wine and margarita cups and 1,000 champagne flutes, that could be disastrous! As cup chairman, Dyer and her team of volunteers (most of whom have been with her for more than 12 years) are responsible for supplying all of the cups to all of the NIOSA booths where beverages are served. For many revelers, the cups are more important than the libations they hold. “Every year the design is different, so many people collect them,” says Dyer, adding that a decision was made to remove the date from the cups so that any surplus could be reused the following year if necessary. Dyer orders the cups a few months prior to Fiesta, taking into account the number of cups used the previous year and then allowing for a 5-percent increase. The cups are delivered in quantities of 500 per box, and the boxes are stored in the basement of La Villita. Dyer and the rest of the volunteers keep a careful inventory of how many boxes each booth takes from the area, and any extras are returned to the basement at the end of each night. “We like working in the basement of La Villita,” says Dyer. “This is the fun area, and it’s completely away from all the crowds.”
For those who don’t want to save their commemorative cups, a recycling program is in place that encourages NIOSA guests and volunteers to put any used plastic cups, plastic soft drink bottles and all cardboard containers into the large green bins scattered throughout the grounds. “This is an effort that has evolved over the last four years,” Dyer explains. “We are really trying to encourage people to recycle.”
area chair for the French Quarter and the crawfish etouffee booth
Most people save up their vacation time to take a trip. Not Leticia Diaz! This AT&T employee uses her hard-earned vacation time to volunteer at NIOSA. Diaz, a San Antonio native, has been celebrating Fiesta since she was a child and volunteering with NIOSA for more than 20 years. “My parents used to take me to the parades when I was little,” she recalls. “Those were my favorite events.” As the area chair for the French Quarter, Diaz is responsible for ordering the food for all 16 booths in that area. From 120 pounds of sausage for the French sausage booth, to the 200 pounds of raw rice that she uses in her own crawfish etouffee booth, Diaz must make sure that there is plenty of food for the hungry crowds. “I go through 140 pounds of crawfish etouffee per night,” she says.
Diaz has a team of 20 volunteers each night, many of whom are family. They receive 20 7-pound boxes of prepped frozen crawfish etouffee nightly from Sysco, and they begin cooking it two hours prior to the time the gates open. It is a lot of work, but Diaz, who values the efforts of the Conservation Society, enjoys it.
“The better the event, the more money that is raised for the Conservation Society‘s events and goals,” she explains. “But for me, the best part is looking into the crowd and seeing everyone having a good, safe time. That makes it all worth it.”
Heather Hall received her first Fiesta medal when she was in the first grade. King Antonio himself presented it to her as an award for an art project. “I still have it,” says the 43-year-old Hall. What beads are to Mardi Gras, medals are to Fiesta. Hall and her father have been producing these collectibles since 1984 when her father opened the Heart of Texas Promotional Products company. In fact, it was Hall’s father, himself a retired military man, who was responsible for the first military Fiesta medal. “The military wanted to give a Fiesta gift to people who came to the base,” explains Hall. “My dad suggested the military-style medal with the medallion and ribbon.”
As the medals grew in popularity, so did the demand for more elaborate designs, especially in the last 15 years. Medals shaped like buildings, medals designed to replicate the royal gowns or the Fiesta posters, and even medals with moving parts are all the rage. “Last year’s NIOSA medal featured dancers that slid across the Arneson Theatre,” explains Hall. This year, Hall says that the designs are resplendent with bling and custom-colored ribbons. “There are lots of jewels and rhinestones this year,” she says. Since opening their doors, Heart of Texas and fiestamedals.com produces more than 100,000 medals annually for individuals, nonprofits, groups, businesses and anyone else who wants one. “Anyone can be involved now, even if they are not an official part of Fiesta,” says Hall, adding that the last two years have seen an increase in requests for personal medals and medals for private parties. Of course, the easiest way to get a medal is to have a medal to trade. Hall, who has been collecting since that day in the first grade, says that it is the perceived value that people love. “When the designs began changing every year, that’s when they really became collectibles,” she says. And as for that medal from King Antonio that Hall received all those years ago? That one‘s not up for trade!