The cloistered campus of the Southwest School of Art & Craft in downtown San Antonio is a far cry from the raucous, Rabelaisian crowd that attended the Fiesta Oyster Bake on the city’s west side. Here, set amidst 1851-era limestone buildings, the flesh is mostly covered, more apt to display Ralph Lauren polo ponies than tattoos. The art on display is highbrow, but the humidity’s even higher – it is hot today – so people are lingering in the cool shade of the oak-shaded courtyards where fountains splash, just as the Ursuline nuns must have done when this was their convent 150 years ago. Today’s event is the 35th annual art fair, and the artists are of a national caliber – spread out inside the complex in bright tents that display their oil paintings, ceramics and sculpture. The fair’s getting crowded. I’m worried someone might elbow a glass vase (the prices here aren’t cheap) and be out a few grand.
No one cares. The 12,000 or so participants are all too busy gabbing with friends, sipping drinks and tapping their feet to the music of the Sisters Morales, a pair of soulful singer-songwriters up on a stage between a pair of French-colonial-styled buildings. The folkies are pumping out a catchy Spanish ballad that the crowd adores.
"They say Austin’s got the ‘cool’," someone says, "but San Antonio’s got the soul."
And, it seems, few travelers know about it. Fiesta is a big deal in the city, of course, and throughout Texas, but it is nowhere near as popular – nor as overrun – as Mardis Gras. It’s local, it’s neighborhood and it’s authentic.
20th-century wit Will Rogers is alleged to have called San Antonio one of "the four most unique cities in America." (The other three were Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco.)
This might be true. The place is filled with authentic nooks and crannies that surprise and delight travelers. Case in point: Liberty Bar – a well-lit, well-appointed bistro located just north of downtown that’s housed in a clapboard, ramshackle building that leans like an account executive after three mojitos. It has always attracted drinkers since it was built in 1890 (the mahogany bar still shows off the waterline from the great flood of 1921). It was assembled from disparate parts at its inception, survived 100 years without collapsing and is now, in another century, celebrated for its endurance and originality. Seems like the San Antonio character itself.
Then there’s the music. During Fiesta an unceasing soundtrack of Latino music has accompanied me everywhere: Tejano, salsa, sentimental, guitar ballads, even old-style Mexican swing. The city throbs with Spanish-language music of all sorts. During Fiesta everyone throws parties at their homes, decorating them with festive paper flowers and colorful paper cutouts hung like banners and known as papel picado. Last night at a house party on the West Side, I watched as revelers tried to outdo each other in a grito-shouting contest.
"El grito" is a cry of victory, they explain to me, that’s associated with Mexican Independence Day. Imagine a Rebel yell, but even more elaborate – there are a lot of variations. A Spurs home game, I think, must sound wild.
I anticipated ear-splitting screams, but the contestants, after a night of feasting, were too full of beer and brisket, perhaps, to really let loose, so everyone began dancing instead – doing the Electric Slide. This is Texas after all.
San Antonio, I’m discovering, is very much focused on having a good time during Fiesta to really worry what others might think about them.
Or if the art’s even bought. I saw plenty of lonely artists in empty booths. They didn’t seem to be selling much, but were tapping their toes and straining to watch the haunting Morales sisters, too.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For more information about Fiesta visit www.fiesta-sa.org. For visiting San Antonio head to www.visitsanantonio.com.
Photo: Andrew Nelson