How did Fiesta get started in San Antonio? KSAT Explains

It’s the citywide party you know and love. We take you back to the beginning.

The crowns, the medals, the chicken on a stick — they’re what make Fiesta, Fiesta!

But like everything, it has its own origin story. So let’s rewind, clear away the confetti, and head back to 1891, when the roots of Fiesta were planted in the Battle of Flowers Parade.

That’s the year a group of women came up with a plan to honor the heroes of the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto.

“Everybody wants to think it’s all about the going to the parties,” said Jim Mery, first vice president of the Fiesta Commission Executive Committee. “But this is a storytelling. Fiesta San Antonio is storytelling.”

Picture horse-drawn carriages, bicycles decorated with fresh flowers and floats carrying children dressed as flowers.

Today, Battle of Flowers is the largest parade of Fiesta and still honors those fallen Texas heroes. It’s the only parade in the country planned and directed entirely by women.

Royalty Reigns

The idea of incorporating royalty blossomed after the success of that first Battle of Flowers parade.

Before 1891, the Spring Carnival in San Antonio also crowned its own royalty.

“It was somewhat disorganized, which started leading to why these women started gathering and wanted a little bit more of a formal event and repeated it the next year,” said Joann Boone, presidential appointee of the Fiesta Commission.

The early unofficial kings of Fiesta had some creative names.

There was King Selamat (that’s Tamales spelled backward) and King Omala (Alamo spelled backward).

In 1909, the ladies started to rule over Fiesta.

That’s the year the Order of The Alamo was founded, which aimed to preserve the stories of Texas independence.

The Order of The Alamo selects a queen and her court each year.

“These gowns and trains and headpieces and handpieces are worn by the Queen, Princess, and 24 duchesses that the order of the Alamo crowns,” said Leslie Ochoa, vice president of collections for the Witte Museum.

The Witte Museum has hundreds of Fiesta gowns in its collection and chooses several to display during Fiesta each year. They are elaborately designed with elegant beading and a theme.

“The Order designates a Mistress of the Robes who spends a year designing, coming up with the theme, designing the dresses for each individual woman involved,” Ochoa said.

“Being able to provide a glimpse of the past of the celebration, I feel like, allows people to really embrace what it means for San Antonio now,” she added.


In 1926, the Texas Cavaliers came along.

“The Cavaliers came in and began with King Antonio,” Boone said. “So he’s actually the first official Fiesta king.”

The Cavaliers started as a social club to preserve the history of bravery of the Alamo heroes.

Their signature look? Those royally recognizable blue and red uniforms.

The Cavaliers crowned their first King Antonio to preside over Fiesta in 1927.

Twenty years later, Fiesta added a second king to its royal ranks: El Rey Feo.

In 1947, a group of businessmen wanted to ensure that all cultures were represented among the royal ranks.

El Rey Feo comes from the medieval tradition in Spain.

While the Spanish king had his royal court and celebrations, the people of Spain wanted their own representative to preside over their celebrations, so they would crown someone El Rey Feo, The Ugly King, or the people’s king.

Today, there are nine members of the official Fiesta Royalty:

  • El Rey Feo
  • King Antonio
  • Queen of the Order of the Alamo
  • Queen of Soul
  • La Reina de La Feria de Las Flores
  • Charro Queen
  • Miss Fiesta San Antonio
  • Fiesta Teen Queen
  • Miss San Antonio

However, there are plenty of unofficial kings and queens, as the list of organizations participating in Fiesta has exploded, and many want to crown their own.

Each official king and queen serves one year, supporting charitable organizations that benefit San Antonio.

The biggest crowds catch the kings and queens riding and waving along the parade routes.

In 1941, one of those routes became a river.

The Texas Cavaliers kicked off their first-ever River Parade that year after some Cavaliers traveled to Mexico and were inspired by the floating gardens of Mexico City.

The Cavaliers brought the idea back home to coincide with the creation of the San Antonio River Walk.

Seven years later, Fiesta Flambeau was born, an illuminated night parade.

In those early days, torch brigades were used to light the night, with groups of men carrying five-foot poles attached to flares.

Flambeau today is known as America’s largest illuminated night parade, organized by the Fiesta Flambeau Parade Association.


It’s not a parade, but it might feel like one trying to make your way through the crowds at NIOSA.

Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) stands out as a Fiesta favorite.

The Conservation Society of San Antonio held its first one-night street fair in 1938. It was called the Indian Festival, modeled after the Fiestas of the early days of San Antonio.

The event went by a few different names in the beginning.

In 1946, the city asked the Conservation Society to make the event officially part of Fiesta.

It was called a Night in Old San Antonio for the first time in 1948.

Today, it’s a four-night festival in the heart of downtown at La Villita. It raises money for the Conservation Society to help preserve historic buildings, parks, places and customs in Texas.

How nonprofits get involved

Between those big parades, there are days of events that benefit nonprofits across the city.

Nonprofits apply to the Fiesta Commission to become a Participating Member Organization of Fiesta, or PMO.

“And then every five years, they’re reviewed,” said Mery.

How does the Fiesta Commission make sure the money raised by the organizations is being put to good use? Tax records.

“Financials, yes,” said Boone. “Their organization, the purpose of their event ... who is benefitting? Do we have something that represents every part of our city, in every category?”

Every five years, each PMO must go through an accreditation process led by the commission.

Medal Mania

No matter where you celebrate Fiesta, you’ll find medals. They are the Fiesta signature.

Businesses, nonprofits, politicians, and individuals design medals with their own Fiesta flair. They’re swapped, sold and collected. And the medals can be just about anything anyone imagines.

In 1946, King Antonio began giving coins to children at events.

Then, in 1971, King Antonio XLIX, Charles Orsinger, handed out what is considered to be the first official Fiesta medal.

Before that, only Fiesta royalty wore the medals. But that changed fast.

“The medals get bigger and bigger,” said CJ Drago, president of Monarch Trophy. “We’ve seen liquid and medals this year. A lot of dangles, a lot of spinning pieces.”

Monarch Trophy makes thousands of medals each year.

“It’s crazy, and it goes almost year-round. So we start drawing Fiesta medals in early August or July,” said Drago.

Customers come to Monarch Trophy with an idea of what they want, and artists at Monarch create a custom medal design.

The designs are sent overseas for production and then shipped back to Monarch, where they are assembled.

“We try to bring in anywhere from five to 10 people to help out with it. We bring in students part-time to come help out,” Drago said.

They are just one organization with extra hands on deck this time of year to make the city’s “Party with a Purpose” come together.

“And the theme is ‘Fiesta for All’ because it’s everywhere in San Antonio,” said Boone. “Every corner of San Antonio has a piece of Fiesta.”

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About the Authors

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.

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