Best week of their lives
Imagine all of Houston going into party mode for one week, with events and parades popping up in all corners celebrating the city we love. Throw in some Texas history and Mexican culture, kings, queens, dukes and duchesses, and a slew of women in yellow dresses making sure traditions are at the forefront of it all. Multiply that vision, add endless, colorful papel picado garlands and bright paper flowers, and you’ll have a pared-down idea of San Antonio during its annual Fiesta.
It started in 1891, with a parade of horse-drawn carriages organized by a group of San Antonio women honoring the memory of the men who fought for Texas’ independence. To reenact the battle, they threw flowers at each other outside the Alamo.
Hence, the Battle of Flowers Association was formed (those are the above-mentioned women dressed in yellow), and today a new generation of women in yellow mobilizes a dazzling Battle of Flowers Parade that snakes through the city and is second only in size to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. From that beginning, Fiesta has emerged as a week-long, heavy-hitting celebration of all things San Antonio.
Superlatives abound: The Battle of Flowers Parade is the only parade of its size that is produced entirely by women volunteers; the Fiesta Flambeau Parade is the largest illuminated night parade in the country; there’s a four-night Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) street festival that is the largest historic conservation fundraising event in the country; and the Battle of Flowers Band Festival is the oldest marching band festival in the country.
This April, three Houston families – the McFarlands, the McGreevys, and the Roberts – found themselves in the center of the party. Their daughters, Judy Roberts, a recent college graduate, and Arabella McFarland and Molly McGreevy about to graduate (they now have done so), were duchesses in the Court of the Magic of Morocco (this year’s theme) chosen by the San Antonio men’s organization The Order of the Alamo, whose queen reigns over Fiesta.
Jackie McGreevy met her husband Connelly, who works at Goldman Sachs, in San Antonio when they were both young college graduates. A couple of years ago, San Antonio friends (the husband is a member of The Order of the Alamo) asked the McGreevys if they would be interested in participating in the 2023 Fiesta. “Connelly and Molly and I sat on the back patio and talked about it and made the decision together.” It’s a commitment of time and finances. “We all had to be on board if we were going to do it.”
Once the decision was made that the answer would be “yes” if they were asked, “We got the call,” Jackie says. “We were super excited, but I had never been to a coronation, so it was a little bit of the unknown.” Which turned out to be just fine.
“Oh my gosh,” Jackie says. “It exceeded all my expectations.” For a week, there were several parties a day, parades, and an over-the-top coronation held at the historic Majestic Theatre. “Every time we did something else, I was like, ‘That was the best part!’ The parade is so crazy fun and cool. The coronation is magnificent. I mean, when your kid’s in it, that’s fun. But even if not, it’s magnificent.” For her part, Molly says it was the best week of her life.
Gretchen McFarland agrees. “Best week of our lives,” she says. Gretchen, a designer, and her husband Andrew, an architectural designer, had been to Fiesta before, although their daughter Arabella had not. “I’m a Texan and have an affinity for San Antonio and its people and culture,” Gretchen says. “I love that Fiesta is so unique. It’s hard to find another event like it where the whole city comes together to celebrate for a week. It was an honor to be asked to participate as an outsider.
“Our best friends are from San Antonio and are Fiesta veterans many times over,” Gretchen says. “We had been a couple of times to celebrate our friends’ daughters, and we jumped at the chance to do it.”
She continues: “The pageantry of the coronation is pretty spectacular, like something from another era. It’s in this old theatre [the Majestic Theatre], and it involves so many people in the community. There’s just not much like that around anymore. I was blown away by the whole experience.”
Because Judy Roberts is a preschool teacher in Austin, she had to plan ahead (read: take off from work) to attend dress fittings and bow practices in San Antonio. “The commitment was worth it all,” she says. Judy’s sister Hailey had participated in Fiesta in 2020, so she had an idea how the week would unfold. She describes it as “the most fun week I’ve ever had in my life.” Judy’s parents are Sissy and Grady Roberts; Grady, who works in real estate, grew up in San Antonio, and Judy said “he was super excited” about the family’s Fiesta involvement. “I only knew two or three of the whole group,” Judy says of the 24 duchesses and their escorts. “But you have to make friends with them because you’re with them for a straight week. It was so fun getting to know them.”
Judy is also sure to praise all the volunteers, dress designers, and others who organize the many details of Fiesta: “They were amazing,” she says. “They just made it super special. Such a dream come true.”
Immediately following their nonstop week, the McFarlands and the McGreevys had to gear up for UT graduation. Exciting as it was, the pace wasn’t easy. “After the coronation,” Jackie says, “all the kids get bussed over to the Alamo at midnight to take a picture, and then they all change into sweatpants and stay up until sunrise. Gretchen kept telling me, ‘If you do Fiesta right, we have to stay up until sunrise.’ So we just stayed up all night long with the kids. I’m still kind of slap-happy.”
As they say in San Antonio, Viva Fiesta!
Editor’s note: Mark your calendar for Fiesta San Antonio 2024, April 18-28. See fiestasanantonio.org.
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