Photos from the Vault

Could the lost festival, La Fiesta de Las Flores, make a comeback in San Luis Obispo?

A mariachi band plays at the kick off to the 1989 La Fiesta as the bonfire of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, lights up the background near the Elks Club Lodge.
A mariachi band plays at the kick off to the 1989 La Fiesta as the bonfire of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, lights up the background near the Elks Club Lodge. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The burning of Zozobra the Old Man Gloom, Whiskerino contest, Queens, a parade, El Presidente Ball, public breakfast. Longtime residents associate these events with La Fiesta.

It has been a generation since the last full La Fiesta de Las Flores (Feast of the Flowers) was held in 1995.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people would gather at a bonfire and toss in popsicle sticks inscribed with with worries or cares to be burned to ash as a mariachi band played.

Could the burning of Old Man Gloom get rid of everyone’s worries? Katherine Martinez Elsie Louis, 1991 La Presidente of La Fiesta answered in the May 13, 1993 story, “It never fails. They all go up in smoke.”

La Fiesta was founded in 1925 as a community event to rebuild a badly damaged Mission San Luis Obispo. In 1920, the old adobe had suffered a fire in the roof filled with tules and reeds woven over a century earlier.

The fire was discovered by a lamplighter who was turning off the gas streetlights in the early morning.

According to historian and Tribune columnist Dan Krieger, the first La Fiesta was promoted by Father Daniel Keenan. The event celebrated the town’s Spanish-Mexican heritage and included a grand Spanish costume ball in 1925.

In his May 16, 1992 column, Harold Gill recalled the 1930s, saving egg shells, carefully perforated, and gathering punched out paper from print shops and stationary stores. The eggs were filled with paper to make cascarons.

Gill said, “Each night at the fiesta people bought some, and ran all around the grounds, smashing them on other peoples’ heads. Friends and strangers, alike. In a short time each night, everyone had bits of colored paper clinging to their hair. It lent a festive air amidst much laughing.”

There was an attempt at revival in September 2000, but the event never found its way back onto the calendar.

The event has had a fitful history.

Each night at the fiesta people bought some, and ran all around the grounds, smashing them on other peoples’ heads. Friends and strangers, alike. In a short time each night, everyone had bits of colored paper clinging to their hair. It lent a festive air amidst much laughing.

Harold Gill

The Fiesta went on hiatus during the World War II years. When it was brought back, it faded out again after 1953. It was again revived 12 years later, according to a story in the May, 12, 1990 Telegram-Tribune. Debbie Collins, La Fiesta chairperson, said that in 1989 the event had raised $25,000 for various charities largely due to the fundraising work of the La Fiesta queens.

“Half the money raised by the candidates goes for funding the next Fiesta,” Collins said. “Of the remaining money, 30 percent goes to the women and 20 percent goes to the charity of their choice.”

La Fiesta prided itself on being a family oriented event, but demographics were working against it. San Luis Obispo is no longer a city with a majority population of young families.

The 2010 census showed the city with 62 percent of available homes as rentals, compared to the statewide average rental rate of 43 percent.

As early as Nov. 23, 1991, stories were emerging that La Fiesta needed support. About 10 to 12 people and their families were keeping it alive.

By 1996, La Fiesta had worn out the core of volunteers who had shouldered the work for many years and the mid-May festival would not be held.

City councilman and former La Fiesta El Presidente Dave Romero echoed comments of others in a Jan. 23, 1996 Telegram-Tribune article: “I’m very sorry to see it go. It’s just that there’s so much work involved that the volunteers get burned out.”

The changing demographics of town was reflected in Mardi Gras. At roughly the same time La Fiesta was winding down, Mardi Gras was on the path to becoming too successful.

Mardi Gras had an irreverent and mildly risqué profile. The nighttime parade would eventually gather thousands to watch the spectacle. But as it gained a reputation as an alcohol-fueled party event, the costs became too high.

Police staffing was expensive, and the city did not enjoy the publicity after consecutive nights of chaos in streets of the student district near California Blvd.

That event was eventually shut down as a public display. And a diminished La Fiesta was held in September 2000.

In a way, La Fiesta too may be a victim of its success.

Other festivals have benefited from the popularity of having a gathering place in the city’s living room, Mission Plaza.

Continuously from spring to the end of Christmas, there are a stream of of events held in Mission Plaza. In addition, Farmer’s Market is a big happening every Thursday night downtown.

The downtown is vibrant with a lot of activities.

It would be difficult today to create and sustain an event as large as La Fiesta was with all the competing entertainment options out there. Can Zozobra or Whiskerino exist in the era of fidget spinners, streaming movies and Facebook?

The History Center of San Luis Obispo County is gathering photos and memorabilia for an exhibit in the Spring of 2018 on La Fiesta.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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