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Strengthening Community in the Tradition of Santa Barbara's Fiesta

Parade photos taken by Fritz Olenberger

When Barbara Carroll was young, she was a flower girl in Fiesta Santa Barbara. As she danced and twirled about in parades and gave out flowers during the 8-day long festival, she had no idea how big a role Fiesta would play in her life. After her time as a flower girl, Carroll went on to become a parade announcer and volunteer on the Board of Old Spanish Days, the nonprofit that produces Fiesta. Years later in 2006, she found herself as an Associate of the Board and, today, she serves on the Old Spanish Days Executive Committee for 2017. What started as simple participation in the town’s annual festival became a lifelong dedication to a philanthropic organization that is truly dedicated to the spirit of Santa Barbara’s Fiesta.

Fiesta began in 1924 as a way to commemorate the opening of the Lobero Theatre and attract tourists for an annual summer festival. The true sentiment of Fiesta, however, centers on commemorating the “golden” Rancho period, which is a time when people would visit neighboring ranches for a few days and celebrate coming together with food, dance and festivities. Today, over 90 years later, Old Spanish Days seeks to preserve and perpetuate a colorful tradition of music, dance and song as well as the spirit of friendliness and hospitality of the Rancho period. This is pervasive throughout Fiesta’s many diverse events, such as Spirit of Fiesta, which recognizes a person who serves as an ambassador and the visual representation of the celebration each year.

“Fiesta is more than just a tradition we hold here in Santa Barbara, it’s really about bringing the community together to celebrate all the culture and differences we share,” Alexis Simentales, the 2016 Spirit of Fiesta. “All of this hard work couldn’t be done without the help of Old Spanish Days - they are truly the reason we can celebrate this rich tradition.”

In addition to selecting the Spirit of Fiesta and coordinating the flower girls, Old Spanish Days organizes many other events, including a rodeo, Mercado de la Guerra, Mercado del Norte and the Fiesta Historical Parade. Recently, the Santa Barbara Foundation awarded a capital grant to Old Spanish Days through its supporting organization, Highland Santa Barbara Foundation Inc., to help rebuild some of the floats for the parade.

“This grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation was very timely because when we went to uncover the floats this year, we found that many of them were in bad condition and were not usable due to rotted wood,” said Carroll. “With support from the capital grant, we will be able to rebuild them and keep the tradition alive.”

In addition to the Santa Barbara Foundation, many other community partners, organizations and individuals come together to make Fiesta possible. Dancers practice all year for the performances, artisans spend weeks creating products to sell and organizations sponsor different events, such as the Santa Barbara Zoo hosting the Celebración de Dignatarios. It really is the community’s festival.

“My favorite thing about Fiesta is the tremendous support and participation from all of the parties involved,” said Carroll. “Even if you are just watching the parade and a little girl hands you a flower, it is enough to light up your whole day and make you feel truly a part of the Santa Barbara community.”

For more information on the Santa Barbara Foundation’s capital improvement grants, please visit the website or contact Amy Schneider, Director of Grantmaking and Nonprofit Excellence at
North County Headquarters:  (805) 346-6123  |   2625 S. Miller Street, Suite 101, Santa Maria, CA 93455
South County Headquarters:  (805) 963-1873  |  1111 Chapala Street, Suite 200, Santa Barbara, CA 93101