Fiesta! Viva el Centenario

Photo by Fritz Olenberger

THE ICONIC CELEBRATION that is Old Spanish Days marks its 100th anniversary with a focus on inclusivity and celebrating all that makes Santa Barbara special. That’s the same focus on which Fiesta was founded in 1924, meant to evoke and honor the region’s mid-1800s “rancho period,” its diverse community — Mexican, Spanish, Chumash, American, European — and vibrant “Californio” culture.

It was also intended to attract visitors to Santa Barbara during the summer. Many people escaped to the West Coast during cold winters, but it wasn’t as popular in the summer. Leaders put their heads together to designate the first week of August “Old Spanish Days,” with a parade, rodeo, family activities, musical events and a gala celebration, featuring Spanish dancing, at the newly opened Lobero Theater. (This year’s Fiesta will take place July 31 through Aug. 4.)

Historically, many agricultural communities have a homecoming festival or fair in the late summer or fall, because that’s when the farmers and ranchers are flush with cash, according to El Presidente Brian Schwabecher ’03, chief of Fiesta’s executive committee for 2024. “Local people were already gathering together,” he says, “but some businessmen came together 100 years ago and asked, ‘How can we drive tourism?’ Because of that, we now sometimes have 100,000 visitors during Fiesta.”

El Presidente Brian Schwabecher ’03 and his wife, Emily (Powers ’07) Schwabecher

Photo: courtesy

'Like our own Mardi Gras'

Schwabecher, who stayed local after graduating from UC Santa Barbara — he’s now chief banking officer at Community West Bank — says he first stumbled upon Fiesta accidentally. “I was a front desk manager at a hotel in college,” he recalls, “so for me, my first introduction to Fiesta was just an extremely busy work week. Later, when I had my first 9-to-5 job, I was excited to find out that our office closed at noon on Fiesta Friday. I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of like our own Mardi Gras.’”

His experience of the celebration changed when he met his wife, Emily (Powers ’07) Schwabecher. Her family had been involved with Fiesta for generations and invited Brian to ride on their carriage in the Historical Parade, one of the largest equestrian parades in the country. “That first year riding in the parade was extremely memorable,” he says. “My wife’s family, they live and breathe the spirit of Fiesta.”

From there, Schwabecher was invited to serve on the Old Spanish Days board of directors and eventually was elected to a leadership role. He says that one of his main goals is to highlight that whether you’re dancing all night at El Mercado or taking your kids to get tamales and churros at Our Lady of Guadalupe, you’re doing Fiesta right.

“We are trying to celebrate the many different cultures of Santa Barbara: Chumash, colonial Spanish, Mexican Californian and then the Westerners,” he says. “I commissioned a poster this year that includes representation and symbols of all of these cultures coming together, as we do during Fiesta.”

Another campus connection

Schwabecher is supported in his mission by 2024 El Primer Vice Presidente Fritz Olenberger, who has campus connections as well. Olenberger, who’s photographed Fiesta for more than a decade, also is the man behind the camera for many UCSB theater and dance productions. Photography is a passion that he pursued after retiring from his position as a director of engineering at Raytheon, where he worked for more than three decades.

Photographing dance is particularly thrilling, Olenberger says, for the challenge of capturing movement and color in varying light. For him, Fiesta is synonymous with flamenco and folklorico. “I don’t think I’ve missed a Fiesta event for 12 straight years,” he says. “I love it all. In particular, I love the dancing. One of my favorites is the audition for Spirit of Fiesta. The dresses and the costumes are beautiful, and the dancers are so talented. I call it the Super Bowl of Santa Barbara.”

Olenberger was first introduced to Fiesta in 1994, when he was visiting Santa Barbara from Boston, weighing the possible benefits of a cross-country move. A Raytheon employee who was showing him and his wife around insisted that they meet up at the Santa Barbara Mission for an evening event. That event was Fiesta Pequeña, and Olenberger says that watching the dancers perform against the backdrop of the historic church tipped the scales in favor of the Central Coast. He and his wife settled here with their children shortly after.

Photos by Fritz Olenberger

The unique experience of Fiesta

Like Schwabecher, Olenberger has maintained his enthusiasm for the entire week of celebrations even though it’s technically work. For Olenberger, the job requires a lot of running. “During the historical parade, I sprint back and forth with two cameras to capture every angle,” he says, laughing. “I also have to make sure I don’t startle any of the horses or trip over them.”

Echoing the sentiments of many locals who look forward to letting loose on the first weekend in August every year, Olenberger says: “I never get tired of Fiesta. I just love Santa Barbara. For a city of its size, we have so much culture and activity going on. It’s a wonderful place to be.”

Event organizers are proud that a hallmark of the Old Spanish Days Fiesta is that it’s an individual celebration, unique to each person who participates.

So how do you Fiesta? Whether you love to watch the live performances, attend the parades, or simply enjoy a margarita and a stroll through the confetti-lined streets of downtown, the organizers want you to join the celebration by partaking in your own favorite rituals.

“I want people to celebrate this time-honored tradition by bringing our communities from three counties together,” says Schwabecher. “I want everyone to do Fiesta in their own way. Let’s try to bring back as many folks as we can to celebrate and take pride in our city.”

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