Celebrating Old Spanish Days and What That Really Means.
The city is thriving. People are smiling. Flamenco is at every turn. Spanish flags wave through the air. Ole! Let them be heard.
Once a year, Santa Barbara dresses up in traditional Spanish clothing, dance the flamenco, parade through the city in “tradition” and glorify the mission.
The History of Fiesta on sbfiesta.org reads, “Santa Barbarans have long been proud of their city’s heritage from Spanish founders and from the Spanish, Mexican and North American pioneers who first settled here and built the city. The tradition of colorful music, dance, and song together with a spirit of friendliness, hospitality and tolerance are part of this heritage which the Fiesta “Old Spanish Days In Santa Barbara” seeks to preserve and perpetuate.”
I find it a bit confusing to place the terms hospitality and tolerance in the same context with Spanish founders and pioneers. When the pioneers arrived to the east coast and made their way to the west coast, Indigenous people of what is now the Americas had their land stripped from them, underwent intense assimilation processes and had extreme violent acts committed towards them, but that is not to insinuate that this process over. The act of celebrating heritage and tradition, as Santa Barbara defines as “Old Spanish Days,” undermines indigenous communities, enforces a dominant culture while diminishing another, erases Indigenous people from ever existing and glorifies colonialism. Euro-centric ideologies were the basis for the formation of the United States because these ideologies were seen as the correct way of existing and nothing else. Every year Santa Barbara practices, enforces and continuously reminds its community that the important-ness of this city is to relive the white European way of life.
My goal is not to disrespect my own home, to diminish Spanish culture or any other culture, but to critique acts of colonialism that exist in Santa Barbara through the celebration event called Old Spanish Days. I hope to challenge and make people aware of how these practices perpetuate colonial mentality in our society and to open up the conversation of renaming this event. With renaming this event would come a rewriting of our city’s history, redefining what tradition means and moving forward to embrace and celebrate all people and cultures, especially Native people and their cultures.
The Old Spanish Days – Fiesta nonprofit defines the existence of the city marked by the arrival of the pioneers. This insinuates that the land was unoccupied and found, but the irony is that the presence of the mission, a symbol of violence, oppression and assimilation, solidifies that presence of Native Americans. The non-profit should acknowledge in their statements the presence of Indigenous people before the arrival of the pioneers and what that history looked like in order to tell the truth about what extreme processes underwent for the construction of this city. Without mentioning their lives, then that is a continuation of colonial practices of erasure of other cultures. Being silent about Native people is erasure. Preserving tradition is important which the nonprofit addresses which is why I ask you to consider the preservation of Indigenous tradition as well. The nonprofit states “Over the years, the character of the parade changed somewhat: the floats came to be drawn by motorized vehicles, more individuals and riding groups wearing their own or their organization’s distinctive attire began to participate…Due to these changes, some feared that the historical character of the parade was in jeopardy of completely disappearing…The parade is now divided into two sections: the historical section…depicting highlights of local heritage and history and ‘Santa Barbara of Today’, which includes the many other types of participation based on accord with the spirit and purpose of Fiesta.” This message includes undertones of rules and guidelines that need to be followed by the participants. The threat of “groups wearing their own or their organization’s distinctive attire” pushes for guidelines that suppresses any representation other than their own. By stating that other groups need to participate in accordance to the “spirit and purpose of Fiesta” which is defined as keeping colonial Spanish heritage alive, is a continued practice of one sided authority regulating what is ideal and what is appropriate to be celebrated. I encourage those in charge to think about the thresholds they have set in place and to lift those guidelines in order to be more inclusive of the diverse community that existed and exists in Santa Barbara.
Cultural appropriation is seen in this event when it invites participants to “wear costumes.” People have historically and continuously dress up as the Indian. This practice is prominent in Old Spanish Days. The white community walks around town yelling “Viva La Fiesta,” which relates to keeping the Spanish culture alive, while wearing Mexican sombreros, ponchos, mustaches, eating tacos and drinking margaritas. Ironically many Latinx people dress up in Spanish clothing and perform on stage the Spanish dance for those who are playing dress up as the Mexican for the day. The continuation of glorifying Spanish culture year after year has slowly pushed many in the Latinx community to spend more time learning year round the Spanish dance rather than their own native dance. There are moments that the nonprofit would consider diverse, which is when a few Indigenous dances are included in the parade and mariachi bands walk around town. My main concern is that these moments of “embracing” a different culture are temporary. These moments are for the entertainment of dominant viewers which is white America. These moments do not celebrate real culture, do not emphasize any cultural power and most importantly do not honor the people, just the spectacle.
The missionary system was designed to completely change Indian people and erase their identities. Glorifying the mission as a proud symbol of this city’s roots should be reconsidered. Old Spanish Days states “…Spanish and Mexican tradition have always been closely connected with church celebration, it is only fitting that Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta has included traditions with the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara.” The mission system was an instrument used to seize land, convert Indians into Catholicism, commit violent acts such as rape and enslave Native people. The problem is that a new history is being written for the Santa Barbara Mission. The nonprofit writes about the mission as if its sole purpose was for peaceful religion. The celebration of Old Spanish Days has enforced this false message year after year and rewrites the history of this mission in order to erase its abhorrent nature in order to glorify it as a staple of our community. In our community, children are taught to embrace the mission and normalize its existence. I push for a rewriting of this history and to acknowledge the acts committed by this missionary system. I propose that we find a different ground in which we can celebrate our community and allow Natives to speak on behalf of their people.
I ask the committee of Old Spanish Days and the community to reconsider what this event truly signifies and to rewrite the history of “tradition” in the form that it celebrates all cultures and traditions, especially the Native Americans that used to occupy the land. I
encourage the committee to rename this event in order to preserve all cultures and histories. To give the community a chance to celebrate each other and not preserve the colonial Spanish way. I do not ask to shut this event down, but to rewrite its purpose. Asking to shut down this event entirely would only continue to the process of erasure of the history. Old Spanish Days has proved to be able to preserve chosen history and is capable of influencing people from all over. The power that this event holds could serve as a platform to tell a different narrative. A narrative in which Native Americans still live in this city. A narrative in which we understand the truth of how this town came to be. A narrative that encourages people to continue to embrace each other, treat each other with respect and as equals year round. A narrative in which Mexicans and Indigenous communities are not seen as a spectacle. A narrative that inspires the community to give voices to all people. Old Spanish Days enforces a separation, but we have the opportunity to bring people together. We can not change the past, but we can certainly rewrite our future, where we invite people from all over to celebrate, respect and share each others cultures, traditions, heritage and ways of living. Again, I can not emphasize enough that this new future can not be just a moment, but a continued practice in our everyday lives.