I stood on the confetti-covered pavement, shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Behind me, blankets and people covered a lawn sloping downward and south. Over the hillside-house roofs peaked the ocean horizon at sundown. Before me, a lit stage was set in front of the Santa Barbara Mission, a sandstone Spanish church. Festival-goers of all ages, from old men and teenagers to babies on their parents’ shoulders crowded around the stage—if they were lucky. Most in that crowd of hundreds had to content themselves with listening. I tip-toed and side-stepped my way through the crowd, watching Flamenco dance routines.
This is the opening night of Fiesta, Santa Barbara’s most important celebration. Anticipated like no other week, a board of residents plan for the cultural celebration all year round. A presidento or presidenta is selected each year, as is a Spirit of Fiesta and Junior Spirit, two young ladies in the community. Every dance studio in the county prepares Spanish dances, taco vendors flood the town center’s De La Guerra Plaza, and every few yards along State Street trays of cascerones are stacked, four for one dollar. It’s tradition to break these hollow eggs filled with confetti over heads of friends. Stores and streets close for the Friday parade along the beach and down State, Santa Barbara’s “Main Street.”
A beloved time in the county’s history is the rancho period, which spanned about three decades in the middle of the 19th century. Ranches sprawled for thousands of acres, a main tool of economy and the livelihood of the few thousand who lived in the narrow stretch of land between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean. A painting hangs in the courthouse, depicting a wedding celebration at the Casa De La Guerra, the downtown residence of a powerful man during the ranchero period. During Fiesta, founded almost 100 years ago, residents celebrate in the spirit of the hispanic forebearers of the community, emulating the joy of that wedding celebration.
The crowds that flood the city from county’s towns of Goleta, Ventura, Lompoc, and Montecito (not to mention the constant stream of visitors from across the U.S. and the world) are certainly not all of Californiano or hispanic descent. According to “World Population Review,” 38 percent of the Santa Barbara population is hispanic and 52 percent is white, with smaller percentages of Asian, Native American, African American, and other ethnicities. Yes, Fiesta began as, and remains, a celebration of identity. But experience shapes identity, and these people together had their foundations literally shaken and the ground slide out from under them—and this only after fire scorched the land, destroyed homes, and stole livelihoods.
Last winter, 281,893 acres of California were ravaged by flames, and Santa Barbara County suffered most. Thomas Fire was the largest fire in California’s modern history, till the recent fires in the north have eclipsed even Thomas. Two people died from the fire. Rain followed the flame, driving in sheets in a way that it “never rains” here, as my friend described. The fire had burned away shrubs and roots, and the mud flowed down into Montecito unchecked, killing 21 Santa Barbara County residents and causing further destruction.
In front of the mission, over the crowd of diverse ethnic and socio-economic standing, a Franciscan monk raised his voice: “We have walked through the fire and the flood,” he said, acknowledging suffering, yet thanking God for his provision and reminding the festival-goers they were made in his image.
“People are traumatized,” I heard over and over as I reported on city council meetings and board of supervisors reviews. This wasn’t evident for a visitor. On iconic State Street, teens in shorts and crop tops walk by with Forever 21 bags, and couples stop by Pressed Juicery, a vegan juice and freeze shop. Designer boutiques and wine bars lined the streets down to the beach and Stearns Wharf. A picture of comfort and consumerism, the city is a far stretch from my childhood home, a Michigan farm village without a stoplight. Tourists and college students in birkenstocks could walk two yards’ distance from Urban Outfitters to the farmer’s market.
I had grown to associate wealth with worldliness and urbanity with shallow conduct. The description residents themselves gave of their town was “transient,” and I interpreted that to match my preconceptions. But as I slipped into a daily cadence, this changed.
A big old Spanish-style stucco building in the heart of the city, The Santa Barbara News-Press used to warrant the size of its headquarters. Now the first level is quiet, the lights off and office furniture piled in the halflight. But working as a city reporter gave me the ability to know the people who created the news and were the news. I was only an intern, but the teachers, administrators, and business owners that I wrote about shared their world with me. Frank is an English teacher at a public high school who helps his students discover truth in literature and then change the way they live accordingly. In response to his stories of foster parenting, the students asked, “What can we do?” After about a year, more than 100 high school students wanted to join the new club that helped local foster families, giving their extra time to cook meals, plan events, and serve. When I wasn’t writing, this willing spirit to reach out to others showed itself in the cashier line at Trader Joe’s. No matter who worked the register, the employee always asked, not only how, but also what, I did on a given day. It’s a simple question, and maybe this is part of the job description. But during five minutes of interaction every Sunday evening, that question allowed a moment of humanity. I had been given the chance to share a little of my life.
Transience took on a new meaning to me. Though people come and go quickly from this popular tourist town, and disaster too often takes homes and livelihoods away, those who live there, the ones that I lived alongside, make the most of the short time given. Here, transience does not equate shallowness, but an actual awareness of life’s fleeting and uncertain nature, and the willingness to peel away the layers of a moment to deepen it.
Coming home to Michigan after months in another place, it is not possible to view home in the same way. Grand Rapids is a lovely place where kind and good people live who hold significance in my life and share my own history. But it seemed unnatural that my neighbors knew nothing about the place I just came from. While I fit comfortably back into my place at home with my family, or school with my classmates, I’m still conscious that my world has expanded, and, in relation to my home-people, that chunk of reality is particular to me. This is the magic of travel, and my guess is that it’s a common experience, even though it was my first. It’s good and right to love our homes, but we should still love them with humility. As my world expanded, the world that was mine, my home, became a little smaller. Santa Barbara just happens to be the place that made this happen to me.
It deserved this role. The county’s identity extends beyond even the rich history of early Spanish colonization, heroic conflicts for freedom, and the romanticized rancho period. For them, it is shaped by shared suffering or uncertainty, new and real. The wounds and worries were still fresh when I stepped into my place as a resident, and in a small way, I participated in the effects of those experiences.
The crowning event of Fiesta is the parade. With new friends, fellow journalism student Josephine and I stood on the rooftop of a State Street building, a perfect view over the chaotic streets. Groups and floats passed decked out in colors: the high school marching band, the Spirit of Fiesta dancing in a white dress, and the presidenta marched and rode along to cheers and waves from the crowd. But no cheers were louder or more heartfelt than when a group of humbly dressed men and women, the Santa Barbara firefighters, walked by.
Anna Timmis is a senior studying English and journalism.