Friday, April 20, 2012
Fiesta vs Mardi Gras | Casey's Last Word
Happy Fiesta, everyone. I hope you enjoy America’s second-biggest city-wide party, with its cornucopia of street food and its ubiquity of street dances to music ranging from polka to salsa, from rhythm and blues to Texas two-step.
America’s biggest city-wide party is, of course, Mardi Gras. Fiesta often has been described as San Antonio’s Mardi Gras, but don’t believe it. Mardi Gras differs not only in size but also in its moral theology.
Fiesta is one grand family picnic. Mardi Gras is an orgy.
Fiesta is beer. Mardi Gras is gin … or vodka … or rum … or all the above.
At Fiesta, men call out to young women on floats to “show us your shoes!”
At Mardi Gras, men exhort women to “show us your …” Let’s just say they set their sights somewhat higher.
At Fiesta, the young women oblige. So do many of the young women at Mardi Gras.
So why is Mardi Gras so much more sinful than Fiesta?
Part of it has to do with the fundamental cultures of the cities. There was a time when San Antonio was more like New Orleans, though probably with more guns.
San Antonio was very much part of the libertine Wild West. There were plenty of whiskey, women and riotous behavior.
A hundred years ago, San Antonio had one of the nation’s largest red-light districts, with brothels licensed and taxed by City Hall. It thrived through the Roaring 20s, deteriorated in the Depression and was closed under pressure by the Army in the run-up to World War II.
When the war ended, the city, like America, was culturally transformed. The focus was on the family, and was reinforced in San Antonio by the growth of the civil service at the city’s military bases.
Meanwhile, New Orleans maintained its brand as a deliciously decadent riverboat city.
I once arrived at the New Orleans airport where our flight was met at the gate by a full bar mounted on a golf cart. They didn’t think we should have to walk a couple of hundred feet to get our first drink.
But there’s more than urban culture involved. There’s also religion.
Fiesta doesn’t have much of it. Its date revolves around April 21, the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto in which Sam Houston’s band defeated General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army and won Texas’s independence.
It’s an ironic celebration, in which the Anglo victors gave the event and the event’s king a Spanish name. King Antonio, Spanish enough, began puckishly as King Selamat, which is “tamales” spelled backwards.
If Fiesta is a civic celebration, Mardi Gras is very much a religious one. The name is French for Fat Tuesday, referring to the day before Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent, 40 days of repentance and self denial leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The idea, of course, is that the faithful may as well stock up on stuff for which to repent. And boy, do they! On Fat Tuesday itself, after weeks of magnificent parades and grand balls, the most vigorous of the partiers flood the French Quarter, many clad in costumes and masks that give them the liberty of anonymity, and behave joyously in the most licentious ways.
It is not at all like Fiesta. If Fiesta’s irony is that it employs a Mexican theme to celebrate a victory over Mexico, Mardi Gras’ more existential irony is that it employs a religious rubric as a rationale for sin.