SAN ANTONIO — The temperature was rising and the sweat rolling, but the number of people who turned out to celebrate a slimmed-down, delayed Fiesta kept growing Monday.
The majority went maskless at the Mercado, or Market Square, downtown where colorful strings of plastic “papel picado” fluttered in a welcomed breeze, as locals and visitors moved among food and drink stands, band performances, restaurants and stores. The crowd wasn't as big as a Fiesta, but it was a comfort to many.
“I was scared, thinking people weren’t going to come out, but the first couple of days were pretty good,” said Jay Suarez, 29, who sells turkey legs at several of the events that make up Fiesta.
Fiesta, San Antonio’s signature celebration of its history and culture, yields a $340 million economic impact — in normal years, organizers say. It's such a popular event that its kickoff day is a local holiday.
Covid-19 erased the celebration last year.
This year's 11-day-event opened Thursday, cautiously. Organizers cut a couple large parades, some events have limited capacity and guests are being reminded to practice Covid-19 prevention protocols. Fiesta also is being held later. Usually, the celebration is in April, when temperatures are lower.
After last year’s hiatus, Juarez was happy to be back selling turkey legs and seeing others just as eager to start life after lockdowns. On Monday, he proudly opened the doors to his "state-of-the-art" oven to show off the food he was selling at Fiesta de los Reyes, one of many Fiesta events.
His booth helps him earns him some disposable income but also helps fund scholarships.
Despite a better turnout than he expected, "people are still scared, but (also) there's a shortage of a lot of products there's a shortage of a lot of help also because no one really wants to work," he said.
Fiesta creates thousands of jobs and generates hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities. The nearly two-week celebration is packed with a carnival, parades, bike rides, music and the Night in Old San Antonio event that draws heavy crowds and many othter events.
Mario Elias, 48, of San Antonio, wore a straw hat to shield himself from the sun as he directed cars to $20 parking nearby. He was pleased to see people turning out, after a year of almost no work because of canceled events.
“We are a little surprised that more people are coming. There are quite a few more cars. We thought it would be much slower,” Elias said in Spanish.
Roy and Henry Perez performed an early show with their band Rhythm Kings at one of the stages at the event that had a lineup of bands through the night.
They had not stopped playing during the pandemic but shows were smaller, if anyone showed, and the pay was less, they said.
Jessica Guzman, 23, and David Ramirez, 23, who live in Houston, but are from San Antonio, said they missed the food and culture that is the essence of Fiesta. When they heard it was back on, they made plans to partake.
“It does feel good to see people out and about. We are both vaccinated and we made sure to get that right away … It does feel good to have the opportunity to connect with the community,” Ramirez said.
Seeing everyone out also “makes it feel like staying home and being safe was worth it, to protect people," Ramirez said.
“Yeah, it’s almost back to normal, but not completely back to normal, yet,” Guzman added.
Several of the Fiesta-goers stopped themselves while expressing excitement about returning to normal to acknowledge those lost to Covid or who were infected and hospitalized.
Michael Perez, 51, of San Antonio, wore a multicolored sombrero he had accessorized for Fiesta — wearing decorated hats, wreaths of crepe paper flowers and streamers, custom-made medals and other gear is part of the celebration's tradition.
Perez had pasted several cards from the Mexican bingo-like game Loteria, except the cards depicted were from the pandemic Loteria deck created by a San Antonio artist.
Perez said he wasn’t trying to make fun of the pandemic but wanted to acknowledge the trying year.
“You might forget what happened five years ago, but you’re never going to forget Covid … It’s something that really happened, that is tragic,” he said.
He was among a smaller number of people who wore a mask at the outdoor events at Market Square. He said he was most concerned that he might cause someone else to be sick, even though he is vaccinated.
Despite those fears, he said he chose to attend the festivities not only to reunite with friends but to help the workers and businesses get back on their feet.
“Everybody wants everything to go back to normal," he said.