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A joint fundraiser and collaboration between Old Spanish Days and the Santa Barbara Zoo once again drew a large, enthusiastic crowd for the highly anticipated and popular annual Celebración de Los Dignatarios.

Excited attendees dressed in the spirit of Fiesta, adorned in Spanish attire and western wear, were greeted by Fiesta Flower Girls and a mariachi band as they entered the zoo Thursday evening.

Nearly 20 flower girls stood beaming in white ruffled blouses and colorful flowing skirts as they handed out flowers to incoming guests and cheered, “Viva la Fiesta!” for the community-wide event.

“Love is the essence of our life,” said Father Larry Gosselin, associate pastor of the Santa Barbara Mission and an honorary Old Spanish Days director. “We are called to be loving people to one another and this is the kind of thing that brings that love together. This is incredibly important for this community to be filled with that love, that sense of unity here.”

The celebration honors Santa Barbara’s civic leaders and elected officials and features live entertainment and dancing.

Gosselin spoke of his role with the event and the feeling of community during Fiesta.

“My job is more of just guiding the people here on the Old Spanish Days committee being a source of unity and bringing the people together,” he said. “Maybe helping them — just being a source of blessing to them, in peace and bringing the people together.”

Spectacular panoramic views of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean awaited attendees as the celebration commenced on the hilltop under a setting sun that cast golden rays upon the assemblage of lush palm and oak trees and an array of gift shops and animal exhibits.

“This is a big party opened up to the community,” 2014 El Presidente Dennis Rickard said. “It’s a wonderful event and it’s just a wonderful location for it. There’s just a wonderful atmosphere and feeling of community.”

Mingling on the zoo lawn, guests sipped beverages and sampled a variety of delicious foods offered at decorative concession stands from local restaurants and caterers.

Attendees were offered an up-close view of 2014 Spirit of Fiesta Talia Ortega Vestal and Junior Spirit of Fiesta Natalie Mowers, draped in white flowing gowns on a large dance floor.

“This is incredible to see all these people out here supporting our community and feeling a sense of real unity, and just sharing our beautiful culture and the richness of this community,” Gosselin said.

As the sun set and the lights of the city lit up the night, the dance floor was packed with guests who danced through the evening to the festive tunes of the King Bee band.

The annual event has been held at the zoo for more than 20 years, and each year the celebration continues to evolve and grow.

Rickard’s family has a long history with Old Spanish Days: his grandfather, James Rickard, was one of the original incorporators of Old Spanish Days, and his father was El Presidente in 1948 and 1949.

Rickard shared with Noozhawk the spirit of history and the community benefits of this unique event and Fiesta’s week-long celebration.

“So many people are writing me and coming up to me and telling me about their history and their family history with Fiesta,” he said. “I’m glad I started something. And they like to talk about their history. They want to talk about their families, too, and it makes them feel good.

“And therefore it raises the whole warmth of the community. I’m really thrilled that it’s been responded to like that, and my father wouldn’t be more happy.”

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.