group of girls with woman
The Fiesta Flower Girls visit the Garden Court on De la Vina Street and say hello to Lia Parker, the first Spirit of Fiesta, during the 2017 Old Spanish Days event.  (Fritz Olenberger photo)

Lia Parker’s eyes twinkled as she recalled performing in front of thousands of people when she was selected as the first Spirit of Fiesta in 1949.

She was nervous because she was trained in ballet, but she had spent several months working with a Spanish dancing instructor.

“Of course, all the Spirits now spend years training and are very professional. I love watching them and all the flamenco dancers at the various events,” said Parker, who is now 85 years old.

She was actually the first Spirit of Fiesta for three years, from 1949-1951. She joked that no one else wanted to do it, so she kept dancing.

At her home at Garden Court on De La Vina Street, Parker and her caregiver Charlene Fletcher, a fifth-generation Santa Barbaran, talked about discovering that Parker had been the first Spirit of Fiesta.

woman with flower in her hair

Lia Parker, 85, was the Spirit of Fiesta from 1949 to 1951.  (Contributed photo)

“Several years ago the daughter of our finance director was chosen Spirit, so she and her fellow dancers came to perform at the retirement home. Lia mentioned to me, ‘Oh yes, I was the first Spirit,’ and we were all stunned because no one knew,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher recalled that Parker then took her to her apartment, where she pulled out photos and newspaper clippings from her time as Spirit.

“This living history was right here the whole time, and Lia being as modest and shy as she is never mentioned it. We are so thrilled that we even created an annual event now with Old Spanish Days to have the dancers come, and we open the home to the public for a fun Fiesta party,” Fletcher said.

Parker acknowledges her shyness, but her personality starts to shine when she talks about dancing and her upbringing in Santa Barbara.

She was born in Hollywood and moved to Red Rose Way on the Mesa as a baby with her twin brother Alexander and their parents, Luisa and Chester Parker.

dated photo of a woman in a hat

Nervous about dancing as the first Spirit of Fiesta, Lia Parker agreed after her mother bribed her with a Coke and a chocolate bar. (Contributed photo)

At that time, she said, Santa Barbara’s population was about 10,000 people and there were few houses on the Mesa — just dirt roads, oil wells and flower fields.

“Alexander got the brains, he really was a genius, and my mother decided that I was to be a dancer. She enrolled me in ballet school and it actually helped me because I had broken my leg, and dancing and the strict instruction straightened me out,” Parker recalled.

Her mother was a friend of one of the organizers of the annual Fiesta celebration, and they decided Parker would be the first Spirit.

“I remember being so scared, and my mother bribed me with a Coca-Cola and a chocolate bar, which was a very rare occurrence in my life,” Parker said.

Through her ballet training she had learned to switch off her nervousness when she began dancing, and she loved saying hello and connecting with the people who came for Fiesta.


After her years as Spirit of Fiesta, Lia Parker went on to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. (Contributed photo)

“This time is so special because it’s when people of all walks of life come together and celebrate our city’s heritage and traditions,” Parker said.

Her favorite event has always been the Children’s Parade; she loves the energy young people bring to the celebration.

After her time as Spirit while a teenager, Parker went on to New York to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Ultimately, she decided that she did not want to be a professional dancer, so moved to Mexico and taught at an art school where she also gave English lessons.

When she was just 22, Parker’s parents were in a horrific accident and she came back to be their caregiver until they died.

“I realized that being a caregiver was my ultimate calling and ended up working here at the Garden until I moved in,” Parker said.

[Click here to read more stories from the Santa Barbara Family & Life Magazine.]