For 19-year-old Cinthia Lopez, dancing is not just a hobby.
“It’s a huge passion,” said the Santa Barbara City College graduate, who is heading off for UC Berkeley this fall. “Dancing allowed me to find my inner self and be comfortable with who I am. It gives me the courage to perform in front of people.”
Lopez and five other performers with Santa Barbara-based Cruz Dance and Entertainment spent about nine months rehearsing for their performance at La Fiesta Pequeña, the first night of Old Spanish Days Fiesta in Santa Barbara.
She described her dancing at the official opening of Fiesta as a “gypsy-type of dance: loud, festive and obnoxious… in a good way.”
“We have crazy hair and big earrings,” the seven-time La Fiesta Pequeña performer said of her costume. “We have vests and colorful floral skirts.”
The hometown celebration of Santa Barbara’s cultural heritage kicked off Wednesday night as thousands of people headed to the Santa Barbara Mission for La Fiesta Pequeña, or “Little Fiesta.”
“I like the diversity of the different cultures,” Lopez said of the event. “At the end of the day, we are all one big family.”
Before costumed singers and dancers took center stage, a couple hundred or so residents with VIP seating were greeted by about 106 Fiesta Flower Girls standing side-by-side and handing out carnations and gerbera daisies.
The girls, ages 6 to 17, represent Santa Barbara and serve as the official Old Spanish Days ambassadors.
Thousands of other spectators watching the entertainment program were seated on the mission lawn.
Dayanna Montoya, a 10-year Santa Barbara resident, was among the observers sitting on a blanket with her friends. They had bagged snacks and colorful flowers in their hair.
“You can see some of the dancing, and we can hear, so it’s perfect,” Montoya said of her seat near the Mission Rose Garden. “It’s great coming here to start the celebration of Fiesta, but it also brings friends and family together. Viva la Fiesta!”
The festivities opened with James Yee, chairman of the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians, providing a special blessing, followed by remarks from Father Larry Gosselin, associate pastor at the Santa Barbara Mission.
“May this Fiesta bring the city together in love, compassion and tolerance of differences,” Yee told the crowd. “My spirit is glad that once again the Chumash are taking part in Fiesta.”
The steps of the historic mission just off Laguna Street lit up to the beat of traditional Spanish and Mexican songs as darkness fell shortly after 8 p.m.
“We live in such an incredible community,” Gosselin said. “We are blessed.”
The gathering featured more than 15 traditional performances, as well as soloist singers Nicole Monreal, Josue Hernández and Irma Segura.
It showcased a special solo performance from 17-year-old Jesalyn Contreras-McCollum, the 2018 Spirit of Fiesta, and 10-year-old Georgey Taupin, the Junior Spirit.
Both girls made their debut in white dresses and represent local dance studios. Taupin is with Zermeno Dance Academy and Contreras-McCollum with Linda Vega Dance Studio.
Wearing the ceremonial robe and crown, the event hosted an appearance from Saint Barbara, Anne Petersen.
La Presidenta Denise Sanford welcomed the audience with a message about this year’s theme she selected — Celebrate Traditions.
“You are celebrating your traditions, having picnics on the lawn, and enjoying the show with family and friends from near and far,” Sanford told the audience. “Have fun, be safe and celebrate every tradition.”
Mayor Cathy Murillo also greeted the audience in both English and Spanish.
“Have a beautiful night,” Murillo said.
Old Spanish Days Fiesta — a tradition since 1927 — is underway throughout the city until Sunday, with many community events like rodeo shows, free concerts, mercados and parades.
A list of the events can be found here.
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.