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Santa Barbara News-Press: Leading the historical charge, with a rose in tow

July 30, 2017
Santa Barbara, California – Published 7/30/2017
By Josef Woodward

Last week, Rhonda Ledson Henderson, la presidente of this year’s Old Spanish Days — was standing in the open grassy expanse of De la Guerra Plaza, before an interview with the News-Press.

“It’s so calm,” she marveled, with a grin. “A week from tomorrow, it’s not going to be calm.”

She mentioned that her company, Radius Investments, would be having its 15th anniversary party across the street at another historic site, the Casa de la Guerra. “You sit here now and think, ‘There will be 20 booths and a stage and thousands of people here, and this street is going to be shut down.’ It’s pretty amazing. This really is ground zero, right here.”

The radical transformation of the Plaza into El Mercado de la Guerra, a bustling area for eating, taking in performances of music and dance on the large stage, began with the construction of this little village on Friday and will have its ribbon-cutting on Wednesday morning.

That evening, the ceremonial and always well-attended La Fiesta Pequeña program on the steps of the Santa Barbara Mission will officially kick off the 2017 edition of Old Spanish Days, also known generically as Fiesta, and an important annual Santa Barbara tradition going back to 1924.

If Fiesta is, among other things, a celebration of the 19th-century Rancho Period in California, Ms. Henderson is well-equipped to fill the presidential shoes. A fifth-generation Californian, whose family established a dairy farm on the Rancho Los Osos in San Luis Obispo County, she has had Fiesta as part of her life going back nearly 50 years.

“I’m a native,” she said, “and always did Fiesta, both here and in San Luis Obispo. I’m fifth-generation San Luis Obispo, so I always did Fiesta up there, and my grandparents lived down here.

“I’m an August baby, so I would always come down for my birthday. At the parade, they would say, ‘Oh look, it’s your birthday party.’ I believed them. I later realized my grandparents were really cheap and really good storytellers,” she laughed.

Her stake in the Old Spanish Days machinery turned much more serious in the past decade, as she worked on the board, and moved her way into the line of succession that leads to the second and then first vice president positions.

“Finally, in the last year,” she said, “you ascend to the presidente, and you are the CEO of the organization and the figurehead. I run all the meetings and all that fun stuff, but the bulk of my time is external — working with the Police Department, with the county, working with sponsors, working with press, being the face and the voice for the organization for the year. We’ve done it this way for years.”

There is an inherent grooming process entailed in the succession convention of ascension to presidency.

“You’ve paid your dues,” she explained. “I chaired flower girls for six years. I chaired Fiesta Ranchera for four years. I served on pretty much all the celebration committees. Very few people come on to our board and say, ‘I’m just going to work on the parade. I’m just going to work on Del Norte.’ You move around.”

For the record, she is the seventh “La Presidente,” vs. “El Presidente,” a periodic incidence of women in charge going back to 1985’s head, Meta Duell. “Two of my best friends were previous la presidentes,” she said. “Joanne Funari was our last female la presidente and she is also my honorary la presidente this year, and past presidente Michael Dominguez is my honorary el presidente. Those are just honorary positions, but both of them have done so much to help me.”

As she pointed out, “I believe I am the first female presidente to ride a horse in the parade. I’m really looking forward to that. They usually ride in carriages. Even last year, (El Presidente) J.C. Gordon and his family rode in a carriage. More often than not, you see the presidente and their family in a carriage.

“I come from the ranching business and I wanted to ride a horse. I’ve wanted to ride a horse in the parade since I was a little girl, so I’m excited that my bucket list wish is coming true.”

One of the jobs as la presidente, in the many months leading up to the actual weeklong celebration, is to settle on a theme (“Unity through Community,” honoring the late Father Virgil Cordano of the Mission), a poster design and a pin.

She noted that “it’s an honor as presidente to pick the theme and the poster and the pin, but there is also this sense of, ‘Oh, I hope I get it right.’ Until you unveil it for Primavera (a pre-Fiesta event in May), you’re not sure. But you think, ‘I like it.’ Luckily, people have been very gracious.

“The pin is a rose. Very simple. During Fiesta, you see so many of us wearing roses, but it’s actually in honor of the flower girls. Our Fiesta Flower Girls is a program dating back to 1949. I chaired the program for over five years. My daughter was a flower girl for 10 years. Our flower girls are ambassadors. They’re everywhere during Fiesta, at both parades and Pequeña. I just wanted to honor them. Hence, the flower.”

This year, her daughter, now 18, has outgrown the flower girl age parameters. “This year,” she offered with a laugh, her daughter is “helping mom. She’s my personal assistant.”

With her insider’s knowledge of the workings of Fiesta, Ms. Henderson also understands the enormity of its fragile fiscal component.

“It’s tough,” she noted. “We raise a half-million dollars to put Fiesta on each year. It’s a sizable feat to put Fiesta on. When you look at De la Guerra and Del Norte and the Historical parade and the Pequeña and the three nights of La Noches de Ronda, all of those are free. They’re not free to put on. We’re trying to preserve our history, so they’re all free. It’s very costly to put on Fiesta. We have fundraisers like the Dignatarios at the Zoo and the Fiesta Ranchera and these other events to hopefully raise money.”

Ms. Henderson will be a familiar presence around town for Fiesta week, including being in the saddle at Friday’s historic Fiesta parade — the largest equestrian parade in the U.S. — and at the special Fiesta Mass at the Mission on Thursday morning and at other events on the busy OSD calendar.

But she also has a strong sense of historical continuity underlying her role and the ongoing organization.

“I wasn’t around in 1924 when it formed,” she said, by way of a brief history lesson on Fiesta. “But in my opinion, I think we’ve stayed pretty true to who we are. From the get-go, when you look at the founding board of Old Spanish Days, it was community and business leaders, historical families. All of them were coming together to say, ‘What can we do to celebrate our history, to celebrate the grand opening of the Lobero, to highlight our artists, and people like (artist Edward) Borein?’ Meanwhile, the business community was saying, ‘Gee, we could really boost our economy.’ “Those things have not changed.

At its root, she adds, Old Spanish Days “celebrates that Rancho period and the hospitality and celebrating. It’s truly ‘Viva la Fiesta.’ It all comes back to that, whether you’re at the mercados or the parade.”

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