Story by Erin Graffy de Garcia, with photographs by Fritz Olenberger
Santa Barbara is a community that fondly embraces its early Spanish history. It is celebrated every summer with the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta and remembered by the community surrounding itself with the prettiest architecture evoking Spanish elements of a bygone era of white stucco and red tile roofs.
And in case you missed those clues, the story of Santa Barbara’s romantic past is embedded in our public places: on walls and storefronts, in restaurants and galleries, and even on rooftops. Here, we catch a sense of the color and charm of this dolce far niente society of simple life and gracious living.
What was this story? The people of these old Spanish days considered themselves to be neither Spanish nor Mexican but Californios. They were proud Spanish-speaking people who had lived in alta California for several generations, descendants of the Spanish presidio soldiers of the 18th century. From approximately 1828 to 1863, the Californios lived in relative isolation on enormous rural ranchos of 4,000 to 40,000 acres, where they raised cattle for its hides and tallow rather than for meat and bartered with Boston trading ships plying the California coast for leather hides.
Horses, hides, hospitality and la jota—dancing—distinguished their culture. These elements are displayed in wonderful public art throughout the city, sometimes as a detail and other times as an entire scene captured on canvas.
For the Californios, their entire lives were centered on and around horses, as they practically lived on them. There were no roads, and people were miles from the nearest rancho, meaning a long trek on horseback awaited the riders.
The vaqueros—cowboys—also spent all day on horseback, chasing after cattle over thousands of acres. Either way, the Californio had to be exceptionally adept at controlling his horse through bramble and chaparral and dodging rocks, gopher holes, bobcats and bears. Spanish Californians were renowned expert horsemen, surpassing even the Argentinean gauchos and Tartar equestrians. For this reason, the Spanish vaquero atop his sprightly steed is a frequent subject for artists.
Fiestas—parties—during the old Spanish days were more than mere celebrations. They were reunions of families and friends who came from ranchos that were many miles away. Fiestas were also the only time for young people to meet and flirt with members of the opposite sex. And fiestas were the most important source of news and information exchanges. A fiesta typically followed a wedding, but a visiting stranger was also reason for a fiesta, and these parties usually lasted for three to five days. The stately Casa de la Guerra—home of Jose de la Guerra, the town’s leading citizen—was a frequent setting for party scenes in paintings.
California hospitality was legendary. There were no towns at that time and therefore no banks or inns or hotels of any kind. Visitors depended on the generosity of complete strangers, and the ranchero in his grand hacienda did not disappoint. “Mi casa es su casa” was an expression originating in this culture—“My house is your house.” A visitor was expected to make himself completely at home, and, of course, his presence itself was an excuse to throw a party and invite neighboring ranchos.
Considering the primitive surroundings of the residents, the dress of the time was surprisingly elegant. The men were the peacocks—wearing short jackets in bright green or blue and hats trimmed with gold or rimmed with colorful bands. Around their waists, the señors wore long sashes of red material, ending in fringe. Their pants were flared at the bottom, giving them a romantic, dashing silhouette.
Another favorite subject of artists was the Spanish California women, with their magnificent silk shawls of embroidered flowers and long fringe artfully swept around their shoulders. Beneath, the dresses were fluid, not stiff, and adorned with flouncy tiers of ruffles and ribbons.
The annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta (Aug. 5–9) brings the traditions of this era to life in a week-long festival. The flower girls extend traditional California hospitality. Performances in the plazas and at the courthouse showcase the locals’ love of dancing. As one of the largest equestrian parades in the world, the fiesta’s El Desfile Historico features a spectacular showcase of horses (Arabian, Belgian draft, miniature, Paso Finos, golden palominos and more) beautifully arrayed in silver saddles and trim.
About the Author
As a regional historian, Erin Graffy de Garcia has written more than 60 books, monographs and feature articles for numerous publications
and historical institutions, including the “How To Santa Barbara” series (three volumes) and Saint Barbara: The Truth, Tales, and Trivia of Santa Barbara’s Patron Saint. History works include Remembering Jordanos, as well as numerous monographs for Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
Her most recent book, Old Spanish Days: Santa Barbara History Through Public Art, uncovers the history behind California’s Rancho Period. The featured art can be readily found in public spaces from the airport through downtown and the beach boulevard.
For More Santa Barbara History
Project Fiesta!—highlighting the pageantry and fashion of Old Spanish Days and featuring vintage posters, restored costumes, artifacts and historical photos—is on view at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum (SBHM). Jul. 19–Sept. 20.
Erin Graffy de Garcia will lead a SBHM Walking Tour of some of the featured public art on Aug. 1 at 9:30 a.m. Reservations are required; the tour begins at the Project Fiesta! exhibit. Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De La Guerra St., santabarbaramuseum.com, 805-966-1601.
Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.