Santa Barbara resident Lia Parker recalls being in parades and becoming a dancer
Lia Parker, the first Spirit of Fiesta, still has a Coke bottle and the wrapper of a chocolate bar that she received as the grand marshal during last year’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade.
As she recalled, some man rushed through the throng of spectators to hand her the chocolate and soda.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she told the News-Press by phone.
The Santa Barbara resident’s surprise was due to the gesture’s reference back to her childhood.
In fact, it referred to the very reason she decided to be the first Spirit of Fiesta in 1949.
Ms. Parker’s mother, originally from Italy, normally wouldn’t let her daughter have chocolate or Coke. She would, however, if Ms. Parker danced as the Spirit of Fiesta.
How exactly Ms. Parker became the first Spirit escapes her memory, but she believes it was either through the De Cota Dance Studio, where she learned to dance, or through her mother.
Owned by people of Portuguese descent, the De Cota Dance Studio taught some Spanish dances to its students, so it’s possible one of the Fiesta organizers stopped by the studio to see its talent pool, from which Ms. Parker was chosen.
If not that, Ms. Parker’s mother knew one of the festival organizers, so it’s possible that he saw one of her dance recitals, leading to her getting chosen.
However, one thing that is absolutely clear to Ms. Parker is how she started dancing, which was also thanks to her mother.
At the age of 9, Ms. Parker broke her leg in three places after she tried jumping over a short hedge, got her foot stuck on a branch and fell.
The leg failed to heal properly, and her mother took a counterintuitive approach to the problem by putting Ms. Parker in ballet class. She thought dance lessons would strengthen her daughter’s bad leg.
“That’s the way my mom was,” Ms. Parker said. “She thought it would build me up.”
When Ms. Parker finally was chosen as Spirit of Fiesta, her first reaction was “I have to dance an entire mile?”
She did just that and all the while tried to keep enough distance between her and the military marching band behind her playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The famous military march wasn’t at all conducive to Spanish dancing and easily could have thrown Ms. Parker off if the band’s music got too close, so she and the flower girls accompanying her did their best to walk a bit faster than the band.
“We just tried to outwalk them and make it work,” she recalled.
Today, the Spirit and Junior Spirit dress in pristine white dresses while dancing in the parade, but Old Spanish Days hadn’t yet decided on that choice of wardrobe for the Spirit when Ms. Parker became the first. The only outfit her mother could arrange was what Ms. Parker called “a peasant skirt and peasant blouse.”
“I was worried that it wasn’t appropriate, but that’s all I had,” she said.
Whereas Ms. Parker’s mother pushed her toward dancing and loved her being involved with it, her brother and father didn’t care one iota, according to Ms. Parker. In those days there was a clear divide between what men did and what women did, so her father and brother wrote it off as “girls’ stuff” and didn’t even see her perform as Spirit of Fiesta.
That her parents had such different levels of interest in her dancing isn’t too surprising considering how different they were as people.
Ms. Parker’s father was a laid-back New Englander who attended Harvard and her mother was an Italian immigrant with a fiery personality.
Ms. Parker pithily said of this difference, “Opposites attract.”
Her dancing career continued into college, where she studied at the school for New York City Ballet on a scholarship.
However, she never went professional as she started to lose interest in dancing and wasn’t up for the difficult life of performing on the road. On top of that, ballet companies back then were using very tall dancers, and Ms. Parker was short.
Her years of dancing also took a physical toll on her body.
She developed knee troubles in the leg she broke as a child and other health issues that she decided to keep private.
“Most of us want to have it all, and there’s a price for it. There’s a price for everything,” Ms. Parker said.
Rather than dancing professionally, Ms. Parker became a caretaker and started her career working in Mexico. Eventually she returned to Santa Barbara to take care of her ailing parents.
After many years away from anything related to the Fiesta, she reconnected with Old Spanish Days in 2013 through her retirement home Garden Court. One day at the retirement home, a woman whose daughter was that year’s Spirit of Fiesta overheard that Ms. Parker was the original Spirit, bringing her back in contact with the organization.
2019 was the 70th anniversary of the Spirit of Fiesta, and for the occasion Ms. Parker was chosen as grand marshal for the Fiesta Parade. Recalling that day, Ms. Parker said she did what one does when acting as an ambassador, including everyone in the celebration and being “loving to everybody.”
As for that man who cut through the crowd to hand her the Coke and chocolate, Ms. Parker was incredibly moved by his gesture.
“It touched me so much, that’s why I still have the bottle in my drawer and the paper.”