Colors swirl and music blares at this long-running and highly successful Kiwanis cultural festival.
Story by Kimiko Martinez • Photos by Carlos Javier Sanchez
San Antonio summers are hot. Even after the sun goes down on this Texas town, the humidity clings to Aaron Rios as he buttons his crisp white shirt backstage at the Arneson River Theater.
But he’s not complaining.
For five years now, the mariachi leader has given up weekends during his busiest season of the year to be here instead—at the San Antonio River Walk for the Kiwanis-produced Fiesta Noche del Rio show.
As a musician, he’s passionate about providing people with an immersive, magical musical experience, which is what this show is all about. But it’s also about giving back. And that’s why he’s here, sweating in the summertime heat, getting ready to take the stage.
“It was just one of those things that happens for a reason,” Rios says. “It was my turn to pay back.”
You see, in 2009 Rios’ son was born prematurely. He spent two months in the hospital before being able to come home. And during that time, several local children’s organizations came to the Rios family’s aid.
“It was very humbling to see these people I never knew help without asking questions or even seeing if we qualified,” Rios says. “Every day I had these organizations calling and showing up, asking if we were OK and what they could do for us. So when I found out what the show was all about, I didn’t hesitate to be involved.”
Alamo Kiwanis Club Charities Inc. has been producing Fiesta Noche del Rio continuously since 1957 and has raised more than US$2.75 million for local children’s charities like the ones that became a lifeline for Rios and his wife. And San Antonio Kiwanis Club members add their support, arranging sponsorships, selling tickets and working the shows.
The show was originally created to attract visitors to the River Walk and featured the legendary Rosita Fernandez—“San Antonio’s First Lady of Song.” During its 60-year run, the event has ranged from a traditional/folk program to a Tejano show to a Las Vegas-style show with choreographer Felipe de la Rosa, who choreographed for Charo.
“We take our audiences on a tour,” says Elizabeth “Lisa” Sanchez-Lopez, who has been involved with the fiesta for 25 years, starting as a dancer before moving on to choreography and singing and eventually becoming the show’s director in 1995.
“We take our audience to Spain and Argentina and Mexico and then back to the U.S. and Texas without ever having to leave their seats.”
From start to end, the Arneson stage is awash with colorful dresses and costumes, and the pageantry of professional performers who bring a mix of rich cultural traditions representative of the region … and beyond. Flamenco, tango, salsa and Caribbean beats—and even some country and western music—fill the thick Texas night air as River Walk tour boats roll past and audience members take in the performance.
“It’s definitely worth the $20 that you pay,” Sanchez-Lopez says. “We have audience members from New York tell us this is just as good as a Broadway show.”
The performers here, though, aren’t making Broadway pay. And joining the show is a big commitment. Performances are held every Friday and Saturday night from May through August, with auditions in December and rehearsals beginning in January. And yet, dancers, singers and musicians like Rios come back year after year.
Rios and his bandmates could be making four times the amount they earn at the fiesta on any given weekend night, but they’re still here five years later with no plans of going anywhere soon.
“If there weren’t a cause behind it, I don’t know that there would be the same level of commitment,” Sanchez-Lopez says. “Here they want to see success because of the cause.”
The cause, in this case, gets very real for cast members when they visit the organizations that benefit from Fiesta Noche del Rio and see the children whose lives they have the opportunity to impact.
“Artists can be divas, but when they come into this environment, they leave all that at the door,” Sanchez-Lopez says. “We really push ourselves to put on a great show so we can raise the most funds possible for those causes.”
The night is dark, but the mood is light as audience members learn to salsa and dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe before the entire Fiesta Noche del Rio cast joins the mariachis—Fiesta de San Antonio, led by Rios—for a final, closeout number.
“To perform at the show is unreal, and we make it magical,” Rios says. “We leave the audience with a smile, and that’s what we are all about.”
That … and making sure that other local families have the support and opportunities that his family did; making sure that the children of San Antonio have something to smile about.
This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.