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El Presidente of the Past

Reigniting Fiesta After WWII


Now lionized as one of Santa Barbara’s most accomplished mayors ​— ​and perhaps best judge ever ​— ​Jack Rickard (shown on the cover), it turns out, may also have been the most significant El Presidente since the dawning of the first Fiesta in 1924.

It might be a stretch to say Rickard turned Fiesta’s light back on following the four-year blackout imposed by World War II ​— ​but only just slightly. Rickard played no significant role in 1946, when Santa Barbara’s movers and shakers got Fiesta’s full-moon festivities reignited. He’d just returned from his stint in the Navy, where he saw action in the South Pacific.

But in 1947, there was no Fiesta. Not only had the South Coast been hammered by a dire drought, Sam Stanwood ​— ​who reigned as El Presidente for 20 years ​— ​had been seriously injured in a car crash. No one felt like dancing or cracking cascarone eggs.

By 1948, Santa Barbara needed a good party. By then, most of the servicemen ​— ​and some servicewomen ​— ​were streaming home, and many who’d been stationed here during the war had decided to stay. Everyone was in a huge hurry to make up for years of lost time.

In this context, some Santa Barbarans worried their city’s very identity was at risk. Progress, as traditionally defined as growth, was regarded as much as a curse as it was a blessing. The News-Press turned over an entire page in one Fiesta issue to a manifesto written by famous California booster and visionary Charles F. Loomis. “Don’t let them skin Santa Barbara of its romance,” he exhorted readers.

Jack Rickard
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Courtesy Photo

Jack Rickard

Nobody on the scene at that time embodied that sense of “romance” quite like Jack Rickard, who took over as El Presidente in 1948 and 1949. At age 35, Rickard was the youngest El Presidente ever. But he brought more to the equation than youth. His predecessors at the post had all been certified gringos, transplants from the East Coast or the south; by contrast, Rickard had been born and raised in Santa Barbara. A mainline descendant of two of the town’s founding families, Rickard grew up speaking Spanish in his grandmother’s house. He was not just bilingual; he was bicultural, a genuine blend of the Californio and the Yankee traditions. To the extent Fiesta’s pastoral traditions were ever rooted in historical reality ​— ​that brief blink of eye during which Californios, not Spaniards and not Mexicans, ruled California’s roost ​— ​Rickard personified it.

As El Presidente, Rickard ​— ​whose family owned a large Spanish land-grant ranch in the Cuyama Valley ​— ​re-established the Fiesta, putting it on a sound footing. Under his direction, the mercado was created, giving nonprofits a lucrative venue to raise funds by selling food and drink in huts crafted from palm fronds. More than that, Rickard took pains to inject his city’s cultural traditions into the music and pageantry of Santa Barbara’s oldest and longest running celebration on four feet. Read on for everything you need to know about this year’s Presidente, Spirits, and Old Spanish Days events.

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