San Antonian Erwin J. De Luna, a retired state employee and longtime president of the United San Antonio Pow Wow organization, has been elected president of the San Antonio Fiesta Commission, becoming the first Native American to ascend to the volunteer position.
De Luna was elected this week and will fill a one-year term beginning Wednesday. He has Taos Pueblo, Navajo and Mexican-American roots and may be a rarity among people in top-level posts of major U.S. festival organizations.
De Luna will lead a 12-member executive committee that heads up the Fiesta Commission’s 130-member board of commissioners. They represent about 100 organizations that produce official Fiesta events over 11 days in April. Fiesta San Antonio has eight paid staff members.
“Erwin has given so much to many San Antonio organizations,” said Amy Shaw, executive director of Fiesta San Antonio. “He just gives, gives, gives, and his wife, Rose Mary, has done the same; and he’s a really good guy.”
Shaw, who has served as executive director since last July, said, “Fiesta has long been a celebration of diverse cultures that comprise San Antonio. It’s wonderful that the board and leadership reflects the community of people who make Fiesta happen every year.”
De Luna may be the only or among the few Native Americans leading a major U.S. festival, she said. “We’ll be looking into that.”
The new president is a native San Antonian who attended Little Flower School and Holy Cross High School on the West Side. He graduated from San Antonio College and attended the University of Texas at San Antonio.
De Luna worked in long-term care of the aged and disabled and was a hearings officer for the Texas Health and Human Services Department, he said.
He has been involved in Fiesta events since he was a Boy Scout at Christ the King Catholic Church. The troop formed a drum and bugle corps and marched in the Battle of Flowers Parade in 1964, he said.
In the 52 years since then, De Luna has been a Fiesta fan and participant.
In the ’70s, he began volunteering for the San Antonio Conservation Society’s Night in Old San Antonio. He became a member of the Fiesta Commission in the late ’90s, he said.
De Luna said he served on all the commission’s subcommittees over the years and moved up its board hierarchy, serving as treasurer, senior vice president, president-elect and now president. “I was immersed behind the scenes,” he said.
Though Fiesta comes once a year, for the commission, its officers and staff, “It’s a year-round program. We’ve already started planning for next year’s program,” he said.
In the face of longtime criticism over the lack of diversity in Fiesta-oriented groups such as the Texas Cavaliers, the Conservation Society and the Order of the Alamo, De Luna said the commission has striven to make itself more reflective of the population.
In Fiesta’s 125-year history, it has had 55 Fiesta Commission presidents, the majority white and male. The first woman president was elected in 1967; the first Hispanic in 1979; and the first African-American in 1996.
Of the 55, 11 have been Hispanic and three have been African-American, including outgoing President Vonzetta Hickman, according to a list of past presidents.
“The Fiesta Commission has had a lot of diversity over the years,” De Luna said. His election “is another step. I’m proud to be the first Native American to serve as president.”
De Luna plans to focus on improving communication between Fiesta’s leadership, member groups, volunteers and ordinary citizens. “We sometimes get information saying ‘I didn’t get this,’ or ‘I didn’t get that.’ We’re developing ways to open lines of communication with all our volunteers, business members, to all members of the Fiesta Commission.”
A monthly newsletter is planned, he said. But much of the work that goes on to organize Fiesta will remain the same, he said.
“We’re known as a party with a purpose, and we want to continue those traditions,” he said. “So we have a Fiesta for future generations.”
While Fiesta began as a celebration of the defenders at the Battle of the Alamo and the victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, De Luna acknowledged that that history has been told from a Euro-centric perspective and that some Latinos, Native Americans and others have questioned its accuracy and sought a wider view. More recently, historians have worked to better fill voids in textbooks.
“One side has been seen more than the other, unfortunately,” he said, adding Hispanics were on both sides of the conflicts.
“Texas wouldn’t be here today without all those participants,” he said. “We come from a wide diversity of cultures and traditions. We celebrate it today with all cultures.”
De Luna will retain leadership of the United San Antonio Pow Wow organization, which promotes native cultures and traditions. Its largest event is held during Presidents Day weekend.
During his presidency, De Luna welcomes comments and questions about Fiesta and offered his new email address, email@example.com. “I’ll try to answer every email as soon as possible,” he said. Fiesta 2017 is set for April 20-30.