Long before the 2015 designation of San Antonio’s Missions as UNESCO World Heritage sites, a small, tenacious band of women made up one of the groups that helped ensure their survival. “They saw the uniqueness of the gems that we have here,” says Patti Zaointz, First Vice President of the San Antonio Conservation Society and former Chairperson of NIOSA.

They saw the uniqueness of the gems that we have here.

Patti Zaointz First Vice President, San Antonio Conservation Society

The founding mothers of the Conservation Society began by pooling their money to purchase property in and around historic sites like the Missions to protect them from disrepair and encroachment. Soon, pocket change wasn’t enough and they began hosting events to raise money.

One such event, originally held at Mission San Jose, would become what we know today as NIOSA. In 1947, the Fiesta Commission invited NIOSA to move to La Villita and become an official Fiesta event. It’s remained there ever since.

Patti Zaointz is the First Vice President of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

“You had working class people; you had rancheros, vaqueros, cowboys; you had bankers. Everybody came,” says Patti. NIOSA showcases the cultures and culinary traditions that make San Antonio what it is. Today, there are fifteen different cultural areas at the event.

"When you see a building being restored, you can say you helped with that."

Patti Zaointz First Vice-President of the San Antonio Conservation Society

NIOSA is the largest festival for historic preservation in the world and generates the most revenue for historic preservation. One such cause it supports is maintaining La Villita, the festival’s venue and an arts village that has been continuously occupied for 200 years. “When you see a building being restored,” says Patti of NIOSA attendees, “you can say you helped with that.”

“We’re breaking bread with 82,000 people over four nights,” she explains. It’s this sharing of a meal that brings the community closer. And it’s a community that stretches far beyond San Antonio. Visitors from all over the world attend the festival, as well as native San Antonians returning home to join in.

Fran West volunteered at NIOSA for 50 years before retiring last year. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

Such a large scale event requires serious commitment from volunteers. Patti says you won’t find more committed people than those in NIOSA’s ranks. There are around 15,000 volunteers every year. Seven volunteers celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2017.

I see people here I’ve known for 50 years and we’re just as tight as we ever were.

Fran West NIOSA Volunteer

Fran West is a member of this select group. “I made a lot of good friends. Had a barrel of laughs,” she says of her experience. Fran began volunteering in 1967 after attending the festival with her husband Reggie. “I see people here I’ve known for 50 years and we’re just as tight as we ever were.”

For many years, Fran oversaw “Consolidated Foods,” the central hub for dry goods and materials during the event. Under her leadership, the process became more efficient and has run smoothly (as smoothly as it can, she says). Fran also oversaw the introduction of China Town to the NIOSA lineup. After 50 years, Fran has finally retired. Nonetheless, she’ll still be present this year to show her successor the ropes.

Third year NIOSA veteran Stephanie Macias poses for a portrait at one of the gift shops inside La Villita. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

“She makes it sound so easy,” says Stephanie Macias, who’s taking over Consolidated Foods this year. “It is something she holds dear to her.” Stephanie has been a volunteer for three years. She says that it was as a volunteer that she finally saw the importance and impact of NIOSA. “I’m seeing the heart that people have to make this event great for our city,” she states.

Fran has offered advice to Stephanie and future volunteers saying, “Be kind, be forgiving and listen. Be positive. Have God in your heart and a smile on your face.”

Stephanie encourages current volunteers to reach out to family and friends to get people involved with NIOSA and historic preservation. She says she would not have thought to volunteer if her brother Johnny had not asked her. Now her whole family, including her mom, Solis, are volunteers.

Stephanie (left) and Solis have made volunteering a family activity. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

“We need a new generation of preservationists,” explains Patti Zaointz.

Fran West has helped prepare that future generation in recent years with her volunteerism.

Stephanie Macias reaches out to the new, young tech community downtown. She worked in the tech industry and hopes that San Antonio’s growing tech sector can play a part in historic preservation.

We need a new generation of preservationists.

Patti Zaointz First Vice President, San Antonio Conservation Society

These three woman all seem to possess the same drive and hustle of their foremothers. That small group of women who mobilized to preserve San Antonio culture almost 100 years ago is succeeded by an equally tenacious group of women who continue their legacy. 

Some of the volunteers at the NIOSA Headquarters pose for a picture. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

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