My first Fiesta medal didn’t fit the usual mold. A coworker made it by hand, using craft supplies—a bottle cap, foam, hot glue, some ribbon. It was an homage to our team’s unofficial mascot, a bust of an eagle we called Bonnie, and it was nothing fancy. The best part was that it only made sense to us. I’ve since added several medals to my collection, but that one will always hold a special place in my heart—and on my sash.

A Fiesta medal looks like the hardware you’d find on the uniform of a well-decorated soldier, which is fitting given that Fiesta, a ten-day celebration held in San Antonio each spring, started in 1891 as a way to honor Texas Revolution heroes. But unlike a military medal, Fiesta medals are bold kaleidoscopes of color inspired by pop culture and local history. They come in all shapes and sizes and are typically pinned on a sash worn to various Fiesta events. (I need a new one this year—last year’s, weighed down by all my pieces of flair, is in shreds.)

It’s hard to say when the first Fiesta medal was introduced. Some point to a bronze medallion from 1905, while others believe the first medals were the commemorative coins handed out at parades in 1946. Purists argue it all started in 1971. According to the San Antonio Express-News, that’s when members of Fiesta royalty sat in the lobby of the historic Menger Hotel with hammers and nails, punching holes in “king’s coins” so they could affix red, white, and blue lapel ribbons. Regardless of their origin, the small souvenirs have become a major symbol of Fiesta, with an entire subculture built around the designing, selling, and trading of medals.

Some are as big as your palm, while others have details so small you need a magnifying glass to do them justice. Glitter is often involved. If you’re lucky, you might get one with movable parts, a light-up component, or a built-in bottle opener. 

There was a time when only the big players—Fiesta royalty and huge brands such as the Spurs and Whataburger—created medals, but today, everybody who’s anybody designs their own, from local legislators (state representative Diego Bernal’s medals are always highly anticipated, and this year’s is a Fiesta-fied ode to the Addams Family) to small mom-and-pop shops (I’m currently pining for the Otomi bird medal from my favorite party store, Feliz Modern).

In 2015, entrepreneur Garrett Heath wanted to make a medal for his food blog, SA Flavor. While several companies had been designing medals for decades, none really catered to everyday San Antonians. Relying on his background in industrial engineering, Heath figured out how to design his first medal, a lotería card symbolizing barbacoa and Big Red. It sold out immediately, and soon other would-be makers sought Heath’s help. He’s since built a business on the premise: Heath coordinates the manufacturing, gives one hundred medals to the client at cost, and then sells the rest of the bulk order on his website, He also works with each client to select an area nonprofit to receive $1 of the proceeds from each sale—a common practice among medal makers.

“San Antonians like to say that Fiesta is a ‘party with a purpose,’ ” says Heath, who has helped raise roughly a quarter of a million dollars for charities such as the San Antonio Food Bank and the Children’s Shelter. The medals are a way for wearers to promote the causes they care about, and you can learn a lot about a person from their collection.

Before Heath and I talk, he does his homework with a quick search of my past SA Flavor purchases. I have a 2020 Fiesta Chica medal, a riff on my favorite sparkling water, which benefited the education nonprofit SA Youth. Plus two medals inspired by the Spurs: there’s the 2016 La Mano lotería card (which we won’t talk about here because I’m still bitter about Kawhi Leonard’s desertion) and a 2017 medal that looks like an old-school friendship necklace, with two halves of a broken heart, the number 21, and “Cómo Me Duele” printed on the front. I had to have it after I read Heath’s description: “Seems like Selena kind of knew how San Antonio felt on July 11, 2016. For it was that day that we saw Tim Duncan ride off into the sunset.”

I vividly remember where I was when I learned of Duncan’s retirement. I was preparing for a job interview and had to fight back tears to keep my makeup from smudging. That medal served as a marker for what felt like the end of an era—not just for the Spurs, but for me too. A month later, I left San Antonio for a new job in Dallas.

These days I don’t have much use for my medals. With no Fiesta in the Big D, there’s nowhere to wear them. I’ve thought about fashioning the medals into a wreath to hang on my front door every spring, but I doubt any of my neighbors would know what they are, and let’s face it: it’s less fun when you’re a party of one. Why, then, have I continued to buy them? It’s a question Heath says a lot of “medal hounds” ask themselves.

“They are the weirdest collectible because after Fiesta has passed, very few of them are worth [any money],” he says.

I take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. At the start of Fiesta, hundreds of people gather for an event called Pin Pandemonium, dedicated solely to medals. Over the course of the season, there are meetups, giveaways, awards for the best designs, and even a weigh-in to determine who collected the most that year (the current record stands at 62.75 pounds, or 829 medals).

But the real “lifeblood for the medal community,” as Heath puts it, is Fiesta Medal Maniacs, the go-to source for medal news. Before 2015, it was impossible to stay up to date on who all were creating medals and where they were being sold; it was like a citywide treasure hunt without a map. Enter San Antonio natives Maggie Ibarra-Jimenez, Tina Lumbreras, and Lillian Villanueva.

“Our sole purpose is to search for, share, and post as many Fiesta medals as possible for our [nearly thirty thousand] followers, who are just as passionate about collecting medals as we are,” says Lumbreras, who works full-time as an emergency-room doctor and also manages the group’s Instagram.

Starting in January, the trio begins canvasing social media using keywords and hashtags to get the scoop on upcoming releases. Some businesses contact the women directly, asking them to build hype and reveal their medals via Instagram or Facebook Live posts. During the lead-up to Fiesta, the women sometimes post upwards of thirty times a day. They don’t make any money off Fiesta Medal Maniacs. In fact, they give 100 percent of the proceeds from their own medal to a different female-founded company each year. (Their design this year depicts a popular Fiesta snack, chicken on a stick, and benefits Eagles Flight Advocacy & Outreach, an organization that supports women and children who have experienced domestic violence, abuse, and bullying).

“As cheesy as it sounds, we truly love our city, especially during Fiesta,” Lumbreras says. “It brings our community together.”

And there it is. That’s the real reason I think so many people love to collect medals. It’s like being part of an inside joke that the whole city is in on. It’s a way to support local businesses—from your favorite breakfast taco joint (mine is El Milagrito, represented in medal form by a taco surrounded by confetti) to your go-to icehouse (the Friendly Spot, honored by a 2015 medal with an overflowing beer and the words “¡Viva Friends!”). And especially for Alamo City expats like me, it’s a way to stay connected to our adopted hometown some three hundred miles away.