Here's how San Marcos became the Mermaid Capital of Texas
Hot dogs and Nehi soda. Picnics that were an all day affair — the kind where you leave long after the sun has set. Early morning swimming lessons and gripes about bathing suits still damp from the day before.
These are July Moreno’s first memories of the San Marcos River and the seeds that eventually became the Mermaid Society of Texas, a nonprofit she founded in 2014 that uses the symbol of the mermaid to promote stewardship of the San Marcos River.
“I love when people say ‘mermaids in San Marcos, what is that? Y’all don't have a beach,’” Moreno said. “It gives such a wonderful opportunity to talk about...this beautiful spring-fed river that we have here running through town.”
And now that symbol is part of the city’s history forever. Earlier this year, the state legislature officially designated San Marcos as the Mermaid Capital of Texas. The effort was spearheaded by Moreno, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and state Rep. Erin Zwiener, both Democrats whose districts cover parts of Hays County.
River Full of Memories
The city's use of the mermaid as a symbol emerged from the headwaters of the San Marcos River: Aquarena Springs. A former amusement park, Aquarena Springs was famed for its underwater “aquamaid” performances, where girls donned tails and tutus for a 45-minute show. Moreno, a native of San Marcos, said anyone who was born and raised here can recall these performances.
But instead of thinking of the mermaids as just entertainers, Moreno thought they could be something more.
“What if we could have the mermaid be our mascot?” she said. “What if we could have her make a comeback, so to speak?”
The idea came to Moreno a few years ago at a time when the city was on the verge of major changes fueled by development and population growth. Texas State University was also expanding, and more and more students were moving into what was used to be the small town where Moreno spent her summers tubing.
“The promise of big development coming, it was happening,” Moreno said. “Our sweet town was going to change dramatically and it was coming. I remember feeling at the time, like, everything is about to change.”
More people in town also meant having more of them on the river, making traffic and trash a major concern. And locals were starting to feel more like outsiders, Moreno said.
“There was a real weird vibe that was happening in our town,” she said. “And nobody kind of knew where they were.”
In conversations with new arrivals, Moreno realized almost no one knew about Aquarena Springs or the mermaids.
“'I’m like, oh my goodness, people are moving into San Marcos, they don't even know who we are. They don't have any sense of our history,'” she said. “And I don't know, in some weird way, I thought I needed to be the one to talk about it more.”
Moreno didn’t want the identity of San Marcos to be limited to the outlet malls or the university. The mermaid, to Moreno, became a natural way to connect the past to the present, a way to bridge the gap between locals and newcomers.
“In my mind, the creation of the mermaid was all about...big arms wrapping around this community and saying we were all on the same page with what we want for this city,” she said. “We get that it's going to have to grow, but we can grow it together. And put at the priority of growing it that it's about the protection and conservation of the San Marcos River.”
It’s not about keeping the town small, Moreno said, but unique.
With those ideas in mind, Moreno created a month-long festival, now known as the Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest, as a way to celebrate the mermaid every year. She said the festival always takes place in September to serve as a “shot in the arm” for businesses after the slow summer months, when many students are out of town.
The festival usually has dozens of events; everything from a symposium to a fashion show and a fancy gala. But since last year, many have been limited or cancelled due to concerns about COVID-19 concerns.
This year, Moreno and the Mermaid Society are set to move forward with the celebration that has historically capped off the festival: the Downtown Mermaid Promenade, a parade and street fair known for its colorful costumes. Moreno said she felt it was the safest possible event of the month, given that it's taking place outdoors.
The fifth annual Mermaid Promenade and Downtown Street Fair is on Sept. 25 at 10 a.m.
“The work that Mermaid Society is doing is for future generations so that the river is around,” Moreno said. “That this community, that this city that I love so much and [am] so passionate about, that it remains unique.”