Wednesday, April 17, 2024

A trip to the Rio Grand Valley

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I’ve been going to the Rio Grand Valley for more than fifty years.  When I first went there, towns were separated by brush country.  You would go to one city, then travel thru non-populated areas, then you would come to another city.  It’s not that way now.  It’s hard to find much rural country.  Nearly all the cities are backed up to each other, and it’s hard to tell when you leave one city and go to the next one.  The population of the valley continues to grow and now stands at about 1.2 million.

I visited with Mike Blum, former city planner in McAllen, and he said the valley is a mixture of cultures that includes immigrants from Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.  Of course, the Mexican influence is pre-dominate.  The major cities in the valley are Brownsville (185,000), McAllen (150,000) and Harlingen (71,000).  South Padre Island, the popular resort destination, has a population of 3,000.  Of course, the 1,900-mile Rio Grand River, the longest in Texas, is a legendary landmark that separates Texas from Mexico.

In San Benito, I visited Patricia and Peter Avila, who have the Conjunto Museum and Hall of Fame.  Their father loved conjunto music and started the museum to pay tribute to the musicians he admired.  The walls are filled with photos of musicians who have been inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame.  The museum has a stage where musicians perform weekly.

Also, in San Benito, I visited a museum honoring black educators in the valley.  In Harlingen, I met Pat and Sue Thomas, retired twin teachers who should get national recognition for teaching their students to learn skills and excel in what they do.  Their students always ranked high in academics despite their unusual teaching methods.  They danced while teaching English grammar, and when they run into former students they all start dancing.  The twin sisters love to talk.  I don’t think I asked a single question - just turned on the recorder.  They are genuinely outrageous and spend their time sewing craft items and taking care of stray animals.  And laughing.

I visited with LALA fashions in downtown Harlingen where fashion designer Laisa Macias and her husband created a gigantic photographic backdrop featuring the word LOVE in 23 languages.  People go to the shop and have their photos made there.  One of her signature clothing lines carries the theme Home Sweet Harlingen.

In a valley RV Park, I sat on a screened-in porch with some winter Texans from Indiana and Canada.  They’ve been spending winters in the valley most of their lives.  They first came as children with their parents who primarily came for the warm climate, palm trees, and citrus.  Now, they come because they’ve made lifelong friends and get to see them when they abandon their cold and snowy climes and head south for a few months.  The final valley interview was with writer Eileen Mattei, who says writers must be curious and want to find out what’s beyond the horizon.