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Valley Residents Celebrate Dual Cultural Histories That Flow Beyond Borders

Thousands gathered in Brownsville on Saturday to celebrate Charro Days, a multi-day annual event that commemorated the relationship between the border city and Matamoros, its sister city in Mexico.

Brightly-colored floats in the Grand International Parade flowed through the downtown streets. Men and women wore traditional Charro outfits and rode strutting horses. Onlookers smiled, cheered and waved as the parade cruised past them.

For some, it was a moment to reconnect with their Mexican roots and celebrate border culture. For others, it was a reminder of how much things have changed on the border in recent years.

Ofelia Alonso, 23, said she and her family always looked forward to the celebration. For them, it’s a tradition.

“We had our outfits prepared," she said. "We did our makeup, we had the braids. I have pictures going back to when I was like four or five years old of some outfit at some parade. It was really special.”

Alonso was born in Matamoros. She said the festivities and outfits are one of the only ways for her to actually connect with her Mexican roots.

“It’s always really special when you’re at school and someone asks you why you’re wearing your outfit, and you’re like, ‘it’s because my parents are originally from Veracruz, or from Tampico,' " she said. “It’s such a visual and powerful reminder of our long history and the importance of keeping it alive.”

Ricardo Gonzalez, 25, grew up in Brownsville. He said Charro Days is important because it can be a teaching moment.

Credit Reynaldo Leanos | Texas Public Radio
Ricardo Gonzalez and Ofelia Alonso.

“I think it’s even more important since we don’t learn about Mexican culture, about the border, at school,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not in the curriculum. It’s not in our textbooks.”

Gonzalez and Alonso said in recent years they’ve seen a militarization on the border, and they thought it was inappropriate to invite immigration officials to take part in Charro Days. So they helped organize a protest.

“It’s a bit tone-deaf to invite ICE and Border Patrol agents to a celebration of two cultures,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a very triggering visual to have someone pass by and wave and clap at you when you’re being terrorized constantly.”

Gonzalez referred to the Color Guard Parade, which took place right before the Grand International Parade. It celebrated veterans and local, state and federal law enforcement.

Alonso said it was important for them to organize because they’ve seen the direct impact immigration officials had on their community.

“Now we see families change the way that they exist here in the Valley. They’re scared to go to school. They’re even scared to even be at this parade,” Alonso said. “We were handing out the posters, and we had people say they were scared to take it because maybe something would happen to them.”

Even though this wasn't the first time immigration officials attended the Color Guard Parade, Alonso said their presence in the 2019 parade and in the community felt different.

“We’ve had personal experiences where crossing the border they accuse you of falsifying your documents,” she said. “Our undocumented brothers and sisters are in the most danger, but it's not just a problem that affects them. It’s a problem that’s affecting every person in our city.”

Alexandra Lugo was also in the crowd watching the parade pass by. She said having events like Charro Days are important than ever before.

“It’s just to show that we are able to respect each other, and it’s something that's not hard. It’s very easy to do,” she said. “The Charro Days is for both the U.S. and Mexico. It’s important for everyone, and I think this event brings it out more in people.”

Credit Reynaldo Leanos Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Alexandra Lugo

Rosendo Escareño is this year’s executive director of 2019 Charro Days. He’s also a lifelong resident of the Rio Grande Valley.

He said the festivities have changed throughout the years.

“When I was younger, there used to be 'puente libre,' and people from Matamoros used to cross without really having to have any identification, and they would cross and celebrate Charro Days in Brownsville, then go back,” said Escareño. “After [the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks], we had to think about the security of our guests, our sponsors, so going into Mexico is not as easy as it used to be.”

Escareño said he hoped people left the festivities with joy and with a reminder of the important relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

“The river does not divide us — it unites us,” he said. “We live in a certain part of the country that’s a little misunderstood but you can see the beauty of friendship.”

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos