Growing up, dinner at the Juanita Garza's home was a combination of spicy food and lively discussion, instilling intellectual curiosity and a life long interest in heritage and history.
This interest led Garza, a lecturer in history at The University of Texas-Pan American to teaching and her role as field researcher from 1996 to 2002 for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a key player in bringing a major Smithsonian Institution exhibition called El Río to the UTPA campus this summer.
El Río uses audio-visual features and interactive displays to tell the stories of the communities and people of the region - shrimpers and ranchers, sheepherders and cowboys, brick makers and adobe builders, piñata makers and weavers.
Olivia Cadaval, a Smithsonian Folklife Specialist, is a co-curator of the exhibition with South Texas native Cynthia Vidaurri, a folklorist at the Center. Cadaval said Garza's role was significant.
"Without the many years of Juanita's collegiality, trust and down-right hard work, this exhibition would not be possible. Garza combines intellectual integrity and commitment to her students with an unmatchable respect and knowledge of her region and the people who live there," Cadaval said.
Garza is a Weslaco native. Her mother was a fifth generation Texan and her father was born in Nuevo Leon. Education was important in her family.
"I come from a family of four brothers and four sisters, all of whom have at least one college degree - something my parents were very proud of," said Garza, who is the undergraduate advisor for the UTPA Department of History. Garza graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History, Magna Cum Laude from Pan American University. She obtained her Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from UTPA in 1984 and began teaching at the University that same year.
Among the many courses she has taught, the history of Texas is her favorite. "I have a chance to look at history from a different perspective. I give the students a lot of the local history. I love the response I get - they are amazed about what they didn't know about themselves," Garza said.
In 1994, the Smithsonian Folklife and Cultural Heritage Center approached the University seeking joint ventures.
"One of the people at the Center had read my master's thesis dealing with the influences of both native American Indian and Spanish-Mexican cultures on the Río Grande Valley," Garza said. Subsequently, the Center expanded the project.
In 1997 Garza and two of her students conducted the field work, going to the source of the Río Grande and doing research along both sides of the river.
The following year, the El Río project became a small part of the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It had such an outstanding reception that the Smithsonian made it one of three main exhibition components of the 2000 Festival. Garza contributed to and worked at both festivals.
El Río's showing at UTPA will be its first outside the nation's capital. As part of the Smithsonian's traveling exhibitions, El Río will later begin a five year traveling schedule to San Antonio and El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Monterrey, Chihuahua and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.
Garza believes the hard work was worth it. "It may be one of the few times that Hispanic culture would be highlighted at a national level. Also, it seems that most people nationally think South Texas is San Antonio and they don't know that there is a whole vital area south of that," Garza said.
University President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez views El Río as a great culmination to UTPA's 75th anniversary year events.
"For years we have seen Juanita Garza working tirelessly on this historical, cultural and educational effort at every phase of evolvement. In the process she has forged a valuable partnership with the Smithsonian Institution on behalf of our University. We have nothing but pride and admiration for Garza, her vision and extraordinary commitment to making it a reality," Nevárez said.
Opening in July, the exhibition will be housed on the third floor of the Science Building at UTPA and will be open to the public. For more information call 956/381-UTPA (8872) or toll free at 866/441-UTPA.