More than 100 people attended the long awaited ribbon cutting and grand opening Monday, August 4, of El Río, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, making its first stop at The University of Texas-Pan American. Given the ribbon cutting honors were some of the local residents featured in the vignettes depicting life along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo basin - ranchers David and Omar Champion, United Farm Workers leader Juanita Valdez Cox and Projecto Axteca Director David Arizmendi.
"We are proud to host this cultural exhibit that pays tribute to the contributions this area - the Valley and its people - have made to the culture and history of this great nation," said UTPA president Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez.
For Cultural Scholar and UTPA history lecturer Juanita Garza, this day had been seven years in the making. Garza, inspired by her passion for history and her involvement in the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., worked on the collaboration and research of the El Río project.
"It's exciting finally getting students, the community in here to experience part of the culture and heritage of the United States. It's (El Río) about the contributions of so many people and the many achievements of our nation," Garza said.
Among the South Texas contributions featured and honored are shrimping, farmworking and ranching. David Champion, who comes from a long line of ranchers, was one of the "community scholars" who helped curators come up with an actual portrayal of one of the area's oldest businesses.
Arizmendi of Project Azteca, an arm of the United Farm Workers union that helps low income people own homes through volunteer and self development efforts, was particularly impressed with the authenticity captured in the exhibit.
"Basically they took who we were and who we are - none of it manufactured - like the eagle is a replica of what's on our walls. They did a great job in capturing the essence of what Projecto Azteca is about."
Garza also wants to encourage families to bring their children and schools to bring their students to the exhibit. "Families can bring their children so they can see some of our traditions that are slowly disappearing in an industrialized and technical world," she said.
Arizmendi says the exhibit not only teaches history but instills pride as well.
"We need to bring our children to this exhibit to see this is who we are and isn't this great?"
El Río is being housed on the third floor of the Science Building on the UTPA campus and will be on display through December 13. A smaller part of the exhibit can be seen at the Visitor's Center. El Río is free and open to the public. For more information on group tours, campus parking or for special accommodations call 956/381-UTPA.
An estimated 500,000 people walked through El Río exhibit during its six month run at the nation's museum in Washington D.C. Ultimately, it will travel to six major cities in Colorado, New Mexico and Mexico over the next five years.