El Río exhibition nears end of successful run on UTPA campus
Posted: 11/18/2003
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El Río - the binational, bilingual traveling Smithsonian exhibition celebrating the cultural heritage along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River - will end its four month stay at The University of Texas-Pan American Dec. 13. The only other Texas exhibition site will be El Paso later next year while the nearest exhibition site in Mexico will be Monterrey, where it will travel to next.

Visitors to the El Río exhibition enjoy one of the hands-on displays depicting the shrimping industry in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to Juanita Garza, UTPA lecturer in history and a key figure in the collaboration and research of the El Río project, the exhibition has garnered overwhelming response.

"By the end of this week (Nov. 15), we will have had approximately 5,000 visitors to El Río," Garza said.

Visitors have attended from 20 states, including Alaska. Besides many visitors from Mexico, there have also been visitors from Chile as well as exchange students from Germany and Azerbaijan. The exhibition has also attracted children in school districts from Roma to Brownsville.

"The reaction in many cases has been emotional - in reminding them where they have been and where they are now. It has given people an affirmation of their culture and a validation of who they are," Garza said. A frequent comment by visitors, said Garza, was "give me more."

The exhibition is centered on three main themes addressing the relationship of culture and environment in the region - traditional knowledge, cultural identity and sustainable development. Among the 17 vignettes or case studies featured among these themes, the most popular has been the Mexican Norteño music area said Garza.

Cultural traditions such as drum making by Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico Native Americans are highlighted in the traveling Smithsonian exhibition housed in the Science Building on the UTPA campus until Dec. 13.
"Music gets to the soul of everything and you don't have to be Hispanic to enjoy it," she said.

Many vignettes, which feature interactive displays and audio and visual features, relied on local residents as "cultural scholars" and highlight other contributions of the area, including shrimping, adobe builders, weavers, South Texas conjunto music and drum and instrument making, among others.

Garza said she has enjoyed seeing the kind of friendships that have emerged among the volunteers and credited great support from the University community - including President Miguel A. Nevárez, UTPA's 75th Anniversary Committee, faculty, students and staff, especially Oscar Villarreal, assistant director of the Physical Plant, who coordinated the construction of the exhibition space in part of a vacant third floor in the Science Building.

Garza, who spent seven years on seeing El Río to fruition, said the exhibition response has made her heart swell.

"It is so fitting for this exhibit to be here at this University at this place and time and to make this community a part of history. It has made visitors feel pride that part of their culture is part of a Smithsonian exhibit," she said.

Cynthia L. Vidaurri, curator for the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C. and co-curator of the El Río exhibition, said it was very appropriate for the traveling exhibit to come to UTPA initially since it was the site of the first field research school for the exhibit.

"It was wonderful to see the exhibit come back to where it was born. As a native of South Texas, myself, it was personally very rewarding to see the faculty, students and staff step up to the plate with the energy and interest required for a successful exhibition," Vidaurri said.

El Río is free and open to the public. Housed on the third floor of the Science Building, the exhibition has a small portion located in the Visitor's Center where visitors should start their tour. The exhibition hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday except Wednesday when it is open until 7 p.m. and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturdays. The exhibition will be closed November 27-29 for the Thanksgiving holiday. For additional information, special accommodations or to arrange a tour call 956/381-UTPA.