A year has passed since the dawn of the pandemic forced the abrupt cancellation of community events. But time, knowledge and the growing accessibility of safe vaccines is bringing new hope to organizers, who are slowly bringing back community favorites that have been reimagined in the age of COVID-19.
It started with the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show last month — a scaled-down event open only to the student competitors who were showing the animals they’d spent the previous pandemic year raising.
And the return of events continues in the Mid-Valley — in Weslaco and Mercedes — where the local Chambers of Commerce are eager to bring a sense of normalcy back to their communities while also supporting the local businesses that have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s repercussions.
Businesses have adapted to the myriad changes made in the name of public safety, and so have event organizers.
“We’ve learned a lot, and I think that, in the process, we’ve learned a lot about how to support our small businesses,” said Barbara Garza, president and CEO of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce.
From hosting online seminars for businesses and students, or offering grants to businesses affected by the pandemic, the Weslaco Area Chamber has reinvented how it supports the local community. Now, it’s turning its attention to the return of events, starting with a fan favorite, the Texas Onion Festival.
Garza said pandemic-related safety concerns led the planning committee to come up with a scaled-down version of the event, which features the allium made famous by the road along which it was created — Farm-to-Market Road 1015 and the 1015 onion.
“We actually decided that this year, we would run a smaller event — again just because we want to create smaller gatherings versus these large gatherings that we would have with Onion Fest. So, we created an event that is a mini-Onion Fest that we’re calling La Cebollita,” Garza said.
The event’s new name, meaning “little onion,” is a playful nod to how the pandemic has changed its format.
This year, La Cebollita won’t be held at the spacious city park on the city’s south side. Instead, it’ll be held in downtown Weslaco, near another new feature in the city — The Eatery — a food truck park that allows diners to eat safely, al fresco.
Residents will be able to stroll through downtown, visiting with vendors or doing arts and crafts with their kids. Masks will be required, and all vendors will be required to have hand sanitizer on hand, Garza said.
La Cebollita will take place next Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Downtown will become an important post-pandemic social scene next door in the Queen City, as well. It’s in downtown Mercedes where the Mercedes Chamber of Commerce will host the return of the Texas Street Festival.
“We’ve not done an event since last year. It was cancelled,” said Mercedes Chamber president Fred Gonzalez.
The music festival has been a beloved event for over a decade. For 13 years, officials have turned the city’s downtown into a pedestrian oasis, with vendors lining Texas Avenue, and sound stages set up to showcase talent from musical legends like Elida Reyna and Emilio Navaira.
Though the festival isn’t slated to take place until Labor Day weekend, Gonzalez said planning is already fully underway.
Organizers are hopeful that vaccination rates will be farther along by then, allowing for a full-scale street festival to take place.
“We will make any tweaks or adjustments as needed, let’s say come July, when we’re expected to get to, like we said, herd immunity,” Gonzalez said.
“At this point in time, we are going to go through with how we normally set our event.”
No matter what the event looks like, however, it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser. Gonzalez wouldn’t say who the headlining musician will be, but promised it will be someone long requested by fans.
“I’m just sworn to secrecy right now. I can’t let the cat out of the bag until the contract has been signed,” Gonzalez said with a laugh.
“It’s a big Tejano act. This person’s always been booked years in advance, so he finally, I guess luck of the draw because of the times that we’re in, was available,” he said.
It’s not just the spring and summer events that organizers are planning, though.
Gonzalez said the Mercedes Chamber is looking at hosting a market days in downtown Mercedes every month. And in Weslaco, Garza said plans are already underway for Christmas.
All the proposed events will include COVID-19 safety precautions.
“It’s all for the safety of our community, but we still want to get back to these in-person activities and be able to offer the families and people of our area an opportunity to experience some of these fun events,” Garza said.
“All of us want to get back to some normality, or what the new normality is going to be. And I know the only way it’s going to happen is if we can finally reach that herd immunity,” Gonzalez said.