San Benito’s conjunto museum’s new venue expected to draw visitors

SAN BENITO — For decades, empty storefronts lined stretches of Robertson Street, from the majestic San Benito Bank and Trust building’s golden domes to the winding resaca.

Along the resaca’s banks, the iconic Aztec Building stood forgotten, its rooftop peeled of the dance floor where orchestras played under a huge shell during the city’s heyday.

Then about 17 years ago, businessman Miguel Diaz re-opened the famed La Villita dance hall, drawing fans from across the Rio Grande Valley to the sounds of conjunto’s biggest bands.

Along the street, shop owners like Iris Garcia pushed for the area’s revitalization while the city launched Market Days three years ago.

Now, the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum is moving into the Aztec Building’s first floor, as founder Rey Avila’s children nurture his dream three years after he died in the town he called “the home of conjunto music.”

“It’s happening,” Garcia, owner of The Shop with a Little Bit of Everything, said. “It’s going to connect the museum with La Villita. This is what we’ve been working for — to revitalize Robertson Street. The area has so much potential.”


For nearly 100 years, the Aztec Building has stood as a city landmark.

In about three months, Patricia and Peter Avila, Avila’s children, are re-opening the museum after moving from the city’s Community Building, where their father debuted his exhibits in 2007.

“We’re like an anchor,” Patricia Avila, a school teacher, said. “It’s going to be a positive thing for Robertson Street.”

Now, they are planning to expand the museum’s displays to include artifacts passed down from the legendary Ideal Recording Studio, where Narciso Martinez, the master accordionist from La Paloma, pioneered conjunto’s classics before the studio closed about 60 years ago.

“We want to make it a world-class museum to preserve and promote conjunto music and its history,” Peter Avila, a county appraiser, said. “We want to take them back to where it all started. The bedrock was here in San Benito.”

As the Avilas draft their business plan, they are working with Mauricio Diaz, Diaz’s son, to help the museum and La Villita draw tourists to the area.

“We’d like to form a camaraderie to make Robertson Street come alive,” Patricia Avila said. “We’d like to invite his visitors to our museum to learn more about the history of conjunto music.”

During Market Days, the Avilas are planning to open the museum to draw fans while staging outdoor conjunto shows.

“We want to show the people conjunto is alive and the museum is open,” Peter Avila said.

Like La Villita, the famous La Especial bakery, where the Ornelas family has passed down its home-made recipes for generations, draws customers from across the Valley.

“The traffic is already here,” Patricia Avila said.

A view of the historic Aztec Building in San Benito on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, which will be the future home of the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)


To make way for the museum, the city spent $35,000 to renovate the Aztec Building’s first floor, spokesman David Favila stated.

Earlier this month, city commissioners entered into an agreement opening the city-owned building’s first floor to the museum.

Built around 1930, some say in the shape of a ship pointing canons, the Aztec Building housed the city’s offices and its chamber of commerce.

Through the years, its first floor became home to the Sobre Las Olas Mexican restaurant, whose lavish setting featured an atrium and aquarium.

In the 1940s, San Benito High School held dances on the building’s rooftop while orchestras played under a huge shell overlooking the resaca, Enriqueta Ramos, 90, a retired university professor, said as she remembered her sister Maria walking to her senior prom’s dance.

“Every time I go by I relive those wonderful days,” she said. “We lived a couple of blocks away and we could hear the music from the top. All the eventful dances were held there. They were all formal dances. I dreamed about going up there to dance someday.”

During World War II, the United Services Organizations moved into the building’s first floor, holding dances for the area’s soldiers on the rooftop, Ramos said.

“The GIs would come on furlough to dance,” she said. “There were people coming from all over the Valley for the dances.”

At La Villita, Mauricio Diaz is asking the Avilas to sell tickets to his Saturday night dances.

“We will be a ticket outlet,” Patricia Avila said. “That will promote traffic to our museum.”

On Saturday nights, the dance hall stages bands like Los Tejano Boys, drawing as many as 300 fans from across the Valley, Diaz said.

“Most of the time it’s traditional conjunto,” he said.

Soon, he said, Robertson Street will be offering fans full days of conjunto music.

“I’m glad they’re going to open on Robertson Street,” Diaz said, referring to the museum. “I look forward to collaborating with them. We cater to the same customer. They love conjunto music. When someone comes from out of town, they have a whole day here. The museum will open during the day and we open at night for the dances.”

A view of the historic La Villita Dance Hall in San Benito, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)


Now, the Diaz family is planning to apply for a state historical marker.

In the 1940s, businessman Fernando Sanchez opened a wide-open dance floor that led to a stage.

Soon, he was building walls around the dance floor to stop fans from sneaking in.

In the 1980s, Sanchez’s death led the dance hall to close.

Inside, the Diaz family has worked to keep La Villita close to its original condition.

Throughout the building, thick plaster hides the dance hall’s concrete-block shell.

At the end of a long narrow hallway, the dance floor opens, with lounge areas on each side. Near the stage, ceramic tiles of green, red and yellow form the image of La Virgin de Guadalupe.

To the left of the stage, long railroad ties run across the top of the lounge.

In 2005, Miguel Diaz re-opened the dance hall.

“It’s a family-oriented business. We cater to families,” Mauricio Diaz said. “Some of our customers met here when they were teenagers, they got married and now they’re grandparents and they want to share their experience with their grandchildren.”