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MERCEDES — “There’s nothing better than watching the movies under the stars and under the moon.”
For Hector Garza, who manages the WesMer Drive-In in Mercedes, providing Rio Grande Valley residents the opportunity to watch the newest blockbuster film in that environment harkens back to the classic drive-in experience of yesteryear, one that’s been his joy to preserve for 22 years.
Seeing the drive-in continue to run strong even now in the age of streaming is a testament to the popularity and charm of outdoor theaters.
Although Hector has run WesMer for 22 years this is not his first time working for a theater. In fact, according to Lydia Garza, Hector’s wife of 49 years, it has been part of his life since he was 5-years-old.
He would accompany his mom to her job in a Spanish theater in Raymondville where Hector would later work.
After working in various theaters, the couple went on to lease a Spanish theater in Mission along with purchasing the Border Theatre in downtown Mission.
Twenty-four years later, Hector had reached a point in his life where he thought of retiring and leaving the theater industry but as perhaps fate would have it, the curtains were not set to close on his career just yet.
The WesMer Drive-In theater in Mercedes was suddenly up for leasing — an opportunity Hector could not pass up.
It’s now been 22 years since Hector and Lydia have been leasing the WesMer, and since then they’ve seen the film industry evolve.
Today, the theater industry struggles as people continue to trade the movie-going experience for streaming options across what seems like an ever-growing list of providers.
Box office figures have through the years shown this drop-off, but there are also instances when certain films — “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Barbie,” and “Oppenheimer,” — rake in ticket sales and spur interest in cinema all over again.
Then there’s WesMer, where although not all blockbusters are shown due to the theater’s format, its atmosphere and its place as the only drive-in theater in the Valley and one of the few in all of South Texas have made the drive-in a fun family option over the years.
“He’s always been in the business and it’s changed a lot, but that’s his love, that’s his life, that’s everything for him,” Lydia said of Hector’s commitment to WesMer.
Winter Texans visiting the iconic WesMer Drive-In Friday, July 14, 2023 in Mercedes. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])
ENDURING OVER TIME
According to Lydia, back in the 1950s and 60s drive-ins were not a rarity; in fact, she recalled every town having at least one or two.
Now as WesMer has reached its 73rd year it’s become the last standing drive-in in the area.
“Right now it’s the only one in the Valley,” Lydia said, adding that WesMer is the only drive-in south of New Braunfels.
The COVID-19 pandemic, like everything else, created challenges for WesMer that forced Hector and Lydia to make accommodations.
For instance, they spaced each vehicle 8 feet apart so people would have the comfort to enjoy a movie during the pandemic.
Due to stay-at-home orders, social distancing and then later the anxieties some experienced when going out, the already-attractive option of streaming became the only way to watch movies for many.
“Now with the digital and the streaming and all of these media (platforms) that are available it’s getting harder and harder for the independent theaters to keep going,” Lydia explained.
But they’ve seen something like this before, and as always, cinema overcame new challenges and thrived once again.
Hector believes streaming is creating the same pattern as when the television was first introduced.
Theaters at that time began to see less business because of the excitement surrounding TV, but eventually people grew tired of being at home and returned to the movie theaters.
Whether a global pandemic or the advent of new technology and media, it appears as though Hector’s faith in the movie-going experience has been well-placed.
“My husband and I were very happy to see that the indoor theaters are back in business … that makes us happy because the industry itself … is doing better,” Lydia said. “We hope it continues after our generation, the media of theaters and drive-ins continue.”
Happy to have their fate in their own hands, Lydia said the challenges of running a drive-in isn’t as easy as it seems.
There are many considerations that require thoughtfulness when selecting a film, such as the duration, the studios’ requirements for showing certain movies and the fluctuating profit percentages of each film.
Actually, the majority of WesMer’s profits often come from their concession stand.
And now that it gets darker much later, thanks to daylight saving time, Lydia explained that they’ve had to adjust the time they begin the first showing.
“We have to start a lot later because it has to be dark enough for one to see the screen,” Lydia said, adding that the first film doesn’t start till nearly 9 p.m. every day, pushing the second film until 11 p.m.
The late times haven’t stopped customers, however.
“We’ve had a good summer but it’s not the same as before COVID,” Lydia said, adding that prior to the pandemic the drive-in, which houses up to 350 vehicles, would have a full house every weekend.
Recently they’ve seen about half as many vehicles but Lydia reassured WesMer continues to persevere.
“It’s still good we’re not shutting down or anything,” Lydia reassured jokingly.
It also helps having competitive prices, since the drive-in only charges $10 per vehicle ($5 on Tuesdays). This means that several people can see a movie at WesMer for the price of one admission.
Hector sees the drive-in as a way to service his community by providing them an opportunity to watch blockbuster films at a lower price.
“There’s a joy in seeing the people coming and enjoying the movie as a family, as a group, as a couple,” Lydia said with a smile.
Despite the challenges they’ve faced Lydia and Hector have loved every minute of running the drive-in.
“We’ve seen the parents bringing their little ones and now those little ones are all grown up and they’re starting to bring their kids,” Lydia said, adding that the drive-in has given them the opportunity to see generations of families.
Weslaco resident, Martha Reyes, 44, is among the Valley residents who have been attending WesMer for years. Martha recalled the times she would attend the drive-in with her brother, Catarino Reyes, and their parents.
“It’s always been a tradition,” Martha said with a smile. “I used to come here since I was 10 and I think my parents when they were dating would come here as well, so it’s a family tradition.”
Now the siblings continue the tradition with their own families.
She explained now that they’re older and have their own families and careers it’s difficult to meet up and spend time together.
The drive-in gives them that chance.
“Here you’re not where you have to be quiet or you have people on their phones and they’re blinding you, you’re just out in the open out in nature,” Martha said, who was at the drive-in with her daughter and son, her brother and sister-in-law and their kids.
Her daughter, 17-year-old Francis Castillo, finds the outdoor venue relaxing.
“I think it’s calming,” Francis said.
With the drive-in being their chance to meet up as a family they enjoy watching animated films together, but Martha admitted to enjoying movies with Jason Momoa in it.
The simple things also speak to 29-year-old Monica Flores of Harlingen, who considers WesMer an inexpensive family outing everyone can enjoy.
“One, it’s cheaper. And two, we have the option to bring whatever food; and three, it’s just something different,” Monica said.
WesMer is located at 2090 W. Business 83 in Mercedes and is open daily. You can find movie showtimes at wesmerdrivein.com.