Mobile exhibit gives crash course in RGV civil rights history

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People examine panels and converse at the opening reception of Civil Rights in The Rio Grande Valley on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at the UTRGV Visual Arts Buildings in Edinburg. About 70-90 people attended the opening reception. (Omar E. Zapata | The Monitor)

EDINBURG — The history of progress in the Rio Grande Valley is now on display for all to see and learn.

Hosted by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Center for Mexican American Studies and Nosotrxs Por El Valle, “Civil Rights in the Rio Grande Valley” is a traveling museum exhibit that gives viewers a crash course through a series of panels.

Each panel is packed with a digestible slice of Valley history along with a visual element for onlookers to add an extra experience to historical events.

Panels feature historical events and influential people in the Valley, and are entitled Pharr Riots of 1971, the Starr County Melon Strike, Women of the Valley and Chicanx Student Activism.

In the case of the Pharr riot, many of the city’s Mexican-American residents protested their treatment outside the city’s police department on Feb. 6, 1971. And what began as a protest turned deadly when 100 law enforcement authorities engaged the protesters, ending with 20-year-old Alfonso “Poncho” Loredo Flores being shot and killed by deputy sheriff Robert C. Johnson.

Flores was getting his haircut at the time and stepped outside the barbershop to see what was happening when he was killed.

Johnson was found not guilty of negligent homicide.

Mayor R.S. Bowe and police Chief Alfredo Ramirez resigned shortly after the riot, leading to the election of the city’s first Hispanic mayor, A.C. “Beto” Jaime, in 1972.

Nosotrxs Por El Valle consists of four members who worked over the summer to showcase 10 panels for the exhibit. The four members are Juan Carmona, Donna High School social studies teacher and part-time lecturer at UTRGV; Taylor Seaver De La Fuente, a UTRGV Mexican American graduate student; Larissa Gonzales, a UTRGV communications graduate student; and Nicholle Moreno, a history undergraduate student at UT Austin.

(Left to right) Juan Carmona, Donna High School social studies teacher and part time lecturer at UTRGV, Larissa Gonzales UTRGV communications graduate student , Taylor Seaver De La Fuente UTRGV Mexican American graduate student, Luis H. Zayas, new UTRGV Provost & Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and George Diaz director of UTRGV The Center for Mexican American Students pose in front of the Women of The Rio Grande Valley panel as part of the Civil Rights in the Rio Grande Valley traveling museum exhibit Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at the UTRGV Visual Arts Building Gallery in Edinburg. (Omar E. Zapata | The Monitor)

Carmona said the need for the community’s history to be told and preserved is the reason for the formation of the group and their first project.

“We’re hoping that people can maybe see the Pharr riots or the melon strike (panel) and say ‘I was there’ and we can record an interview with them,” he said. “Because each of those panels has an archive and we want to start putting videos of community members who can talk about these pieces of history and keep it there preserved.”

De La Fuente said another reason for the exhibit is that she noticed local Mexican-American history was not being taught in her undergraduate classes.

“I didn’t feel represented in a lot of the classes,” she said. “I didn’t feel represented as a Chicana and I didn’t see my history being taught. … We wanted this to be reflective of ourselves first … and that’s why there’s such a big emphasis on women and we hope to grow that part a lot. And just our family stories, migrant farm workers, student activism.”

Years of research were put into the archives and the group’s biggest task was to put all the information into panels of about 200 to 300 words for the exhibit. With Gonzales in charge of the graphics and layout, her goal was to make the research digestible for everyone.

“I really wanted it to be something that the community would look at and want to read,” she said. “A lot of times you open a history book and it’s just paragraphs and paragraphs, and you’re like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ … I come from a mass communication background so I took what I knew and used it to the best of my ability.”

The exhibit’s opening reception was held Monday at the UTRGV Visual Arts Building Galley and will stay until Thursday.

Asked how many people were in attendance for the opening reception, De La Fuente used the number of pan dulce purchased as a gauge. With the whole box of 60 pan dulces gone, she estimated about 70 to 90 people were at the opening reception.

Luis H. Zayas, the new UTRGV provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, was one of the attendees and coming from a different part of the country, he said he is not familiar with the Valley’s civil rights history but is quickly learning.

“The exhibit is powerful in the connection to the history of the Valley, especially when it comes to the injustices that were perpetrated,” Zayas said. “And I think this exhibit really provides the kind of information presented in an easy to digest form for anyone really. … history is so important for us to get a sense of identity and belonging, and more of our students and young people need to see this.”

Alison Brobolz, mother of Emil and Vivian Racelis, reads over the Chicanx Student Activism panel Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at the UTRGV Visual Arts Building in Edinburg. (Omar E. Zapata | The Monitor)

Another attendee was Alison Brobolz, who brought her two homeschooled children Emil and Vivian Racelis to give them an opportunity to learn local history and relate it back to their own studies of civil rights at home.

Vivian Racelis said she enjoyed learning from all the panels and understands that many who live in the Valley do not have opportunities to learn about South Texas history.

“I’m really grateful and I really enjoy learning about [local history], especially because I live here,” she said. “It’s where I was born and I feel really happy that I get to learn more about where we live.”

The traveling exhibit’s next location is The Landmark on Tower in Alamo from Oct. 5-8. The group plans to add additional panels and hopes to continue moving the exhibit around the Valley.

“I encourage people to bring their family, their friends, neighbors or everyone and get to know themselves and their families a little bit better and their heritage,” De La Fuente said. “So I hope all these people get to just see themselves represented and it could spark a conversation with themselves or their family and the community.”

For more information on the project and future dates of the traveling exhibit, visit the group’s Instagram, @npev_956.