In a time of strained border politics over immigration issues, there is a 70 year old festival that looks beyond the physical borders of two nations and unites the cultures and peoples of both Texas and Mexico.
February 18 -25 Charro Days and it's sister-celebration, The Sombrero Festival, get underway in the sister cities of Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, signifying the unity of two cultures in two nations. This bicultural event has thrilled and entertained locals and visitors since its inception in 1937.
While most Americans think of February as the month for Mardi Gras and Carnival, South Texans and Mexican Nationals know it is time for a huge cultural party - Mexico/South Texas Style. While jazz is king in Louisiana and samba reigns supreme in Brazil, neither can match the sheer diversity and variety of music and bicultural ambiance of a Charro Days week and Sombrero Festival weekend, bubbling with the festive sounds of traditional Mariachis, modern-day Tejano, and the myriad regional Mexican dances featuring fantastic costumes and grand parades.
It may have all started in the early 1800s when merchants in bustling Matamoros, Mexico, Brownsville's sister city, hearing of American settlers in Texas near the Nuecess River, loaded up their wares and dressed up in their traditional costumes to visit and establish commerce. There the groups met and shared the first bicultural celebration on record.
While that earlier version of a two city, two nation celebration faded with time, a group of Brownsville businessman brought the idea back to life as the Great Depression was beginning to wind down, an effort to bolster business after years of depressed economic times.
At one time, Matamoros - the larger and older city of the two - was the jewel on the Mexican upper Gulf Coast; a center for shipping trade and commerce across the border to the United States, so it was that Matamoros stood to gain the most from the event. Things changed with the coming of the 20th century and Brownsville became a major economic center of its own.
Though some things may have changed through the years the heart of the celebration has not, and in 1937 the Pan American Round Table civic club in Brownsville took the unorganized celebration to a new level. Ever since then it has been marked by grand 'across-the-border' parades that start in one city and travel gloriously across the international bridge to the other.
Today, Brownsville and Matamoros maintain close ties as trading partners and centers for the transportation of goods and imports traveling in both directions across the international border. It is because of this strong relationship perhaps that no place else has captured the charm of two cultures with such perfection as in the sister cities.
The annual Charro Days/Sombrero Fest celebration is actually a Fiesta of grand proportion; a celebration of the shared cultures of the unique Rio Grande Valley region.
While Charro Days events take place in both cities all week long and is the older festival, The Sombrero Festival is a weekend event and takes place on the Texas side of the Border, in Brownsville. Sombrero Fest was founded in 1986 and was created to fan the waning interest in Charro Days by bringing an even more diverse array of music concerts, fun festival events and attractions that would bring a broader audience to the festival.
It worked, and each year festival attendance continues to grow. The festival takes places in Dean Porter Park in Brownsville. The area is fenced and secured and is family oriented, adding to it's popularity.
Both festivals feature a full itinerary of activities. Charro Days highlights include music festivals, food fairs, Mariachi competitions, dance exhibits, art exhibits, cultural celebrations, golf tournaments, special religious services, abundant parades - an out-and-out community celebration.
Popular Sombrero Festival events include the illuminated night parade, the Jalapeno Eating Contest, Waiter’s Race, Charro Days Classic Marathon, Tortilla Frisbee Toss, Hat-Stack Relay, The Grito Contest and the only charra bean cookoff in the world -- the Frijolympics.
If you're looking to enjoy the full culture partnership between Texas and Mexico and wish to celebrate in the warm tropical clime of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a visit to Charro Days and The Sombrero Festival this year would be the perfect remedy for your need of culture, great food and fun music.