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“If We Do Not Know Who We Were, We Don’t Know Who We Are.” – Elva Cerda, McAllen Heritage Center

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By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

As originally published by Texas Border Business newsprint edition February 2020

McAllen Heritage Center has gone through vital and significant renovations to preserve McAllen’s heritage. Elva Cerda, the Managing Director of the McAllen Heritage Center and a founding board member since 2006, has a lot to say about this project that preserves McAllen’s heritage.

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“The center has gone through different renovation phases, and every day it looks better,” she told Texas Border Business.

Few museums have the privilege to be housed in a historic building with construction beginning in 1934 and completed in 1935. “Originally the building served as the federal post office, and later it became one of the McAllen’s departments for the traffic division.” One of the important requirements for this building is that it continues to benefit the community.

The McAllen Heritage Center has been transformed into a place of beauty.  This is due to the diligence and planning of a dedicated board and the support of the City of McAllen.

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Cerda keeps a world map on one of the walls, where visitors can pin their point of origin. Visitors from Amsterdam, Asia, and Europe have left their mark. A significant number of visitors have been from Mexico as well.

The explanation Cerda gives about the foreign visitors is that many of them visit the city for business purposes, some of them dealing with the McAllen Economic Development Corporation office.  Thousands of people have visited the museum interested in the history of this city. Cerda added that some have even come from as far as Iceland. “It’s amazing the people that come. I’ve noticed that they truly value arts and culture in a city. What they look for immediately are the art galleries and the museums. If they’re going to do business here, they want to know about the city’s history because that’s what tells them who we are.”

In 2008, when the museum first opened, they were allocated a little more than half of the building. Cerda said that they put together many historical exhibits about the city that were welcomed by the public.  

“Immediately, we knew we needed more space because we had so many items in our exhibit collection,” Cerda said. She went back to City officials to request more space, and in 2012 the museum took over the entire facility which includes a second floor for exhibit collection storage.

Cerda also pointed out that in June of 2018, they achieved a milestone celebrating their 10th anniversary commemorating their hard work in dedication to the preservation of McAllen history. “Also, we hope to instill in the children a respect and love for our history.” She continued, “Our history is where we are now. We need to honor that because that’s the path to the future.”

Spud Brown serves as a museum historian and is an authority on McAllen history with a specialty in the train depots.  He says that the train Depot built-in 1904 spurred the start of the significant development here with more commerce and that is when the municipality bloomed.  Spud can be found at the museum on Thursdays and he conducts tours that are welcomed.

McAllen was chartered in 1911, and in 1916, the business activity increased in all aspects. The history of McAllen’s inception is all there, in the McAllen Heritage Center.

The museum also highlights icons from the community in a special exhibit entitled “Called to Higher Service” dedicated to impactful McAllenites. For example, Mike Allen, the former McAllen Economic Development president, was one of them.  Country Roland Garcia, a musician, also left a legacy of beautiful music among others.

And what can be said about everyone’s friend Johnny Hatcher? He owned Johnny’s Mexican Food for almost 50 years. The Hatcher family displays a beautiful collection of restaurant menus and other items from the restaurant.

Cerda remembered that some years ago the “La Estrella Bakery” was highlighted.  The Fuentes family gave a presentation about the bakery to standing room only crowds and served their famous Estrellitas pan de polvo.  The family donated many artifacts from their bakery which is an ongoing exhibit at the museum.

“It was meaningful. So, I guess it boils down to the people, the people that have built the city,” she said. The bakery’s building was recently demolished.

The McAllen Heritage Building went through a significant remodeling because, like Cerda says, “No matter how beautiful it is, the building requires ongoing good care and needed repairs.”  The center now has brand new restrooms and a new multi-purpose room that can be used for meetings and also for exhibits during special events.  In addition, a functioning kitchen area, laundry, and storage areas were added or enhanced along with solar screens to improve climate control in certain areas of the building.

Cerda wanted to add something extraordinary to the remodeling project and for beautification of the building interior.  That led her to call her long-term friend, Yoli Cantu.  They met and discussed the creation of a mosaic glass tile mural, which is Yoli’s specialty.  She is the owner of McAllen Stained Glass and an outstanding artist and professional.  Together, they developed the concept and so began the work for the one-of-a-kind mural which includes the former McAllen City seal with beautiful palm trees, the 1904 train Depot, the McAllen Heritage Center building, and the historic Casa de Palmas Hotel.  It is worth making a trip to see it and admire it because it is truly a work of art. There are plans for a second mural later this year which will depict other meaningful city emblems.

Cerda said that she is certainly not the only one with a passion for preserving history or with ancestors that came to McAllen long ago. “We have Spud Brown, our historian, Marilyn DeJulio, widow of Rick DeJulio, a historic preservationist in McAllen whom unfortunately we lost to cancer, and Helen Snider, a member of the McAllen Old-timer’s Club who also passed prior to opening the museum.” Long term board members that worked hard towards the creation of the museum also include Nedra Kinerk, John M. Kreidler, Carmen Vargas De Leon, Martha V. Hinojosa, Gracie Silva, Olga Gabriel, Danny Boultinghouse, Theresa Allen, Dr. Cayetano Barrera, Mike Hovar, Rudy Elizondo, and Piedad Martinez along with many supporters and volunteers. Museum staff members have been integral to the museum operations and long-term front door greeter Lily Hernandez is a familiar face for visitors who enjoy talking with her upon arrival.

Cerda says that many people love the city and want to learn about its past. In discussing educational goals of MHC, she says, “We want our children and students to understand that history is not boring.” She continued, “I feel like we’ve barely touched the surface of what needs to be done. There are so many stories to tell and exhibits to develop which speak of our past.”

In 2004, Cerda was a member of the 2004 Centennial committee that conducted the events including the celebration at Archer Park, where 7,000 people attended. “We had storytellers; we had yearbooks to show and many other attractions. We also held the Centennial Gala at the McAllen Country Club where many attendees were in period costumes.  “After the success of these events, the committee set two goals:  develop a McAllen folklife festival, today known as Fiesta de Palmas/PalmFest now in its 15thyear, and a McAllen history museum, the McAllen Heritage Center, soon to celebrate 12 years in service to the community.”

Cerda and committee members, many of which are noted above, have done an impressive job. Both projects were accomplished, and both serve the residents of McAllen and beyond.  Last year, Fiesta de Palmas/PalmFest enjoyed an estimated 60,000 visitors over the two-day event. The McAllen Heritage Center, with only twenty-one hours of service a week, attracts about 10,000 visitors a year. There are extracurricular activities on behalf of the museum, like attending Expos to promote it, not included in those twenty-one hours.

After all this activity, Cerda said that they will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce for the newly renovated museum on February 20, 2020, at 5:30 pm followed by a festive gathering with refreshments and entertainment for guests.

To finalize, Cerda said, “As well as the wonderful team I always refer to, much credit should be given to McAllen City officials; they believe in preserving McAllen’s heritage by supporting the museum.  Because “if we do not know who we were – we don’t know who we are.”

To find out more about the center visit their website at www.mcallenheritagecenter.com, follow them on Facebook or call the museum at (956) 687-1904.

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