Texas Border Business
By Roberto Hugo González
Recently, I engaged in a captivating dialogue with Elva M. Cerda, Founder and Executive Director of the McAllen Heritage Center (MHC). Mrs. Cerda eloquently relayed the museum’s history, highlighting its trials, triumphs, and the promising future that lies ahead. A milestone of particular importance was the celebration of MHC’s 15th anniversary which took place on June 16, 2023. The event was commemorated with great fanfare, attended by well-regarded guests, and dedicated citizens, all united by their shared passion for preserving McAllen’s rich history.
Located in the heart of historic McAllen, Texas, in the historic former post office building, the MHC has a profound mission of preserving and exhibiting artifacts, works of art, records, and writings of historical, cultural, and traditional value. Its goal is not only to protect but also to share these customs that enrich the community life of McAllen. A focus lies in educating the public, particularly the younger generations, about the region’s inherited values.
Despite the significant challenges over the past 15 years, the MHC has stood firm, driven by its mission. The initial years were marked by financial constraints, but thanks to careful planning, the museum found a way to maintain operations and build a sustainable future. Staffing was another challenge, given the specialized responsibilities, but the museum overcame this through volunteer involvement and dedicated recruitment.
Dr. Fred Farias, a local optometrist, and a loyal supporter of preserving the community’s heritage, has always harbored a deep appreciation for the history and culture of his city. He believes that understanding and preserving our heritage is an integral part of fostering a strong sense of community. For him, visiting the Heritage Center is a journey back in time, a chance to witness the evolution of McAllen from the early 1900s to the present day. As a former student of McAllen high school, he expressed delight in exploring the school’s history through various exhibits in the museum.
According to Cerda, numerous exhibits and events have imprinted memorable marks in the museum’s history. The early “La Estrella bakery” exhibit drew an overwhelming crowd, necessitating an extra presentation. The exhibit opening honoring local World War II hero Fernando Resendez was another highlight, garnering local media attention. Other notable exhibits include the Booker T. Washington exhibit, the Johnny’s Mexican Restaurant exhibit, and the Country Roland exhibit, each telling a unique story of McAllen’s heritage.
“We are so grateful to our McAllen Heritage Center for collecting, maintaining and sharing the rich and storied history of our great city of McAllen with residents and visitors alike,” said McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, P.E. “The artifacts, photos, and other memorabilia show the growth and spirit of McAllen and to have all of that preserved and displayed by the McAllen Heritage Center, for everyone to learn from and enjoy is a beautiful gift for our community.” Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, McAllen City Manager
Julianne Rankin, the former city planner for McAllen, worked for 38 years before retiring in 2019. She has always been an integral part of the city’s development and was part of the city when the museum was conceived and brought to life. Rankin recollects the challenges faced during the initial phases of setting up the museum. She credits individuals like Elva Cerda, Dr. Nedra Kinerk, and Rick De Julio from Futuro McAllen, a non-profit group dedicated to improving the quality of life in McAllen, for advocating the importance of recognizing and preserving historical sites.
“Balancing budget constraints and conducting fundraising efforts has been a critical aspect of the museum’s operations,” she stated. Cerda’s extensive experience as a former commercial banker has been instrumental in navigating these challenges. Through prudent financial planning, identifying potential revenue sources, and managing expenses, the museum has been able to gradually expand its budget and improve its exposure. The generous endowment by the McAllen Federations of Women’s Clubs also contributed to the museum’s financial stability.
Cerda said, “Fundraising strategies evolved over the years, with the City of McAllen and the MHC’s board of directors playing crucial roles. The Chuckwagon Dinner event has grown significantly over the years, evolving into a strong partnership with the Macaroni Grill Restaurant of McAllen. The museum store’s merchandise sales and various grants also added to the revenue sources. To make museum visits more accessible, no admittance fee is charged, although door donations are gratefully accepted.”
She highlighted that the efforts to ensure accessibility and engagement for McAllen’s diverse population have been paramount. Cerda said., “Not charging entry fees or fees for special presentations and activities has facilitated more visitors. Partnerships with various organizations have also allowed for diverse and rotating special exhibits, making the museum a dynamic cultural hub.”
Tony Aguirre, a McAllen City Commissioner, remarked on the significance and future plans for this cultural cornerstone. Aguirre expressed his immense pride in the museum, a place that deeply resonates with the history, aspirations, and achievements of McAllen’s citizens. “This museum touches the lives of many people for various things, some in education, some in talent, of singing, of music, some that volunteered and went to war,” he shared.
Cerda is one of the local founders of the museum, and she noted that preservation projects remain at the heart of MHC’s work. “Currently, the museum is working on adding two more decades to the city’s chronological exhibit and expanding the McAllen postcards exhibit, which presents a visual journey of the city’s past in postcard format.”
Mike Blum who is a long-standing public servant and community figure, attended the McAllen Heritage Center’s 15th Anniversary celebration. He lauded the establishment as a “spectacular exhibit of the history of McAllen” and admired its transformation from a post office to a public space.
Cerda’s account shed light on the immense effort that goes into maintaining a repository of regional heritage like the McAllen Heritage Center. With its rich past, significant accomplishments, and promising future, the MHC stands as a testament to the vibrant history and culture of McAllen, Texas.
Hitting the 15-year mark is a momentous achievement for a museum like the McAllen Heritage Center (MHC). This signifies not just continued community engagement and financial stability, but also an ability to evolve and grow over time. The decision to expand and add to the museum speaks volumes about their commitment to their mission.
According to Cerda, the inspiration for the expansion and addition came from a simple yet critical need: “We are simply out of room and need expansion to provide for the further development and future of the museum’s ability to serve our community.” Cerda elaborates that the annex to the museum will address a number of pressing needs. Key among these is storage of collection items, a new and improved presentation room equipped with modern technology, a new gallery for additional exhibits, a large workspace for exhibit development and production, and a fireproof vault to safeguard certain items in the collection. Cerda expressed her excitement for the new exhibits that the additional gallery space will accommodate. This will include not only tangible exhibits but also an upgraded facility for video and live presentations, ensuring visitors have an enriched experience.
The community has always been a significant driving force for the MHC. Their support, evident since the museum’s inception and further demonstrated at the 100-year anniversary celebrations in 2004, influenced the decision to establish a dedicated history museum. Community feedback continues to shape the design and focus of the expansion.
Mrs. Cerda shared how the lessons from the past 15 years have guided the expansion plans. They have learned to use space efficiently and have devoted significant time to organizing their collection. This knowledge will be carried forward into the care of the new facilities to ensure a successful future.
In terms of the museum’s ongoing outreach and educational programs, Mrs. Cerda assured that the museum will remain open during the construction phase and continue to operate seamlessly. A brief closure will only occur when transitioning into the new facility upon its completion.
The financial aspect of this ambitious project is also well thought out. The museum plans to partner with the City of McAllen, seek appropriate grants for funding, and launch a capital campaign very soon. This campaign will involve outreach to corporate and community members, thereby offering an opportunity for community members to contribute.
On the timeline front, Mrs. Cerda anticipates a two-year period for the expansion’s completion, although this is subject to change based on potential unforeseen circumstances during the construction phase.
The MHC is also determined to preserve the building’s historical significance. As Cerda notes, “the exterior facade of the building will remain the same architectural design with respect to the historical elevation of this project.”
Reflecting on the significance of this 15-year milestone and the forthcoming expansion, Mrs. Cerda shares a hopeful vision for the future: “We have so much more to accomplish, however, reaching this milestone and looking ahead to an important expansion is exciting for MHC as we will now be able to expand our services to the community. This milestone has created the opportunity to allow us to look to the future with positivity and creativity.”
In essence, the MHC’s 15-year journey is one marked by resilience, growth, and an unwavering commitment to its mission. With the upcoming expansion, the museum is set to steer in a new era, expanding its services and offerings to the community while preserving its historical roots.