What started out as an idea among friends 65 years ago has transformed into an international event, drawing the interest of travelers far and wide and even earning recognition as one of the top 100 events in North America. National Geographic published a feature story on this unique international celebration on the United States’ southernmost city and its neighbors across the border.
Yet, the festival has never lost its hometown flavor. Today, marching in a parade is a childhood memory cherished by most adults, and watching the floats and marching bands delight new generation of children of all ages. Mothers still sew their children’s outfits for the big week in late February and fathers still paint mustaches on their boys for the celebration honoring the traditional and romantic life of the Mexican cowboy.
Although the actual Charro Days celebration is traced to a gathering of the Pan American Round Table civic club in Brownsville in 1937, its antecedents go back much farther, 110 years to be exact. That’s when merchants in bustling Matamoros, Mexico, Brownsville’s sister city, hearing of American settlers in Texas near the Nueces River, loaded up their wares and dressed up in their traditional costumes to visit and do business.
There, the groups met and shared the first bi-cultural celebration on record. And although only 75 to 100 merchants participated in that first event, the seeds were planted for the eventual celebration which has now become Charro Days.
Unfortunately, war broke out between Mexico and the fledgling Texas Republic and the event became a memory for the residents of both sides. In 1937, as Brownsville merchants staggered by the blow of the Depression, members of the Pan American Round Table decided to fight adversity with, what else, a fiesta!
”Here are two nations represented by Brownsville and Matamoros,” said Brownsville businessman Kenneth Faxon, offering the same solution their Mexican counterparts had tried before. He suggested that the town dress up in traditional Mexican costumes and play Mexican music.
”Let’s have a fiesta and tell others what we have to offer,” Said Faxon, who is credited as the founder of Charro Days.
Those first Charro Days scenes take you back to the newsreels of yore, with horse-drawn, hand-made floats. Then there are the charros and china poblanas– women wearing traditional colorful Mexican dresses– on horseback, store window decorations, fireworks, a carnival, Triple L dances at the country club, a costumed street dance, a Teen Age Grand Ball, and, of course, the costumed Grand Ball.
One can’t forget that the birth of Charro Days coincided with the Big Band era. In 1939, the Ran Wilde Orchestra swung for the dancers at the Grand Ball, followed in consecutive years by the likes of the Eddie Fitzpatrick Orchestra, Johnny Randolph’s Band, Fray Harness, Pepe Sandoval, the Aguilar Group, Xavier Cugat, and Desi Arnaz.
And who can forget the years when Tito Guizar, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”, Skinnay Ennis, Mike Ornales and his Orchestra, the Falcon Recording Orchestra, Tex Benneke’s Orchestra, Dorsey’s Band, Freddy Martin’s Coconut Grove Orchestra, Les Elegart and his Orchestra, Shep Fields, Ralph Martiere, came to Brownsville to join its celebration with Matamoros, its sister city?
Yet, in spite of its nationwide appeal for talent, Brownsville’s own singing legend, Chelo Silva, made her debut and triumph during the first Charro Days accompanied by Orquesta Tipica Mexicana’s leader and Brownsville’s own Vincent Crixell.
In time, what started out as a celebration of the friendship between twocities blossomed into an event which drew generals, politicians, celebrities, and statesmen from throughout the hemisphere.
Nowadays, a tradition started by Texas Gov. Price Daniel and Tamaulipas Gov. Norberto Trevino Zapata in 1962 still continues, with a host of other dignitaries ready to take their place should one or the other not be able to attend. Military marching bands from both countries still continue the tradition started during the original holiday, when Mexico City’s Banda Artilleria marched down Elizabeth Street, Brownsville’s main street.
As if to recognize the area’s history– the first shots in the Mexican-American war were fired just north of Brownsville’s city limits– delegations from both cities join hands across the Rio Grande in a reversal of the first encounter of both cultures. Flowers of friendship are then tossed into the river to be carried into the nearby waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Although it may be hard to believe in today’s climate and changing relationships between governments, the U.S. border in 1954 was open, meaning no immigration restrictions, for residents of Mexico to enter Brownsville and join in the fun. Marimbas, mariachis, and norteno-music bands wandered down Brownsville streets and played their music to the delight of the celebrants. In 1961, a special radio show broadcast the fiesta live and the world heard the festive sounds of Charro Days.
During this time, the Mr. Amigo organization was formed and it now holds concurrent events as it honors a personality or a statesman from Mexico who has contributed to the relationship between both countries. The events of the organization are woven around the fabric of friendship formed by the Charro Days celebration.
And more recently, SombreroFest, an organization which takes over Washington Park in the city’s heart and transforms it into a carnival-like atmosphere with musical groups and fun contests, has also stood on the foundation built by Charro Days.
Through wars and conflicts, Depression and a changing economic and political climate, Charro Days has managed to persevere and live up to the edict of its founders. Cosmopolitan, yet down home, it remains a festival that celebrates the people, their cultures, and their unique geographic location between two nations. It has never strayed from that simple, yet elegant mission: “Let us tell people what we have and let us continue to be good neighbors.”