By Herb Moering
Neither the early weather threat of rain nor cartel concerns seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of Winter Texans for the 47th Tourist Day 2023 in Nuevo Progreso on March 21. An estimated 8,000 people crossed the border for the annual local merchant’s appreciation day.
Darris and Judy Hable, from Aladdin Villas Subdivision in Mission, reigned as king and queen over Tourist Day. The couple, who spend part of their summers in Minnesota in addition to traveling, had breakfast in the Bridge Authority building before joining the American delegation on a walk to meet a delegation of Mexican officials at the center of the Progreso bridge.
Joining them were Mr. Tourist 2023 USA, Weslaco Mayor David Suarez, and Mr. Tourist 2023 Mexico, the musical group Nortenos De Rio Bravo. It was Rio Bravo, Mexico officials who chose those to be honored as they joined other Mexican officials on the main stage following the brief ceremony and stroll on the bridge.
Once the dignitaries left the stage, the entertainment took over with groups of young and adults, featuring the Mexican flavor. A high school band with flag and baton twirlers also put on a show. Up and down the main street there was more entertainment and merchants had small gifts to give visitors.
The Hables were invited to be this year’s king and queen partly for their volunteer work of several years at Mabel’s Children’s Refuge, which raises funds to provide scholarships for needy students in Nuevo Progreso so they can continue their education at the middle school and on up to the university graduate level. The organization also donates school supplies and computers, plus food, clothes, household items and toys. In addition, the Mabel’s helpers from various places in the U.S. sponsor medical and dental care in Progreso.
After coming to the Valley in 2004, the Hables had been active as entertainment directors in a couple of RV parks, first for five years at Paradise Park in Pharr and then for four years at their present park, Aladdin Villas. For 10 years they were Entertainers Showcase volunteers, which brings show people together with RV park activity directors for entertainment bookings.
Near the bridge walkway to Progreso a quartet of Pharr Nomad Shrine Club members were seeking donations for hospital care for children. The Shriners included Rey Campos, from Elsa, Randy Gathje, from Mercedes, and Fred Cano and Jim Fox, both from McAllen.
Before crossing, a number of Winter Texans stopped to have their photo taken in the “picture frame.” Three couples who took the time for a photo were Jim and Betty Christensen and John and Vicki Serna, all, from Minnesota, and Wayne and Donna Goodwin from Wisconsin. The Goodwins, who stay at Fig Tree RV Resort in Harlingen, have been coming to the Valley for 19 years, while the Sernas, who stay in the same park, have been here 15 years. Their friends, the Christensens, have been at Ranchero Village in Weslaco for 10 years. They were all looking forward to enjoying Tourist Day. And they are in agreement that what makes the Valley attractive to come to is the weather, the activities, and the people they meet.
Many heading for the border took time to visit the new tourist shop that is located in the Bridge Authority’s newly remodeled building on the west side of the walkway, where Tourist Day T-shirts were among the popular items for sale.
The shop is part of the upgrading to the international structure, which is one of only three privately-owned bridges in the U.S. The other two are in Rio Grande City and Detroit, MI. The bridge along with the buildings rented by the federal government’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to process visitors, is owned by Samuel Robert Sparks Jr. and his two sisters, Elizabeth Johnson and Karen Gunter.
The siblings inherited it eight years ago when their father died. He had bought what was a somewhat rickety old two-lane bridge in 1980. The bridge has been improved to its present four-lane concrete bridge size along with an additional truck lane.
In 2022 a total of 1,092,749 pedestrians came across the bridge to see dentists and doctors, shop for curios, buy medicine, and enjoy the foods, according to Marga Lopez, bridge authority director. Another 505,815 automobiles with an average of two people crossed over last year, which would mean another million visitors, or a total of over two million, a large share of them Winter Texans.
In addition, commercial truck traffic accounted for 55,000 crossings as one of the main routes for Valley exports of corn, grain, and rice into Mexico. But for Winter Texans they get to enjoy the imports from down south of oranges, grapefruit, other citrus, avocados, dates, figs, pineapples, strawberries, and a variety of vegetables.