UTRGV celebrating cultural heroes with this year’s FESTIBA

For the most part, Dahlia Guerra said coming up with the theme for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Festival of International Books and Arts, or FESTIBA, has not been too difficult.

When the school’s legacy institutions — the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas-Brownsville — ceased operation to form one Valley-wide school in 2015, that academic year’s theme was about unity. When the university opened its medical school, that year’s theme tied health to the arts.

This year, Guerra, UTRGV’s vice president of public arts, said the theme of “heroes” quickly resonated with FESTIBA organizers, so they went with “Inspiring Communities and Celebrating Cultural Heroes.” The festival will recognize individuals and organizations who have significantly touched, enriched and impacted lives in the Valley, according to the FESTIBA website.

FESTIBA, which begins Monday with events and lectures on the Brownsville and Edinburg campuses, was established in 2006 to promote literacy, culture and arts in the community. Many educational events are tied to the week-long festival. Some pre-FESTIBA events took place this past week.

The festival includes a Librarians and Educators day on Saturday, March 2.

“We stress the value of teachers in our community. I think all of our teachers are heroes because they are making such an impact on our future generations,” Guerra said.

This week’s events include a presentation on the representation of Mexican-Americans in U.S. comic books between the 1950s and 70s. There will also be presentations on the struggle for civil rights in the Valley and on an Underground Railroad that went through South Texas into Mexico during the time of slavery.

Many in the Rio Grande Valley at that time risked their lives and defied the law to help slaves escape into Mexico.

“We had been talking about that exhibit,” Guerra said about the Underground Railroad research. “The idea of heroes just stuck in my mind.”

The university’s Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools (CHAPS) is a part of Gear Up Days during FESTIBA this year. The CHAPS program was formed in part to educate the public about the history of the Valley that many may not know about, including the Underground Railroad in South Texas.

More than 4,000 students from the UTRGV and Region One Gear Up programs attend educational presentations at the university, giving the history program a chance to educate area students about local history.

CHAPS’ documentary film “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom” is also showing during the week. The presentation on the Underground Railroad will be given on Thursday by Roseann Bacha-Garza, who is a faculty member with CHAPS.

Mixed race families trying to escape slavery into Mexico settled along the Rio Grande instead, she said. Slavery was already abolished in Mexico and, if these new Valley settlers felt threatened, they would just cross the river into Mexico.

“With (these families’) sympathies and caring attitudes toward escaped slaves or fugitive slaves, they were an integral part of the Underground Railroad — if that’s what you want to call it — going south,” Bacha-Garza said.

Much has been researched about an Underground Railroad going north but not south. Escaping into Mexico was closer for slaves on plantations in east Texas and in Louisiana.

“That we had that type of activity come through (South Texas), that was really important to U.S. history,” Bacha-Garza said.

For the FESTIBA schedule and more information on the events, lectures and presentations, visit www.utrgv.edu/festiba/.