EDINBURG—- Rio Grande Valley youth could walk away with a stronger connection to their culture, community and identity through a student-led festival emphasizing dialogue and thought-provoking questions.
The third South Texas Ideas Festival, or STXi, encompassed these concepts for teenagers and young adults to spread, take action and have pride in the Rio Grande Valley. High school students run the program, facilitating speakers, activities and topics to ensure the festival ran smoothly on Saturday in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Library Auditorium.
The festival began in 2017, with concerns over the lack youth in civic engagement and desire to stay in the Valley. IDEA Quest college counselor Marcos Silva along with Michael Mireles, a former IDEA Quest student and co-founder of the nonprofit, made this possible to start conversations about experiences, with an emphasis on the Rio Grande Valley.
Mireles grew up in Mission and currently attends Brown University but returned to the Valley to witness how the project he helped start continued after his departure.
“I think the biggest thing for me, the first year that I left (for) university is my hopes was that this be something that would continue because people wanted it to continue, regardless of my presence,” Mireles said. “The fact that it (is in its) third year and it’s still happening… it shows me that it is something people care about.”
With an emphasis on student leadership, Silva said he hopes the students take the conversations from Saturday as a starting point and to expand their passion. Rather than a “career-fair style,” the festival could move toward a “dialogue,” Silva said.
“If they can run this festival on their own, then they can do it without me then they can organize other things that can impact the community….” Silva said. “I’m excited to see kids stand up and take those leadership roles.”
Teenagers and young adults from La Joya to Brownsville gathered to share their experiences.
In the first year, upward of about 15 speakers from the Valley participated in the festival. This year had diversification and students input in what mattered to them and their community, Silva said. Having a purpose in life or what their favorite Valley food became topics of “start a platica,” or a conversation.
Speakers included Nolan Navarro who is a Brownsville native, actor J.M. Longoria and Texas Tech law professor Jorge Ramirez, who has roots in McAllen. Through the lens of the Valley, speakers dealt with the struggles of masculinity and femininity, a person containing “hyphens” or multiple identities one takes on and the importance of family in an area rich with history and the uniqueness of a person.
Empowering individuals will make make society as a whole stronger, Ramirez said.
“They don’t have to be afraid of being themselves,” Ramirez said after his presentation.
High school students acted as volunteers toward initiatives in organizing the festival through hosting speakers, facilitating games and overseeing photobooths.
Some students were surprised by the topics chosen, as they were not cookie-cutter motivational speeches.
“It was a lot more than that, it was like mental health; it was talking about accept who you are in a different aspect compared to the Valley,” exercise science for physical therapy junior, Crystal Garcia said.
In an area with a large Mexican-American presence, some things pertain specifically to the heritage prominent within the Valley.
Some attendees took photos next to an image of a blue background with Monarch butterflies, a species known to migrate to escape cold weather, as a “symbol of migrants,” representing the Valley’s immigrant population, according to one organizer.
Audience members who won raffles took home bags displaying Selena Quintanilla Perez, an Mexican-American icon and singer seen by many as the Queen of Tejano.
Others mingled through a game of Giant Uno cards and bean bag throwing.
“When I started it the first year, I remember that I did it because I felt that people needed a reason to believe that the Valley was great and it wasn’t so much that the reason didn’t exist but rather we kind of (need) to show them,” Mireles said.
“There’s no place like the Valley anywhere else,” he added. “You don’t find this community anywhere else.”