Local LGBT+ celebration continues to gain popularity

Mother of Pulse nightclub victim Frankie Escalante, Esmeralda Escalante, gets emotional on stage as she talks about her son while Oscar Lopez, founder of STEP, comforts her during the annual Pride in the Park celebration at the McAllen Convention Center on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Strollers carrying infants blended with the heels of drag queens. Pride flags waved in the air, shone freshly painted on faces and acted as capes for many. Churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations filled the vendor stands selling rainbow memorabilia. A couple even got engaged on stage in front of thousands of people.

This year’s Pride in Park attracted all kinds of people and is expecting its biggest crowd yet.

For the first time since its humble beginnings six years ago, the event spread out over two days to accommodate for the massive growth it’s seen. Hector Ruiz, vice-president of the South Texas Equality Project (STEP), said the visibility for this event, and in turn the LGBT+ community, has increased since the event was first founded in 2013.

Drag queen Lushious Massacr poses with fans during the annual Pride in the Park celebration at the McAllen Convention Center on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“Every year we keep growing,” Ruiz said. “I think it’s people coming out of the shadows. Having events like these in public spaces really helps … (the LGBT+ community) know that there’s someone out there for them.”

Ruiz said he’s noticed a much larger crowd of youth attending, which he finds very hopeful.

“That speaks to (how) gender diversity and sexual orientation is much more acceptable in that generation,” said Oscar Lopez, founder of STEP.

Friday’s events included a queer Latinx film festival and workshops about a range of topics, including sensitive issues like surviving sexual assault. Ruiz said organizers decided to make this year’s event two days to allow a better experience for participants.

“People had to pick and choose last year,” Ruiz said. “We wanted to give people the full on experience. (This year), they could do everything if they wanted to.”

With around 80 vendors, Saturday attendees had plenty of opportunities to buy items, sign up for programs or learn about an organization. The stage inside the Convention Center blasted music from local DJs. At about 5 p.m., God’s Echo, a band from Mount Calvary Christian Church, performed worship songs with a message of love and acceptance. Afterward, band member and guitar player Axle Valle proposed to her girlfriend Jo Gonzales, who said yes. The crowd erupted with cheers.

Axle Valle, right, and Jo Gonzalez kiss after after a marriage proposal on stage after playing with the band God’s Echo during the annual Pride in the Park celebration at the McAllen Convention Center on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Valentin Robin, a drag king from Weslaco, said this event helps to normalize the LGBT+ community.

“It didn’t happen overnight and we’re still not fully there yet, but it’s happening,” Robin said. “I see a lot of allies that ask questions and want to know more.”

Robin, a student at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, received a $500 scholarship from the Escalante family. Frank Escalante, a Weslaco native, was one of the 26 victims from the Pulse nightclub shooting three years ago in Orlando, Florida. Esmeralda Escalante, Frank’s mother, held back tears as she thanked everyone for their support on stage while presenting Robin’s award.

James Miramontes, the community mobilization coordinator for Valley AIDS Council, said he’s grateful to help put this event together.

“I’m really honored to be a part of the community doing something for my community,” Miramontes said. “I’ve been with the agency for 10 years, so seeing it grow has been amazing.”

Alain Escamilla, 25, said it was his first time at the event, but he was enjoying himself.

“This is my first year where I feel liberated and happy and I can be myself,” Escamilla said. “We need to make people more aware that… we are loud and we’re going to be free.”

Alain Escamilla poses in front of the back drop during the annual Pride in the Park celebration at the McAllen Convention Center on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Organizers also discussed efforts focused on helping the youth. Lopez spoke on the issue of displaced youth as a result of LGBT members coming out to unaccepting families.

“By empowering them, we created a crisis we didn’t count on,” Lopez said.

Lopez said that STEP will focus on creating a drop-in center first, then a shelter. The focus will be helping homeless LGBT youth and providing resources for them, like applying for social services or receiving psychiatric care.

Organizers also said they want to continue to grow and expand the event. Leaders and participants alike agreed they would love to see a Pride parade in the Valley one day.

Miramontes said his overall experience with Pride in the Park has been phenomenal.

“Pride is loving yourself and knowing you do have a community to back you up,” Miramontes said.