WIth MXLAN, McAllen Chamber celebrates ‘past, present and future’ with Mexico

Performers from La Fundación de las Culturas Oaxaqueñas in Oaxaca, Mexico, perform at the McAllen Convention Center on Friday, Oct. 12, during a City of McAllen press conference unveiling MXLAN, a 5-day citywide cultural festival taking place July 2018.

McAllen kicks off its inaugural five-day festival this week honoring the Hispanic culture and the city’s historic relationship with Mexico, dubbed MXLAN.

The program will run from Wednesday to Sunday, featuring a Oaxacan street parade, an artisan mercado, Oaxacan dancers, a circus, chess and video game tournaments, different musical stages, luxury culinary and drinking experiences, a neon 5K, a nightly letter burning ceremony and more.

The new event is billed as a “summer music and interactive arts festival celebrating the past, present and future of Mexico’s cultural influence on the world,” according to promotional material.

The fest is modeled somewhat after Austin’s South By Southwest with a mix of free and ticketed events, said McAllen Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Steve Ahlenius.

The destination event is a “calculated risk” hoping to bring families into the city to stay at hotels, eat at restaurants and shop during a traditionally slow time in July, according to Ahlenius.

But will the first-time event with a preliminary price tag of nearly $364,000 pay off?

“Anytime you do a first-year event, you just don’t know,” Ahlenius said.

If convincing corporate sponsors of their vision is any indication of potential success, Ahlenius and MXLAN could be on to something. Corporate and title sponsorships have fetched $160,000 and attracted big names, like Texas Monthly.

Carlos Sanchez, current Texas Monthly senior editor and former Monitor executive editor, said the magazine is looking for ways to increase its presence in the Rio Grande Valley. He’ll soon move to McAllen because the publication’s new leadership “knows the value of boots on the ground” and “hav(ing) geographic diversity,” he said in a phone interview.

“It’s also an indicator that the border — the Rio Grande Valley in particular — (is) at the center of one of the most important stories of our time,” Sanchez said of outlet’s desire to have a presence in the Valley.

As someone who lived here for five years, he understands the frustration locals might have regarding stereotypes people have about the Valley, including “the notion that it’s dangerous (or) that’s it’s being overrun by hordes of illegal immigrants,” he said.

MXLAN presented an opportunity for Texas Monthly to bring a live panel conversation to McAllen to discuss border issues and “not to point out the winners and losers” and “the divisiveness of immigration, but really look for solutions for the current border crisis and lay out the nuance,” Sanchez said.

Ahlenius said a catalyst behind MXLAN, which was a year and a half in the making, was to combat the ongoing political climate.

“Everything going on with conversations about building the wall, tariffs and deporting, there is a lot of angst, … hard feelings and a lot of things stirring the pot,” he said. “We thought it was a really good time to do something like this” and called it a “natural fit for McAllen.”

For Ahlenius, the cooperation between the city and Mexico is an asset to be celebrated. Since the early 20th century, “friendship caravans” have traveled into the southern neighbor to forge bonds, he said.

“I give McAllen a lot of credit for recognizing that they wanted to build, starting back in the 1930s, relationships and drive positive relationships in Mexico,” Ahlenius said, boasting about the city’s 17 sister cities. “Mexico continues to play an extremely vital role in our local economy and the success of a lot of different business.”

MXLAN is taking a risk by mixing particular genres. That “hasn’t been done in the Rio Grande Valley, ever,” Ahlenius said.

The open-air United Music Festival, featuring Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon, Solido, Los Cadetes de Linares, and Sonora Dinamita de Anaidita, is geared toward an older audience, while artists like Omar Apollo on the Breakthrough Stage are an attempt to appeal to “millenials and the gen-Z age group,” Ahlenius said. “We’ve got a lot of different elements to this to try to address different age generations.”

A mix of traditional outlets like print, radio, TV, and also social media were used to advertise the event, for a total cost of $100,000.

Advertisements focused on what Alhenius called the “South Texas Triangle — Corpus Christi, Laredo south and obviously Brownsville and communities outside of McAllen in the Valley,” including northern Tamaulipas.

People in the region have choices, he said, like heading to San Antonio.

“So we want to make a counteroffer …(and) if you look at some of the elements we have in place now, especially restaurants, … I’d put that on par with San Antonio, Austin and even places in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” he said. “It’s really becoming our tipping point.

“We think we have some really good elements in play that we need to promote and really push to get folks to come here.”

The goal is to eventually position MXLAN as the premier Hispanic festival in the country, according to Ahlenius. But this year, their objective is to try to break even.

“I’ve had folks who say ‘You’re going to have these huge crowds,’ and I have folks going, ‘is anyone really going to show up for this?’” Ahlenius said. “I get the gamut as far as crowds and turnout, but we’re hoping for the best.”