McALLEN — Rafael Gomez lugged 500 kilograms of peanuts, lima beans and other goods native to Central Mexico’s Aguascalientes. Colleen Bridger detailed the surprising surge of Central African migrants arriving in San Antonio, in a conversation hosted by Texas’ largest magazine. Steve Ahlenius couldn’t believe the 800 people embarking on a nighttime 5K, with most runners glowing in the dark.

Runners prepair for the MXLAN neon lights 5K at the McAllen Convention Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Aside from the national conversation focusing on McAllen for immigration issues, the city Wednesday was interested in a different conversation. It was one mostly about funnel cakes and music, artisanal goods and tacos, wardrobes and hot dogs. There were hundreds of people watching a Oaxacan dance show, and even more people exploring rows of vendors at the McAllen Convention Center on Wednesday night.

A five-day event called MXLAN, it was McAllen’s latest attempt to avert attention from national immigration rhetoric stoked in Washington, and instead to focus on the bicultural makeup of the United States-Mexico border.

“It’s going to be a great showcase for why we appreciate being on the border, and all the great things the border has to offer,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said.

Most people in attendance were with friends and family, and conversations about the issues McAllen was hoping to set aside were not as prevalent. The inaugural event is the largest effort by the city to build a destination-style event in more than five years, when McAllen first attempted a large holiday parade.

The city made some mistakes early on with the holiday parade, such as losing more than $750,000 on one early parade and withholding a contract with singer Enrique Iglesias, which was paid with public funds.

But city officials acknowledged lessons learned from that misstep: “We won’t act as our own promoter again,” Darling said at the time. Now, the parade is going on its sixth installment this coming December. The annual parade draws more than 200,000 people annually, the city has reported.

The city has tried to draw people to the parade from across South Texas and even from the larger cities across the state, as well as from Monterrey and across Mexico, where the parade is broadcast live. When those visitors come for the parade, city officials have been bullish about money infusing the McAllen economy. There’s a similar hope with MXLAN.

Steve Ramos, right, prepares for the MXLAN neon lights 5K at the McAllen Convention Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, which is running MXLAN, told city commissioners earlier this year that he hopes all of the more than 3,000 hotel rooms across the city are filled this weekend. Ahlenius and his colleagues also traveled to Oaxaca, the Mexican state this inaugural festival seeks to celebrate, to boost collaboration between McAllen and Oaxaca.

“It’s a cultural celebration and a multi-generational celebration,” Ahlenius said Wednesday night. “And, of course, we want people to stay and enjoy McAllen.”

The difference between the holiday parade and MXLAN is that the chamber of commerce is in charge of MXLAN. With a roughly $400,000 budget, including a $65,000 contribution from the city, Ahlenius said sponsors have helped fund the event, too.

But the opening day could not avoid a wide ranging discussion about immigration. Hosted by Texas Monthly, a panel of four — including Charles C. Foster, a former immigration advisor to both Republican and Democratic presidents; Colleen Bridger, an assistant city manager of San Antonio; Eddie Aldrete, chairman of the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition and an IBC Bank executive; and Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, moderated by Carlos Sanchez of Texas Monthly — dug into the nuances of migration.

“We have helped over 160,000 people in McAllen, Texas,” Pimentel said of the last five years providing aid to asylum-seeking migrants in McAllen. “We think that we’re not only restoring their humanity, we’re preserving our own humanity in the process.”

Partisipates prepare for the MXLAN neon lights 5K at the McAllen Convention Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)