EDINBURG — H-E-B Park hosted its first festival since the pandemic began Saturday evening, making it the only large event center to host a traditional in-person event in Hidalgo County in the last eight months.
H-E-B Park and Bert Ogden Arena, just down the road, have hardly been inactive during the pandemic.
Much of the response to the crises that have faced South Texas have played out in the parking lots of the facilities: blood drives, large scale coronavirus testing efforts, hurricane recovery initiatives.
More recently, the RGV Toros began playing in the stadium again, starting with no fans and traditioning into socially distanced spectating. Last week the facility held a drive-in concert.
Still, spokesperson Shalimar Madrigal said, Saturday’s Carnaval de Calaveras: Dia de los Muertos Festival was an important step back toward the sort of events that are H-E-B Park’s bread and butter.
“It’s a beautiful fresh evening, so it’s wonderful for this,” she said Saturday.
A steady stream of festival goers trickled through the doors after they opened at 7 p.m., stopping to have their temperatures taken before going inside to enjoy themselves.
Inside, there was a Dia de los Muertos altar, a pumpkin patch set up to take Halloween pictures in, candy skulls, pan de muerto and roasted corn being peddled at the concession stand.
In short, everything you would expect at a Rio Grande Valley festival on any Oct. 31.
“It’s such a cultural thing for us to get together and celebrate, any holiday really, but especially Halloween and Dia de los Muertos,” Madrigal said. “We realize that we have this huge facility, it’s an awesome outdoor facility with a capacity of 10,000, so since we made it socially distanced, we can offer that to people to come enjoy as a family in a safe way.”
The steps taken to provide safety stood out, but according to Madrigal, will likely become the norm at in-person events for the near future.
“We’re talking to several promoters, other events that are looking to do something, so we’re showing them all the possibilities that can be done here at our facility,” she said.
The most significant was the capacity of the venue. Madrigal says it was slashed by about a third, from 10,000 to a little over 3,000.
“It took us several months for us to figure out the seating chart, but we sell in groups of two, three, four or six, and we also have a few single seats,” she said. We did that so we can ensure enough distance, in front, behind and to the sides in the stands.”
There was more seating down on the turf, where 10-by-15-feet squares had been outlined in white paint. Families sat in those squares picnic style, 6 feet away from each other, watching “Coco” on the jumbotron. Later, people would watch from those “pods” and from the stands as Grupo Solido took the stage.
There were other pandemic precautions on display. A table with goody bags, for example, was turned perpendicular to the sidewalk instead of parallel. Whenever a kid asked for a bag of candy, one of the facility’s employees slid it down the 6-foot table with a stick grabber, like someone might use to hand out prizes at an old timey carnival.
One booth had some sort of inflatable blue couches for sale. The couches were meant to be used down on the field in those square pods. At least two had been bought by eight, their new owners lounging on them down on the field.
The demand for people to go somewhere and do something is evident, Madrigal said, even with all the pandemic measures in place.
“People want to get together, they want to celebrate,” she said.
One of those people celebrating Saturday evening was Melissa Quintanilla, who attended with her family. She was dressed as Jessie from Toy Story 2; her daughter and significant other rounded out the cast as Bo Peep and Buzz Lightyear, respectively.
Quintanilla said if they hadn’t been invited to the festival, they likely would’ve stayed home watching scary movies.
“There’s no trick or treating door to door, so it’s really nice H-E-B Park is doing this for the kids,” she said. “That’s why we brought our daughter out.”