For sister cities Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, the Charro Days Fiesta offers a chance to celebrate a long-standing friendship.

By Zoe Denenberg
February 21, 2020
Charro Days Fiesta
Credit: Martin Buitron Photography

For 2 weeks each February, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley lights up in celebration of Mexican-American unity and culture. The historic Charro Days Fiesta, which began in 1938, honors the friendship between Brownsville, a town at the southmost point of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and Matamoros, its sister city in Mexico. The historic festival marks the continued cooperation between the twin Rio Grande cities which, although separated by national borders, are bound by shared traditions and culture.

The Charro Days Fiesta was originally “born to lift community spirits” during the difficult times of the Great Depression; inspired by Brownsville’s unique location on the border with Mexico, the residents came together to plan a fiesta unlike anything else in the country. “Horse-drawn, hand-made floats processed through downtown Brownsville in those early years, with marching bands from Mexico, soldiers from old Fort Brown and children from area schools dressed as charros and chinas,” writes the Charro Days committee.

Over 80 years later, many of these traditions remain intact at the storied Charro Days fiesta, which still begins with a Mexican grito, a joyous cry to mark the start of a celebration. In years past, revelers could move across the Gateway International Bridge, which links Brownsville and Matamoros; today, the celebration still begins with a friendship ceremony, called “Hands Across the Bridge,” in which the mayors of Brownsville and Matamoros both speak, exchange gifts, and affirm their long-standing friendship.

This year, the fiesta, which runs from February 22 to March 8, celebrates its 83rd anniversary—and it has only grown since that first parade. Now, the lineup of festivities draws thousands—costume balls, parades, carnivals, street dances, and fireworks are staples of the modern fiesta.

Charro Days 1
Charro Days 2
Left: Credit: Martin Buitron Photography
Right: Credit: Martin Buitron Photography

One highlight is the Baile Del Sol, the official kick-off event with folkloric street dancing, food, and live music. Brownsville students spend the weeks leading up to the festival rehearsing dances that they perform in vibrant costumes. According to the Brownsville Herald, “Many of the students’ parents are recent immigrants from Mexico, and the performance is an opportunity to connect them with their families’ background.”

The celebration is named after the charro—a traditional Mexican horseman—and channels the jovial spirit of these original cowboys. Many revelers still dress in the fashion of the festival’s namesake charros, who wore ruffled shirts and silver accents; women will don the China Poblana, a colorful Mexican frock complete with elaborate embroidery and voluminous skirts.

Charro Days 3
Credit: Martin Buitron Photography

From the festival’s inception, the organizers have remained committed to celebrating local community and culture. Each year, the Mr. Amigo Association—created by members of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce in 1964—crowns a Mexican citizen as “Mr. Amigo,” a Hispanic role model who displays personal and professional excellence. The award promotes bi-national cooperation and unity, recognizing national and international leaders like former President of Mexico Miguel Alemán Valdés.

The festival has even drawn some notable guests, including then-senator Barack Obama in 2008, who spoke on his journey with faith and sampled the local fare at the festival’s Sombrero Fest.

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So if you find yourself in the Rio Grande Valley come February 22, don't miss this vibrant celebration of Tex-Mex culture.