Harlingen and its Murals

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The city of Harlingen, Texas has chosen a unique way to show its history - by covering its walls in murals. And not all of the artwork is outside, some are also indoors, inside businesses and banks.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet we endured in high school, once wrote a line “A Peopled Labyrinth of Walls.” So come to Harlingen now, a city of about 75,000 with a compact downtown, and walk around its walls.

Harlingen’s history goes back to 1904 when Lon C. Hill (like Waldo, he can be seen in one of the city’s many murals if you know where to look) chose Six Shooter Junction to be his frontier town even before the first train had arrived. He had a bit of a start because the rail system had bypassed Hidalgo and Harlingen became “an unrivalled shipping center by the 1920s.”

The city has chosen a novel way to show its history. Like Jericho its walls have become famous.

The city’s welcome was painted by Chris Valdez in 2005 on the alley side of 207. W. Jackson.

We sometimes wish walls had ears. In Harlingen, in south Texas in the Magic Valley of the Rio Grande, the walls do have ears — and eyes and noses and faces. And hats and cars and flowers and funny looking animals. And Bill Hayley of the Comets because he was a Harlingen guy too.

We stand across the railway lines that once dominated Harlingen and have our attention directed to the mural The Early Days painted in 2001 by Jermain Steed. A two-minute walk takes us to where Angel Hernandez must have taken forever in 2004 to capture The Golden Age of Hollywood & Mexican Cinema. We could barely capture it ourselves — even with a 10mm wide angle lens. Chris Valdez must have been busy in 2005 because here he is again painting his Oaxacan Dragon, a familiar image in Mexican folk art.

Indeed, the Mexican influence is palpable in those communities along the northern bank of the Rio Grande. Visiting them might be called A Drive through Small Town America though first looks make drivers feel it might be Small Town Mexico.

Mexico is one of the reasons the Magic Valley flourishes.

The flat arid land along the northern border of the Rio Grande did not look promising when Iowan pharmacist John Harry Shary first saw it in 1912. He’d tasted Texas grapefruit in the little town of Pharr, Texas and, although though locals laughed at his presumption, thought he saw a market even in this dry climate.

Shary started buying up land — and since this was Texas, lots of land. An irrigation pumphouse to draw water from the river had been built in Hidalgo in 1910, a distance of seven miles to the west. Shary constructed irrigation systems. He prospered. Others followed his lead, including Mexican families who came as migrant workers.

“Their efforts helped transform the Rio Grande Plain into the Magic Valley,” says a placard in the Texas State Museum in Austin.

Today, many retail outlets of large Mexican businesses have chosen to move north of the river into the United States. The Magic Valley is flush with success partly because so many Mexicans shop here.

John Aretakis painted this tribute to Bill Haley and his band, The Comets, in 2003. The “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is Harlingen’s most famous resident. The painting celebrates the July 1955 moment when Rock Around the Clock became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to achieve Number One status on the bestseller lists. Across the street, Valley artists Benjamin P. Varela (in his detailed pointillist style) and Celeste De Luna have created the fascinating Tropical Rio Grande Valley in 2007. And Aretakis is back again in 2004 with his Tropical Playground of Texas that covers many of the area’s activities.

The activities are mostly outdoor. If you’ve come with that in mind — but if you’ve forgotten your fishing gear or your shotgun — the town has a huge Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World just west of the Highway 77 and 83 merge.

Harlingen’s additional offers are antique stores, art galleries, farmers’ markets and close by it has the Gulf of Mexico and South Padre Island, which the townspeople, sounding like 17th century pirates, simply call The Island.

Aretakis must like it here. He’s back in 2005 actually with two winning designs: Historic Route 77 where a family and its dog are setting out on a magnificent road trip. And the same year Aretakis had the help of Valley artist Rudy Hyde to create a wide, complicated mural, the largest in the Valley, Celebrating 30 Years of LUV. The figure in the foreground in safari outfit is one of the enthusiastic bird watchers who come to this, the most celebrated birding community in the United States.

Some of the murals defy even a wide angle lens. The 30 Years of LUV is really a tribute to Southwest Airlines, a company that has done much to help develop Harlingen. World War II brought an aerial gunnery base to town as if the United States wasn’t sure whether an attack on it would come via the Aleutians (as it did) or through Mexico and South Texas. The Harlingen Air Force Base followed and ultimately became Valley International Airport, the region’s busiest.

The LUV mural has five faces beyond the bird watcher’s, two being of a pilot and flight attendant from a time when aircrew seemed so much younger than today. The Día de los Muertos celebrates the Day of the Dead ceremonies. New Mexico artist eRic Liplow painted this “surrealistic folk-art,” a favorite mural amongst locals in 2008. The favorite of visitors, however, is the 1975 work called The History of Mexico and Mankind, which is second from the left in the bottom image.

Raúl Esparza Sanchez’s The History of Mexico and Mankind contains 905 handmade tiles and was created for The California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles “in recognition of the long-standing friendship between Mexico and the United States.” When the museum was demolished to make way for the California Science Center, Harlingen learned the mural was available and won it for its community.

The mural came to town in 2000, a year before Esparza died. Amongst Esparza’s other celebrated historical murals is one he made for the School of Medicine, University of Coahuila, Mexico showing the origins and evolution of medicine.

Esparza’s depiction of Pre-Hispanic Cultures starts with a giant Olmec head receiving knowledge from divine hands. Sitting below is Xochipilli an Aztec goddess, and across from her the Tolmec giant statue of Tula. The oval inlays show parents teaching crafts to their children.

Heavy stuff but our final images are more easily understood. Harlingen has a free map that gives locations of the murals, some of which are inside banks and other businesses.

A two-minute drive brings us to the offices of Harlingen Pediatrics Associates. Dolores Hernandez, the office manager greets us as press guests cautiously. If we understand her correctly: she is fearful any publicity will make the pediatric practice busier and they are already running flat out, something that’s probably true in any growing community.

Both murals were painted in the waiting rooms in 2001, in one room for healthy children and the other in the room for children with symptoms. Mario Morales imagined the Jungle Scene and Kathy Schwarz the Seascape.

But what’s this? A copy of an invoice for house calls for $2? Ah! The date is April 1935. It’s part of the display in the 1923 old Harlingen Hospital located in the town’s Arts & Heritage Museum — and … that’s an element in our next Harlingen story.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.