Where do people in the City of Palms go when they want to experience an authentic cultural event while celebrating the rich history of the Rio Grande Valley?  PalmFest, of course.

This weekend, Palmee, the wide-eyed and friendly PalmFest mascot, will welcome visitors to the McAllen Convention Center for the Fifth Annual event.  PalmFest “grew out of” McAllen’s Centennial Celebration in 2004.

“First, let’s clear up any confusion regarding McAllen’s Centennial,” said Elva Cerda, who chairs the PalmFest Inc. board of directors.  “The city determined that our train depot was built in 1904, which indicates the year in which McAllen began to prosper.  Thus, in 2004, we hosted a centennial celebration.  In 2011, we will celebrate the centennial of the city charter because McAllen was incorporated in 1911.”

As a result of the 2004 celebration, organizers decided McAllen needed two things:  a historical museum to display memorabilia depicting the rich history of our city and an annual folklife festival similar to the one held in San Antonio.  The McAllen Heritage Center opened in Downtown McAllen in June of 2008, and PalmFest is the city’s annual folklife festival.

“We wanted ours to be truly local,” Elva said, “celebrating our own lives and our own culture.”

An estimated 7,000 people attended the first PalmFest.  Last year, nearly 30,000 people took part in the festivities.  This year, organizers expect even more.

A crowd favorite, the rail exhibit hosted by the RGV Rails has been expanded.  Choo-choo enthusiasts will find their replicas of Valley railroads and model trains in Exhibit Hall A.  An indoor entertainment stage and an art show will also be in the Exhibit Hall.  The art show will feature renowned Valley landscape artist Gabriel Salazar, along with artwork from the Upper Valley Art League and Valley Land Fund.  STC students and other local artists will also display some of their work.

Also inside Heritage Village, you will find the expanded classic car show, a display of military vehicles, storytellers, carriage rides, cowboys and American Indians.

PalmFest was chosen as the site for the national premiere of a timely new film, Down for Life.  Based on a New York Times article, the film captures a single day in the life of the 15-year-old leader of a Latina gang.  The girl, Rascal, played by Jessica Romero, struggles between two conflicting passions, a life of crime and a writing career.  Danny Glover plays Rascal’s teacher and Kate Del Castillo plays her mother.  The Latina teens in the film are not seasoned actors but high school students discovered in a school in Los Angeles.  Down for Life earned positive feedback following its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Down for Life opens October 8 and will be shown in McAllen, Mission, Edinburg, Harlingen and Brownsville.

Romero and Director Alan Jacobs will be at PalmFest for the premier, along with Lil Rob (Roberto Flores), a Mexican-American gang member turned rapper from LA who performs in the movie.  During the day, the trio will be in the Exhibit Hall signing autographs.  Lil Rob will rap with the crowd, discouraging gang life, during a concert on Saturday at 9:00 at the Reflecting Pond Stage.

Del Castillo and Lil Rob won’t be the only special guests at PalmFest.  Palmee’s friends Garfield and Odie will be hanging out at PalmFest, too, along with a clown on stilts.

This year, HEB and Channel 5’s Teach the Children will host a Children Fun Tent in the RGV Fajita Cook-off area.  All proceeds from the rides, games and activities in this tent will benefit Teach the Children.

Be sure to go to PalmFest hungry so you can treat yourself to delicious Pan de Campo, prepared by Ruben Quintanilla at his cowboy campsite, roasted corn, tamales from Delia’s and a wide variety of other ethnic foods.  The highlight of the food area, of course, will be McAllen’s famous Fajita Cook-off.  Previously a one-day affair, the cook-off will be held both Saturday and Sunday and teams will compete in five categories.

Over 40 arts and crafts vendors will be selling their handiwork at El Mercado.  Book lovers will flock to this area to take advantage of the McAllen Public Library’s giant used book sale.  Whether you love mysteries or love stories, science fiction or vampires, you are sure to find them at this sale.  Proceeds will benefit the city’s new main library, currently being constructed in the old Wal-Mart on the corner of 23rd and Nolana.

Al Ragusin and his legendary dancing horses will perform Saturday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m.  Entertainment will run throughout the two-day event on three stages, two outdoors and one indoors.

Parking is free and there is no charge for admission.  All of the concerts are also free.

“We are a not-for-profit,” Elva said, “that functions to provide enjoyment and education about our history and culture to our community.”  Elva explained that PalmFest is managed by volunteers who work diligently to raise funds.  They also  enjoy the support of the City of McAllen.  Anyone who attends PalmFest will clearly realize the number of hours spent planning for McAllen’s folklife festival. 

Current PalmFest board members, in addition to Elva, are Omar Rodriguez, Mike Hernandez, Ann Hess, Olga Gabriel and Martha Hinojosa.  Elva also wants to recognize entities and individuals who have been a part of the event since its inception.  Those include McAllen Heritage Center, Nedra Kinerk, Carmen De Leon, Marilyn De Julio, Danny Boultinghouse, Spud Brown, Krista Hinojosa, Geoff Alger, and The RGV Fajita Cook-off organizers, Chris Julian, Angie Juarez and Richard Womeldorf.

Special recognition goes to Rick De Julio, who chaired the Centennial in 2004 and was one of the folklife festival visionaries.  Although Rick passed away, his presence is still felt among the event’s organizers.

“We have also enjoyed the support of Mayor Richard Cortez, the McAllen City Commission, City Manager Mike Perez, Omar Rodriguez and his staff at the McAllen Convention Center, the Parks and Recreation Department, and McAllen’s police officers and firefighters,” Elva said.  And there are more.  “Traffic, the Recycling Center, Keep McAllen Beautiful and many other city departments and staff members support PalmFest each year.  It is a collaboration, in the true sense of the word, between the PalmFest board, sponsors, volunteers, city employees and city leaders.”

A list of sponsors for the event can be found on the PalmFest website at www.palmfest.com.  Despite the troubled economy, these sponsors have shown unwavering support.

“And we’re so grateful,” Elva said.

NOTE:  PalmFest will be held Saturday, October 2 from 12-10 p.m. and Sunday, October 3 from 12-8 p.m. at the McAllen Convention Center on Ware Road.  All indoor activities close at 7:00 p.m.