By Pamela Cody
Special to the PRESS
With the mission being to celebrate diversity, equality, and dignity, South Padre Island’s first Pride Parade took place Sunday afternoon.
Texas cities such as Houston, Austin and San Antonio host these events annually, but this was the first Pride Parade in the Rio Grande Valley. The parade was part of the 5-day SPI Pride Festival and Parade which began on Wednesday, October 9, and culminated with the parade on Sunday, October 13.
Events over the course of the festival included pool parties, a Pride party boat cruise, drag entertainers, Mr. and Mrs. Pride contests, a Pride Sunday brunch, and the parade.
Jay Carlsen is the owner of the Upper Deck Hotel on South Padre Island, the headquarters for the Pride weekend festivities. He sat down for an interview Friday evening and spoke of how Splash/Pride events on SPI got its start.
“We started Splash 20 years ago, this month. Attendance was starting to drop in October, not for April, so we wanted to get it re-energized, change the name and try to make it more of a Pride event and then keep April, which is doing well as Splash, so we’ll actually have two events a year.”
The weekend had its share of difficulties, including an Island-wide blackout on Thursday night and a cold front that blew in late Saturday afternoon.
“We were going to have the event (Friday) over at Tequila Sunset, but with the weather being so unpredictable right now, things like the DJ equipment and stuff like that, we can’t have it outside, so we’re doing it at the hotel here inside,” Carlsen sad.
Carlsen reminisced about the early days of this venture. “I started this 20 years ago. At the time, (The Upper Deck) was a gay hotel – it’s not now, it’s open to everyone 18 or older. I started it because I became familiar with the Austin Splash. That was such a big event and fun, I thought I’d bring it here for the locals down here and grow it from there. It’s not just me doing this. I have a partner, Paul Magee, who works with me for both the April Splash and this event, too.”
Carlsen said there’s a committee of about 10 people that formed this October, and they have a lot of people helping.
“We get a lot of good support from the community. The city government’s been real supportive, too. They’ve helped us with sponsorship and Budweiser’s helped us with sponsorship. We built a brochure this year that we didn’t have before, and many local merchants participated,” Carlsen reported.
The event was not without controversy, as Pride flags that were erected throughout the Island along Padre Boulevard were taken down by the city after the first day they were put up due to a few complaints from some Island residents.
“There was a communication problem with the city. When they approved the flags for the special event on Sunday, they thought they were just approving it for Sunday and I thought they were approving it for the full event. So we put them up yesterday and some residents were complaining and we ended up taking them down yesterday. After the city had a chance to talk to their attorney and TexDot, we were allowed to put the flags back up today at 2 o’clock,” Carlsen said.
“(The flags are) beautiful, I mean, they’re very colorful and festive when you drive down the street. It certainly gets the attention that we’re having a festival instead of hiding it in some bar and nobody knowing about it. You’re gonna know that there’s Pride going on with those flags,” Carlsen concluded with a smile.
Aurelio Moreno and his partner drove down from Harlingen to sit on the Parade route and enjoy the inaugural Pride Parade on Sunday afternoon. “We were shocked that they were going to have a parade here on the Island,” said Moreno. “The fact that it was the first Pride Parade, we wanted to participate. We go to all the gay parades in Houston and San Antonio.”
Moreno spoke about the issues he and his partner face as a gay couple in the Rio Grande Valley, remarking “There’s a lot of discrimination here in the Valley. The majority are Hispanics, and they are not really accepting of the gay lifestyle. There’s some that are coming around, but the majority don’t. They still call us queer, or fags or whatever. So with this event, they can know that we’re here. We’re just the same as anybody else, we pay taxes just like anybody else. I hope next year’s parade is even bigger.”
Manager of the Upper Deck Hotel, Modesto Lozano, was at the head of the parade getting ready to cruise down Padre Boulevard on Sunday afternoon. He shared his feelings about what this first Pride Parade meant to him.
“It means a lot, being able to actually get out and show people that we’re here and we matter, too. It’s been a lot of struggle, with the whole flag thing earlier in the week,” Lozano said.
Despite the obstacles of the weather and the kerfuffle over the flags, Lozano was pleased with the Pride Festival and Parade.
“We’ve had a great crowd of people, everybody had a great time. We’re not going anywhere and our lives matter just as much as theirs. We’re all equal, and we should be treated as such,” Lozano said.