Hidalgo County A-Z: a YPTexas Primer

If you haven’t tuned in to our Facebook or Twitter feeds recently, you may have missed the good news: we’re headin’ to Texas! We at Young Playwrights’ Theater are thrilled to announce that we’ve partnered with an elementary school in Hidalgo County, TX to bring our In-School Playwriting Program out of the DC metro area for the very first time.

Last month, a few members of the YPTeam (yes, we like our YPT puns) traveled to Hidalgo County to launch the program. We met with local school officials and community leaders, toured the remarkable school where we will hold our pilot program and drank in as much of the rich culture as we possibly could. For a bunch of city slickers like us, this was an eye-opening experience and a lesson in life on the modern frontier. Thus, we present to you the YPTexas Primer: everything we learned about Hidalgo County from A to Z!


A is for Airplane – We took a lot of them to get to Texas and back!

Some got sidetracked by snowstorms and needed the Iceman to cometh to the rescue…

Iceman Cometh

  Others saw nothing but blue Texas skies. Plane in TX

Our long trip gave us plenty of time to prepare for the week ahead…

Brigitte pensive

And all those planes got us where we needed to go: Hidalgo County, right down near the tip of the South Texas toe!

Hidalgo County map

Hey, it was either jumbo jet or covered wagon…


Floppy hats

Alamo Inn signB is for Birders – And birding, birdseed and everything bird-related you can imagine! All that and more was to be found in our lodgings, the Alamo Inn. Part bed & breakfast, part outdoor store, the Alamo Inn is a birder’s paradise and a surefire setting for a future horror movie. In all seriousness, the accommodations were lovely, the hats were floppy and the service was with classic Texas languor. If you bird, you want to bird here!



C is for Colonias – Amid the fun and excitement of exploring a new place, there was a lot of work to be done. South Texas is among the most impoverished regions in America, and with a largely immigrant population, deals with serious issues of infrastructure development, housing and social justice. Tens of thousands of Hidalgo County residents live in colonias, rural shantytowns that often lack basic services such as running water and sewage. Though state agencies and community groups are trying to improve conditions for the 500,000 or so people living in colonias, the overwhelming poverty and mistrust of public officials make progress difficult. If any place in America needs a voice and a vehicle for community-building, it is this place.


Catherine DiSanza

D is for DiSanza – Catherine DiSanza, that is! This wonderful YPT Teaching Artist brought the In-School Playwriting Program with her back to her home state of Texas, and through sheer force of will made the connections to get the program off the ground. Like YPT Founder Karen Zacarías did back in 1995, Catherine has single-handedly turned YPTexas from an aspiration into a reality. And now, as a reward, she has five fourth grade classes to lead through the amazing process of playwriting! We are overwhelmed and inspired by the work she has done, and so proud to call her one of our own.


E is for English Language Learners – Who make up 89% of the student population at Graciela Garcia Elementary School, our partner school for this pilot program. Every one of those students speaks Spanish as a first language, and has to learn English as well as all their regular school subjects. To combat that, Garcia Elementary has instituted a Dual-Language Program, teaching classes half in Spanish and half in English. Even the official school language alternates: one day, all announcements will be made in English; the next day, en Español.  That way, the school can make sure every kid’s needs are taken care of, while creating a community fluent in both languages and cultures. As Principal Yolanda Castillo notes, “What about the other 11%? I am responsible for their education too.”

Dia de Espanol (YPTexas 043)


F is for Frontier – Down by the U.S.-Mexico border, life is a little bit different. The lines between one country and another are blurred: people drive from Mexico to the U.S. to go shopping, most people have family in both countries and many of Garcia’s students split their time between the north and south sides of the Rio Grande. The problems of life on the border are well known: immigration and deportation, inequality, the drug trade and poverty on both sides. What is not so well known is the method that both the U.S. and Mexico use to combat crime and illegal immigration: both countries have a second set of immigration checkpoints, 25-75 miles to the north and south of the official border. The area in between—an area that includes Hidalgo County—is known simply as la frontera, “the frontier”.

Arte de la FronteraOn the frontier, life is a little wilder. On the frontier, violence is an everyday phenomenon, and children list “police officer”, “border patrol”, “FBI agent” as their dream jobs. To an outsider the frontier feels like a buffer zone between the lawless border and “civilized” America, but it is clear that the people who live there don’t think of it like that. For them, it is simply home: a place with its own rules and its own ways, that teaches you to be strong. More on this in a blog post to come… (Photo by Stefan Falke)


G is for Garcia – Also for  “great”, “grand”, “giving” and “galvanizing”: all words that could be used to describe Graciela Garcia Garcia signElementary School! We at YPT have been to a lot of schools in our day, and though they are all wonderful, there are none quite like Garcia. Every wall is overflowing with student work, every child walks through the halls smiling and every teacher sparkles with passion for her students and her curriculum.

enthusiasm expyWe could go on and on extolling the virtues of Garcia Elementary—and we will, just not in this blog post! Stay tuned for another to come, walking through our time at this wonderful institution in detail. For now, it’s enough to say that if every public school were like Garcia, we would be looking at a whole different America!


Drama club

H is for Hidalgo County – One of the fastest growing counties in America, Hidalgo County encompasses the cities of Pharr (where Garcia is located), McAllen, Edinburg, Alamo, San Juan and many more. The area is sprawling and semi-rural, with no obvious borders between one town and the other. There certainly are rivalries, however: Hidalgo County’s high schools compete fiercely for top state honors in theater, while the local fútbol (soccer) clubs battle for bragging rights on the pitch!

(Photo courtesy Andrielle Figueroa, Progress Times)


IMAS giant chair

I is for IMAS – Lest you think that South Texas is a provincial land lacking a global cultural milieu (shame on you, snob of the metropolis), we present to you the International Museum of Art & Science in McAllen. This unassuming but lovely museum houses several collections of fine and folk art, as well as rotating exhibits presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. We went there for the opening of the exhibit La Frontera: Artists along the US Mexican Border, but stayed for the interactive rock climbing game, sound wall and giant chair! Yeah, we’re nerds sometimes. Okay, all the time.


J is for…Well, let’s skip that for now. It’s a long alphabet after all, and we don’t want to keep you reading forever!


McAllen Library

L is for Literacy – An issue that plagues the entire Rio Grande Valley. With its large immigrant population, high poverty rate and difficulty retaining students through high school, the area’s literacy rate hovers around 20%. Fortunately, organizations like the Rio Grande Valley Literacy Center have committed themselves to raising that number, and are doing meaningful work all over the area! L is also for Library, a wonderful place to learn and teach reading. McAllen, the largest city in Hidalgo County, is also home to the largest one-story library in the United States of America. We spent some time there, and it is INCREDIBLE: beautiful and spacious, and best of all converted from an abandoned Wal-Mart! We think more Wal-Marts should look like this  🙂


M is for Murphy – Our mascot for the week, a wise old owl with a vaguely British accent and an expression of constant surprise. He got us into gated communities, sat in on a few meetings (usually sleeping in a backpack, since he’s the nocturnal sort) and even entertained a smiling toddler on the flight back to DC! Now his only concern is how well he’ll fit in with Tim the Sloth

Murphy & Turtle

owls       (Murphy likes to photobomb)


Garcia staff mtg

N is for ‘Nada que ver’ – One of the Garcia faculty’s favorite expressions, and one that we believe sums up the school’s philosophy and impact quite nicely. In Spanish, ‘nada que ver’ means ‘nothing to do (with)’ – as in, this school has nothing to do with the rest of the schools in its district or across the country. Garcia follows its own set of rules and principles as much as possible, and its teachers pride themselves on creating an educational environment unlike any other in the world. From what we’ve seen, they have succeeded in that!


O is for Open-Ended Conversations – We came to Hidalgo County without much of an agenda: our goal was simply to meet as many school officials and community leaders as possible. And we did! Thanks to Catherine’s tireless outreach, we sat down with everyone from the Director of Performing Arts for the McAllen Independent School District to the Service Learning Coordinator for the University of Texas-Pan American and the Coordinator of the Methodist Border Friendship Commission. Everyone we met with was overjoyed to hear about our project and enthusiastic about the possibility of working together: now the only task will be turning these open-ended conversations into real world initiatives and funding!


P is for Publicity – Part of our plan to raise awareness and community support for the program was to get as much press attention as possible, and it we got ourselves a fair amount of it! While in Texas we spoke to the Valley Town Crier and RGVision Magazine, then followed up via phone with The Monitor, South Texas’ largest newspaper. The Valley Town Crier article is already online and the other two should be in print in the next few weeks or months. Though we won’t be able to be in the Rio Grande Valley when the stories hit the shelves, we hope that the people who read them are inspired to get involved in the process and bring YPT into their own communities!

rgvision logo the monitor logo                             VTC logo


Q is for skipping!


R is for ‘Rigor and Relevancy’ – Two fundamental principles of Garcia Elementary’s curriculum. Garcia is an International Baccalaureate school—the only one in its school district—and its teaching teams are always grappling with how to embed serious scholarship into interdisciplinary, arts-integrated units. One way the teams ensure that they are creating the most effective units possible is by asking themselves, “Is this work rigorous? Is it relevant?”


Starbucks selfie turtles

Starbucks selfie BWIselfie Harlingen airport

umbrella selfie

Starbucks Selfie wide shot

Starbucks Selfie w Murph

S is for Starbucks! – Every good story needs a subplot, and the subplot of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley was our Super-Secret Starbucks Selfie Tour (SSSST, for short). See, a few days before we left for Texas, we realized that a solid half of our meetings were going to be held at Starbucks locations around the area—including back-to-back meetings at two different Starbuckses 20 miles from each other! Thus, we initiated a Super-Secret plan to visit every Starbucks we possibly could during the trip, and take selfies at every one. The results were…well, check out the photos above and see for yourselves!


Big turtle


T is for TURTLES!! – One of the highlights of our trip was a quick jet over to South Padre Island, where the nonprofit Sea Turtle, Inc. runs a rescue and rehabilitation center for sea turtles who have been injured by predators, boats or fishing nets. These wonderful people offer educational programs for students and tourists, release hatchlings on the beach several times a year and take great care of the turtles that sadly cannot survive in the wild. They even built a prosthetic flipper for one of the turtles in their care! Though it is always hard to see these majestic creatures living in such conditions, we were honored to get the chance to spend some time with them.

Little turtle


U is for University – At Garcia Elementary and in the Rio Grande Valley, university plays a big role. Many of the students in the area—including 95% of Garcia’s population—are at risk of dropping out before earning a high school diploma, and few children are brought up thinking they will have a chance to get a college degree. That is why Garcia’s motto is “University is our Destination”, and why involving the local UT school (University of Texas-Pan American) in our pilot program was so important to us. Fortunately, it didn’t take much convincing to get UTPA involved: actors from the university performed at Garcia on the program’s first day, and soon we hope to get volunteers from a number of departments within the school! The great thing about working with UTPA is that most of their students come from the Rio Grande Valley themselves, so they recognize how important it is to give the region’s young people a voice. With any luck, this will be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship!

University sign


V is for Very, Very Slowly – Which is how people drive in South Texas…much to the chagrin of our, shall we say, “assertive” DC drivers. Life moves pretty slowly in Hidalgo County, which can be frustrating when you have a meeting in ten minutes and realize that the next town over is fifteen miles away—but fortunately that also means that if you’re a few minutes late, you’re really a few minutes early! We could get used to that.


W is for why not skip this one?


xylophonesX is for Xylophones – And how lucky for this primer that we popped in on a music class during our tour of Garcia! As we may have mentioned, the arts are woven deeply into Garcia’s curriculum: in the class we watched, the teacher was reading a story and every time she came to a certain keyword, the kids played whatever they wanted on their xylophones. Not only was it a joyful cacophony, but it was an inspiring example of combining creativity with critical listening and developing cognitive pathways that will help these children for years to come!


Group shot

Y is for Yolanda Castillo – The incredible principal of Garcia Elementary. A powerful, passionate woman who through her fierce commitment has turned Garcia from one of the most troubled schools in the district to one of its highest performers. We have a lot of great stories about the incredible Ms. Castillo, but since we can’t begin to aptly describe her here, we’ll save it for the next blog post!


Z is for Zee? We made it to the end!  Good work, everyone 🙂

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