The new headquarters of the San Benito complex museum is expected to attract visitors

SAN BENITO — For decades, empty stores lined stretches of Robertson Street, from the gilded domes of the stately San Benito Bank and Trust Building to the winding surf.

Along the shores of the surf, the iconic Edificio Azteca was left forgotten, its rooftop detached from the dance floor where bands played under a massive shell during the city’s heyday.

Then, about 17 years ago, businessman Miguel Díaz reopened the famed La Villita dance hall, drawing fans from all over the Rio Grande Valley to the sound of the biggest bands in the conjunto.

Along the street, store owners like Iris Garcia pushed for the area’s revitalization when the city launched Market Days three years ago.

Now the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum is moving into the first floor of the Aztec Building, as founder Rey Avila’s sons nurture their dream three years after his death in the city he called “the home of ensemble music”.

“It’s happening,” said Garcia, owner of The Shop with a Little Bit of Everything. “It will connect the museum with La Villita. This is what we have been working for: to revitalize Robertson Street. The area has a lot of potential.”

A view of the historic Aztec Building in San Benito on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, which will be the future home of the Texas Joint Hall of Fame and Museum. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

BIG MOVEMENT

For nearly 100 years, the Edificio Azteca has stood as a city landmark.

In about three months, Patricia and Peter Avila, Avila’s children, will reopen the museum after moving out of the city’s Community Building, where their father held his exhibits in 2007.

“We are like an anchor,” said Patricia Ávila, a school teacher. “It’s going to be a positive for Robertson Street.”

Now, they are planning to expand the museum’s exhibits to include artifacts inherited from the legendary Ideal Recording Studio, where Narciso Martínez, La Paloma’s master accordionist, pioneered the ensemble’s classics before the studio closed some 60 years ago.

“We want to make it a world-class museum to preserve and promote conjunto music and its history,” said Peter Avila, a county appraiser. “We want to take them back to where it all began. The foundation was here in San Benito”.

As the Avilas write their business plan, they are working with Mauricio Diaz, Diaz’s son, to help the museum and Little Village attract tourists to the area.

“We would like to build a camaraderie to make Robertson Street come alive,” said Patricia Avila. “We would like to invite your visitors to our museum to learn more about the history of conjunto music.”

During Market Days, the Avilas plan to open the museum to attract fans while putting on outdoor ensemble shows.

“We want to show people that the ensemble is alive and that the museum is open,” said Peter Avila.

Like Little Village, the famous La Especial bakery, where the Ornelas family has passed down their homemade recipes for generations, draws customers from all over the Valley.

“The traffic is already here,” said Patricia Ávila.

A view of the historic Little Village Ballroom in San Benito on Tuesday. November 15, 2022. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

HISTORIC BUILDING

To make way for the museum, the city spent $35,000 to renovate the first floor of the Edificio Azteca, spokesman David Favila said.

Earlier this month, city commissioners signed an agreement to open the first floor of the city-owned building to the museum.

Built around 1930, some say in the shape of a ship pointing cannons, the Edificio Azteca housed the offices of the city and its chamber of commerce.

Over the years, its first floor became home to the Sobre Las Olas Mexican restaurant, whose luxurious setting featured an atrium and aquarium.

In the 1940s, San Benito High School held dances on the building’s rooftop while bands played under a huge shell overlooking the hangover, said Enriqueta Ramos, 90, a retired college professor, remembering her sister Maria walking to her prom.

“Every time I pass by I relive those wonderful days,” he said. “We lived a couple of blocks away and we could hear the music from above. All the eventful balls were held there. They were all formal dances. I dreamed of going up there to dance one day.”

During World War II, United Service Organizations moved to the first floor of the building and held dances for soldiers in the area on the rooftop, Ramos said.

“The soldiers came on leave to dance,” she said. “There were people who came from all over the Valley for the dances.”

In Little Village, Mauricio Díaz is asking the Avilas to sell tickets to his dances on Saturday night.

“We will be a ticket seller,” said Patricia Ávila. “That will promote traffic to our museum.”

On Saturday nights, the ballroom features bands like Los Tejano Boys, drawing up to 300 fans from across the Valley, Diaz said.

“Most of the time it’s a traditional set,” he said.

Soon, he said, Robertson Street will offer fans full days of conjunto music.

“I’m glad they’re opening on Robertson Street,” Diaz said, referring to the museum. “I hope to collaborate with them. We serve the same client. They love ensemble music. When someone comes from abroad, they have a whole day here. The museum will open during the day and we open at night for the dances”.

FAMOUS BALLROOM

Now, the Diaz family plans to apply for a state historical marker.

In the 1940s, businessman Fernando Sánchez inaugurated a wide-open dance floor that led to a stage.

Soon, he was building walls around the dance floor to keep fans from sneaking in.

In the 1980s, Sánchez’s death caused the ballroom to close.

Inside, the Diaz family has worked to keep Little Village close to its original condition.

Throughout the building, thick plaster hides the concrete block structure of the ballroom.

At the end of a long, narrow corridor, the dance floor opens up, with seating areas on either side. Near the stage, green, red, and yellow ceramic tiles form the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

To the left of the stage, long railroad ties span the top of the hall.

In 2005, Miguel Díaz reopened the ballroom.

“It is a family-oriented business. We serve families,” said Mauricio Díaz. “Some of our clients met here as teenagers, got married and are now grandparents and want to share their experience with their grandchildren.”

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