HARLINGEN — The origins of the hundreds of vehicles parked bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door around Casa de Amistad yesterday are revealed by their license plates — Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Michigan.
And also points farther north, like Ontario and Manitoba.
Truly, these plates tell a story of Harlingen as a gathering place for an entire continent.
The occasion was the city’s Winter Texan Appreciation Day, a chance to walk through a car show filled with Corvettes and Bel Airs, Shelby Cobras, antique pickups and more.
All the while feasting on tacos and fajitas cooked on the spot.
“We’ve been Winter Texans for three years, but my parents are here in Harlingen so we’ve been coming down here for twenty,” said Gerri Boutelle, who hails from around New Rochester, Minnesota.
“Love it,” she added. “When we get done up there, we’re coming back and we’re coming to stay.”
Each year, around 100,000 seasonal residents arrive and morph into Winter Texans, and although those numbers are down nearly 50,000 from a high in 2009-2010, this northern contingent of Valley regulars make up a crucial component of the region’s economic base.
In 2015-16, the estimated economic impact of these visitors was $760 million, according to a study conducted every other year by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship.
Bill Wolf and his wife are from Renwick, Iowa, which is about 90 miles north of Des Moines.
“We’ve come down for quite a few years, I don’t know,” he said. “Since the seventies, I guess.”
Many Winter Texans start by wintering in the Valley and eventually moving here full-time. But the Wolfs are not quite there yet.
“We tried to come down — we didn’t come down the last couple years — but we tried to come down” to live here year-round, Wolf said. “My brother lives down here and we have two boys, too.
“It’s great, it’s wonderful,” he added.
The states which make up the highest proportion of Winter Texans are Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wis-consin, Missouri and Michigan.
The number of Canadians coming to the Valley has more than doubled in the past 10 years, from 8.2 percent to 17.6 percent of all Winter Texans.
“Our Winter Texan population is extremely important to the local economy,” Mayor Chris Boswell said. “They shop, eat out, and use our airport. They rent or own their winter residences for several months out of the year.
“And they’re great people who become our neighbors each year volunteering in all sorts of ways,” the mayor added. “We should always remember to say ’Welcome’ and ’Bienvenidos’ to our Winter Texan friends.”
Warren Johnson and his wife, Lois, are from Johnstown, Ohio, which by the way isn’t the place which experienced the epic flood.
“Wrong Johnstown,” Johnson said. “That one was in Pennsylvania.”
The Johnsons are Texans only in winters, and have happily traded the Upper Midwest’s ice and cold for the balmy climate usually found in the Rio Grande Valley.
“This is our third year, we come down for the winter,” Johnson said.
This week, winter appears to be stalking them, with a winter weather advisory forecast for the Valley today through Thursday that includes possible sleet, ice and sub-freezing temperatures.
“I didn’t drive all this way to get it 30 degrees again,” Johnson said, laughing.
“I appreciate your weather, I really do,” he added. “It probably won’t see 30 degrees at home for the next two weeks or better.”
100,000 — Total annual Winter Texans
144,000 — All-time high number of Winter Texans 2009-2010
760 — Millions of dollars they add to local economy annually
72.3 — Average age of Winter Texans
11.7 — Number of years coming to Valley
83.5 — Percentage who are married