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Margarita Araiza reflects on her tenure as executive director of WCHF

FILE - Laredoan of the Year Margarita Araiza, Executive Director, Webb County Heritage Foundation, stands outside the Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum Thursday morning. Araiza retired as Webb. The Webb County Heritage Foundation announced the retirement of  Araiza, after 28 years of service in this role on Feb. 21, 2024.

FILE – Laredoan of the Year Margarita Araiza, Executive Director, Webb County Heritage Foundation, stands outside the Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum Thursday morning. Araiza retired as Webb. The Webb County Heritage Foundation announced the retirement of  Araiza, after 28 years of service in this role on Feb. 21, 2024.

Laredo Morning Times staff

Since 1996, the name of Margarita Araiza has been a reference point when it comes to the historical preservation of Webb County. Now, after 28 years, Araiza retired and is reflecting on the challenges she faced and the satisfactions achieved during her tenure at the Webb County Heritage Foundation.

Araiza said she was familiar with the organization and was friends with several of its most dedicated supporters – Martha Fenstermaker, Norma Z. Benavides, Dr. José Roberto Juárez, Dr. Stan Green, Betsy Gill and Sammy Johnson.

“One day, I was approached by Mrs. Gill who urged me, very strongly, to apply for the newly open position of Executive Director,” she said.  “If you knew Mrs. Gill at all, you’d know what I mean by urged very strongly.

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“Betsy was not a person who would take no for an answer.”

Araiza said that Gill – like other strong women she has known – taught her a lot about staying put in the face of adversity.

“When I realized she would not accept any hesitation on my part, I agreed to apply as an interim, and 28 years later, I was still there,” Araiza said.

For Araiza, one of the biggest challenges she encountered at the beginning was the public perception that the organization was only for wealthy people.

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“We were constantly labelled as ‘for the elites’” she said. “This was especially disturbing as I knew that a lot of the work done prior to my time had included very challenging efforts to preserve some of Laredo’s most humble structures – jacales in the San Agustín District – as well as the city’s oldest and very modest Border Vernacular buildings – one-story flat-roofed dwellings.”

She added that those efforts, in turn, led to the criticism of “what do you want to save that old thing for?” 

“The work of the Foundation has always included education about the value of historical buildings – both humble dwellings and showy mansions and teaching about the contributions of the people who inhabited both,” she said.

Araiza also spoke on how the organization has evolved from when she began her term at WHCF until the present day.

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“When I started, the organization had a main office, and operated the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum on the grounds of La Posada Hotel,” she said. “It already had a very good archive of historic maps, documents and photographs accumulated from donors over the years.”

She said that now in 2024, the main office still operates out of the Old Mercado Building and that the archives have grown substantially, among other historical collections.

“Those impressive collections of items include railroad maps from the 19th century, research files on a vast array of topics in Laredo and Webb County history, a photo collection that is first-rate, and an assortment of surprising historical artifacts including textiles, personal correspondence and much more,” she said. “In addition, a substantial amount of these collections have been digitized for public access thanks to funding from private grants.”

She highlighted that one of the biggest changes was the creation of the Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum which was developed in order to showcase changing historical exhibits and provide a space for events such as presentations by people like historians and authors, host meetings, offer public entertainment such as the “Movies on the Patio” in October and the annual membership meeting.

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“I’m proud to say that the Border Heritage Museum has become a tourism venue promoted on numerous state and national media sites and printed materials,” she said. “It is now the venue for visiting conventions and state-wide meetings on an annual basis.”

She added that along with the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, it provides an opportunity for many local school children to visit  -perhaps for the first time – a professional museum that features stories of their own community.

“Another noteworthy goal was the creation of a local history curriculum,” she said. “During my tenure as Executive Director, the Foundation brought together a committee of educators from all local school districts including public and private schools, Laredo College, TAMIU and Webb Consolidated School District, which met regularly over the course of many months to design Laredo’s first-ever Laredo History curriculum.”

This curriculum ended up being a state-approved course of study that provided print materials, a video series and teachers’ guides for instruction on local history.

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“This was the first time Laredo and Webb County history was systematically taught to local students,” she said.

Araiza said she believed that one of her great achievements during her tenure was that the former opinion of the Foundation being “only for wealthy or elite people” has pretty much been put to rest.

“This is evident when you realize the numbers of school tours provided at no cost to students of all ages; or when October rolls around and we get people of ages and backgrounds coming to get a good seat to watch the vintage movies on our museum patio,” she said. “Or when the entries in the Historic Laredo and Webb County Photo Competition start coming in every year from photographers eager to showcase images that relate to their heritage.

“All of that makes this work so rewarding.”

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For the WCHF’s future, Araiza expects it to continue to grow and find new ways to make the goals of historic preservation and heritage education more meaningful to people of all ages and backgrounds.

“WCHF is a 44-year-old organization that has gone through many phases,” she said. “It has always been fortunate to have the support of some very dedicated and generous people, both local and not. I have every confidence that it will always play a role in protecting and growing the story of this dynamic community.

“It’s through knowledge of one’s own past that people can take pride and ownership in our city, our ancestors and ourselves.”

She thanked the countless people she ha encountered in her position of Executive Director who encouraged her, thanked her or even brought their criticism to her attention.

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“The role of any leader is to take all that as an opportunity for growth,” she said. “I’d also like to acknowledge with sincere gratitude the generosity of so many corporate citizens, granting organizations and small businesses who stepped forward throughout my tenure to show their belief in the work of the Foundation and provide their financial support for our efforts. 

“This funding often opened the door for important steps forward.”

She also thanked the numerous WCHF Board Members who worked alongside her over the last 28 years – advising, guiding and contributing their time, talent and treasure to grow the organization and make WCHF’s goals a reality.

“Some of these important people are now in heaven and I’m sure still keeping an eye on things from there,” she said. “And, always, I share all the goals achieved, all the public’s gratitude and all the finest work done by the Foundation in my time with the cast of characters that have made up my staff over the years.

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“They are some of the best people I have known, and I am very fortunate to have had the pleasure to work with them.”

John Kilburn, President of the Board of Webb County Heritage Foundation, said Araiza made a major impact towards preserving Webb County heritage for generations to come, ranging from educational outreach to the rehabilitation and restoration of the Border Heritage Museum.

“Just recently, her work was showcased at the opening of the Ursuline History Center,” he said. “She truly put dedication and hard work into numerous projects throughout her career.

“We wish her a very happy retirement.”

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Rosa Maria Ceballos De Llano, member of the Board of Webb County Heritage Foundation, echoed Kilburn’s words in saying that Araiza did an excellent job at the foundation during her time as executive director.

“She is so dedicated and knowledgeable,” she said. “It will be hard to replace her due to her excellent performance.

“Thank you for all of your hard work. We will miss you.”

Andrea Ordoñez, Republic of the Rio Grande Museum Manager, worked with Margarita for several years. She said that during Margarita’s 28-year tenure, she successfully implemented several important initiatives.

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“Among these, the implementation of the Local History Curriculum stands out as it likely played a crucial role in educating and engaging the local community about their heritage,” she said. “Another significant achievement was overseeing the restoration of the Gonzalez-Montemayor house, which now serves as the Border Heritage Museum.

“This restoration project not only preserved an important historical landmark, but it now provides a space for the community to learn about and celebrate their culture.”

For Ordoñez, Araiza’s dedication to Webb County Heritage and her hard work inspired a deeper appreciation for the value of cultural heritage and Laredo’s rich history.

“Margarita leaves behind a legacy of advocacy for historic preservation in Laredo,” she said. “I hope she is satisfied knowing her hard work made an indelible mark on preserving our heritage for generations to come.”

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Eduardo “Lalo” García, Border Heritage Museum Manager, said that by working with Araiza, he has learned the importance of preserving our past and safekeeping the physical memories and stories that have made this a great city.

“Her leadership and incredible dedication of her at preserving the cultural heritage of the city of Laredo is what I highlight the most about Margarita,” he said. “As she embarks on a new chapter, her legacy and commitment will continue to inspire generations to safeguard our heritage.”

Araiza will continue serving on several state and national boards in her capacity as a historic preservationist.

“For the time being, I still serve on several state and national boards in my capacity as a historic preservationist,” she said. “It’s hard, right now, to think of myself as not functioning in that role.”

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She said that she is open to new opportunities and new ways to use all the wonderful expertise she has accumulated while leading the Foundation.

“And I still believe the work of heritage education is one that must continue to grow and become a more prominent part of our community’s life,” she said.