MOST FOLKS THINK of Florida when they hear the word “citrus,” but Texas—more specifically the Lower Rio Grande Valley—is known for its delicious red grapefruit.
Seedling orange trees were planted by Don Macedonio Vela at the Laguna Seca Ranch in 1882, the earliest record of citrus in the Valley. But orchards planted on orange rootstock failed because the soil wasn’t right. Finally, in 1908, an orange orchard was established by Charles Volz, who planted on sour orange rootstock. Seedy red and seedless pink grapefruit were established in the late twenties and early thirties. Ruby Red grapefruit was patented in 1934. The industry took off—in the forties there were more than 100,000 acres of citrus trees. Improvements in growing and harvesting techniques gave rise to even more profitable crops.
The leaders of Mission, a small town in the Valley, decided that something had to be done to publicize this growth. So in 1932 the first Texas Citrus Fiesta was held. Rather than focus exclusively on grapefruit, the first Citrus Fiesta was titled the “Coronation and Pageant of Citrus.” John H. Shary, one of Mission’s early promoters of citrus farming, was crowned King Citrus I. The inaugural 1932 party included a parade, a football game, citrus exhibits, fruit-packing contests, and a flying circus.
Today, the festival is normally held in the last week of January (the 2002 fiesta will be January 24—26) and pays particular tribute to the Ruby Red and Star Ruby grapefruits, which are so crucial to Mission’s citrus industry. The court includes King Citrus and Queen Citrianna, the Princess of Orange Blossom, the Princess of Grapefruit Blossom, Princess Anna (a six-year-old lady-in-waiting), the Princess of Lime Blossom, and the Princess of Lemon Blossom. Additionally, 26 duchesses are selected from neighboring communities. The events are similar to those in 1932 but also include the Product Costume Style Show and the Parade of Oranges. For the style show, models wear outfits made of 90 percent Valley fruits, vegetables, and foliage. Queen Citrianna’s gown, including its twenty-foot-long train, has traditionally been very elaborate, with beaded and sequined depictions of citrus products.
Citrus harvesting in the Lower Rio Grande Valley normally begins in October and lasts through April or May. In spite of advanced technology, all Texas citrus is harvested by hand. Mechanical harvesters are not used because they damage trees and fruit. In December, Mission-area children begin pestering local farmers for extra fruit to use in costume and float decoration. Teams of decorators create all sorts of citrus fantasies for the parade. However, the citrus decoration requirements have changed over the years. When a 1983 freeze destroyed 70 percent of that season’s crop and reduced the acreage from 69,200 acres to about 22,000 acres, the rules changed to allow the use of ashes and sawdust from destroyed trees.
Despite those rare frosts, the Texas Citrus Fiesta always returns warmth to Mission and reminds folks of the great fruits they have to enjoy and to offer to others.