In the 23 years after the first National Night out in Mission the event has grown and changed, but for Irma Flores Lopez, it remains a hallmark in the community.
Flores Lopez, who still has the t-shirts they made for the first National Night Out, was the first person to bring the event to the City of Mission. She said it began through grassroots work by several people.
“McAllen, Brownsville, Harlingen, they have one, so we started it back in 1996,” Flores Lopez said. “It was beautiful. And I remember worrying about how many people would attend, and there was maybe 1,000 that first year.”
After that initial National Night Out, Flores Lopez began to work with the Mission Housing Authority, where she continued organizing the gathering for a few more years. Organizers of the first bash were Irma Flores Lopez, Lisa Tellez, Andrea Garza, Juan M. Gonzalez, Mark Anthony Kent, Betty Ramirez, Myrta Cardona, Adela Ortega, Elizabeth Lopez, Jorge Solis, Hermina Villarreal and her son Sergio, Tanya K. Vasquez, Norma Espitia and Robert Granados.
“My bosses let me do my thing,” Flores Lopez said. “And we got everyone involved. We started from scratch.”
Flores Lopez stressed that the free event is something for people of all social and economic backgrounds.
“My thing was, bring people from all walks of life and bring them together to mingle with the police department and trust them,” Flores Lopez said. “Maybe it’ll reduce crime, maybe it’ll increase communication.”
According to Flores Lopez, the National Night Out is one of the biggest events in Mission, second only to the Citrus Fiesta.
“We did it in four to six weeks,” Flores Lopez said. “These people gave their all to put this together.”
When Flores Lopez began working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 2001, Martin Garza, Jr., the current City Manager of Mission, called and asked for her help in continuing National Night Out under the Mission PD.
“I was still involved, but not as much, I’d help them a little bit, and then I’d be selling something,” Flores Lopez said. “And now I’m just a spectator. I miss it, it’s still in my heart. It was at La Lomita [Chapel]. We started the first one, it would be grand to be part of the new one with the new park.”
Flores Lopez said politics often left the group who worked on the first National Night Out unrecognized at events, and she has begun getting questions from her fellow organizers and committee members as to why they never were acknowledged in public.
“These people gave their all to put this together, just thank them for 30 seconds,” Flores Lopez said. “People get territorial. It’s political. I’m Mission proud, I really am.”
Flores Lopez reached out to Corporal Robert Rodriguez with the Mission PD and asked if the original organizing committee could be recognized at this year’s National Night Out. Rodriguez said he would check with Chief Robert Dominguez.
She described the great lengths they used to go to in order to let people know the event was happening.
“We used to go through neighborhoods in a van, and we used to honk and use the PD megaphone that’s really loud and announce the Night Out down the streets,” Flores Lopez said. “It was super grassroots. It was so much fun. We knocked on doors, and it was amazing.”
The entertainment and food was and still is kept family-friendly and affordable, and Flores Lopez said the turnout the first year was much more than expected for these reasons. One of the most notable changes happened because of the inflation of the economy over time: National Night Out used to offer homemade ice cream and cobbler for $1.50, cheeseburgers for $0.75 and sodas and chips for $0.25, among other concessions.
“We had snow cones, tacos, ice cream,” Flores Lopez said. “It was a community event that turned out huge.”
The first National Night Out in Mission created a tradition of an annual crime prevention event that has since grown to include Police and Fire Departments from all over the Rio Grande Valley.
“We need that connection, so there won’t be intimidation,” Flores Lopez said. “That is the key element: connect the PD with regular folks. And it’s gotten better over the years.”
“It’s a family affair,” Flores Lopez added. “And you’ll see people sitting down and having a good time.”
This year’s National Night Out in Mission will be held Tues. Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the newly renovated Leo Peña Placita Park.