Landscape painter Gabriel Salazar has long been inspired by the lush fields of citrus and palms surrounding Donna. As a boy, with the help of his father’s American employer, Salazar immigrated to this Rio Grande Valley town from a small community near Monterrey, Mexico. Salazar honed his artwork as a teen, and his drawings soon captivated a gallery owner from Austin, who in the 1970s recruited him to the capital city to work in art restoration. After about seven years away, the beauty of Donna called Salazar back. It’s a beauty that has endured through change: Part of a Mexican land grant established in 1834, the sleepy farming community became a modern gateway to Mexico in 2010 with the opening of an eight-lane international bridge. Happy in his hometown, the 73-year-old Salazar paints every day and says he continues to be amazed by the fertile Rio Grande Valley—its rich colors and light, palms and orchards.
Donna the Postmistress
“I love the history of Donna. First this was a Mexican territory. The first known Anglo-American settler was a man and his wife seeking a safe place to live because the woman was a former slave. Donna is named for Donna Hooks Fletcher, the divorced daughter of one of the first big Anglo families here. She was a trailblazer and the town’s postmistress at the time. You can learn about her in the little museum here.”
The Road to Donna
“I remember when I was a kid still in Mexico there was a mesquite tree near the Rio Grande. I would climb it and look toward the United States, but I had no idea what the U.S. was yet. I saw a highway and the cars moving, and I thought, ‘That is so busy: There’s a bus, so many cars, and a big trailer moving past.’ I would watch from that mesquite tree, amazed. Who would have thought that maybe a year later, I would be traveling along that same highway, coming to Donna?”
“You know, the year that we came in from Mexico , maybe two, three weeks after we arrived… boom! There was an explosion of happiness here because Donna won the state football championship in Austin. It stunned everyone. I’ll never forget how exciting that was.”
“When I was young, Donna was the home of this popular norteño singing duet, Los Donneños. Donneño is the word for someone from Donna. Not only were we the state champions for football, but the Donneños became the champ musical group in Mexico. For many years they were the No. 1 group. We knew one of them personally when I was a kid, and he helped put up the antenna for the first TV we ever owned. How proud could I be?”
“Donna is a small, nice town, and I like that. There’s no real hub downtown, or traffic, or anything like that. It’s just easy here to live. My neighbors are so beautiful. I don’t bother them; they don’t bother me. You want to see me happy—it’s right here, in my garden, in my studio, painting. I need the peace to create, otherwise I couldn’t.”
The Rio Grande
“The Rio Grande is about 7 miles from here. I’ve done paintings of just about every section from here to the mouth of the river—of the farmers, ranchers, or just the view. As a kid—because my dad used to work nearby—I could go to the river and spend the whole day. It was beautiful. It was just open there for all of us to enjoy.”
“I know they are the iconic image of the valley, but for a long time I would not paint palms because they didn’t seem interesting. There’s no curvature or form or shape. But I learned that you can change the surroundings or the life around the palms. And there are the shadows. So there’s beauty there, but before I could not perceive it. Later I thought, ‘Oh! With the palms, you can play with them.’
Donna Town Trivia
13 miles northwest
The Donna Chisholm Trail Festival, every February at Altas Palmas Park, with music, a 5K, carnival, and barbecue cookoff.
Donna Hooks Fletcher Historical Museum