Women in saris and sequins mixed with men in tuxedos and military uniforms at the inaugural Texas Star Heritage Award Gala, hosted by the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC). Hundreds of guests, elected officials, and business leaders from across the community gathered under the institute’s dome to honor those who have contributed to the preservation of Texas’ diverse heritage and traditions.

“This is the perfect venue to celebrate our community and our strengths,” said State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), who co-chaired the gala.

The institute’s mission, “to give voices to the experiences of people from around the globe who call Texas home,” informed every element of the event, including the food and entertainment.

“There are some people here who have done some stuff, and I’m not necessarily one of them,” University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) President Ricardo Romo joked.

The institute’s leaders thought otherwise, choosing Romo as the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award. A tribute video described Romo’s achievements with plaudits from former mayors Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Alamo Colleges Board Chair Yvonne Katz, among others. 

The video spanned Romo’s career from college athletics through his tenure as UTSA president beginning in 1999 and celebrated his warmth, enthusiasm, vision, and love for his wife, Harriet. During his leadership at UTSA, the school went from being primarily a commuter campus to a research institution with greatly expanded degree offerings.

UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo speaks after being presented with the the ITC Lifetime Achievement Award.
UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo receives the ITC Lifetime Achievement Award. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“How do you say thank you to someone who has built such a huge piece of San Antonio and a huge piece of Texas?” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, as he introduced Romo.

“If you think about a country like ours, it’s like a pie. And Texas is the biggest slice. So it deserves that we honor Texas, that we understand Texas,” Romo said in accepting the award. “For that, I honor the ITC for all that they do.”

Romo himself will join the ITC staff as a historian following his retirement from UTSA later this year.

Throughout the night, Romo took the opportunity to recount the awards and recognitions amassed by UTSA, demonstrating his love for the university. Romo’s innate humility shone through, even as he beamed like a proud father.

“In recognizing me, you’re recognizing yourself, because you did all the work,” Romo said.

Romo also called attention to the reason for the gala: continuing the mission of both the ITC and UTSA.

“What matters now is the future,” Romo said.

Changes are ahead for the ITC, which is part of the university and is part of the school’s HemisFair campus. Updated exhibits that incorporate technology and best practices in museum pedagogy to illustrate the proximity of cultures in building a city, state, and country will soon be a part of the institute.

Attendees raise a glass in toast to UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo.
Attendees raise their glasses to toast UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“We have become a global nation,” Romo said. “Everything has become so close to us.”

The first recipients of Star Heritage Awards demonstrated the truth behind that statement.

Ernesto Nieto with the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) celebrated the social impact commitment of the OCI Group, the business award winner. The six founders of OCI met through the NHI.

OCI Group Managing Partner Analco González pledged commitment to the continuing mission of the ITC, which he said resonates deeply with the mission of OCI, a consulting firm specializing in economic and leadership development.

“[This is] a place that really allows people to really reflect on who they are. To reflect on diversity. To reflect on our similarities,” González said.

Regional award winner Janie Barrera drew shouts and applause even before she was introduced by former state senator Leticia Van de Putte. The work of Barrera’s LiftFund, a nonprofit microlender, has allowed many “not just to get a fish, not to learn how to fish, but to buy the pond,” Van de Putte said.

Barrera also celebrated a shrinking, collaborative world.

“With today’s technology, I believe that borders are becoming a thing of the past,” Barrera said.

John Hayes, the San Antonio Area Foundation‘s board chairman, introduced individual award winner G.P. Singh as “a man of integrity who truly lives his faith.”

Hayes celebrated the dignity and grace Singh and his family have demonstrated in the face of misunderstanding of their Sikh religion. Hayes also credited Singh for introducing the late John Santikos to the foundation, which became the recipient of the bulk of his estate. 

Singh, a philanthropist and businessman, credited the ITC for promoting peace and understanding in the city, especially after the 2012 Oak Creek massacre, when Singh brought a Smithsonian exhibit about the Sikh community to San Antonio.

“Hatred comes from fear. Fear comes from ignorance,” he said. “Here in San Antonio the Institute of Texan Cultures gave us a voice, and we used that voice to educate.” 

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.