In this special report from Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice, learn how Texas families in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border are embracing a philanthropy-inspired network and their own agency to alleviate poverty.
MCALLEN, Texas – If you listen to select words out of Washington, D.C. about the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border, your impression might not square with the reality of families in this region.
As the national spotlight remains on the U.S.-Mexico border, a collaborative will for human dignity, civil rights and community progress is thriving in the Rio Grande Valley, home to more than 1.3 million people in the southern tip of Texas. This ethos – and the region’s vibrancy – can be overlooked, especially when the outside view is hyperbolic.
This region is home to a family-led grassroots movement for a more just and equitable society. It’s movement building that has been underway for years. It’s driven largely by Latinx families, comprised of both U.S. citizens and immigrants, who are working for solutions to what structural poverty and a lack of equitable access to financial resources have created over the years.
Families know firsthand how public policies are creating progress and economic opportunities or aren’t. Poverty and intolerance, families say, are blocking human potential – creating costs too high for all of us. Immigration, dignity and showing compassion to newcomers remain central to the region’s families who are organizing for social change and better lives.
“This is a moment where people can see beyond themselves,” says Martha Sanchez, organizing coordinator for farmworker and civil rights organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). “Hate is not healthy for anybody. We need to look more deeply.”
Rio Grande Valley families are working with nonprofit organizations focusing on advocacy and activism – specifically, farmworker and labor rights, immigration, public-interest law, faith-based efforts, affordable housing, health care and civic engagement.
A Philanthropic Network Amplifies the Voices of Families
Central to this movement-building work, community and family leaders say, is the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a multi-issue coalition of Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee organizations and allies. It is among 15 regional networks the Foundation and its grantees started nationwide (the Foundation, which has invested more than $7 million in the Equal Voice Network model, also supports the Native Voice Network and a youth-led network).
The Network is an incubator or laboratory of sorts for real-life progress, where low-income families can meet, voice ideas and focus collectively on bottom-up, community-led policy and grassroots solutions.
Grassroots leaders say Marguerite Casey Foundation is one of the few philanthropic funders to issue sizable, multiyear general support grants to Rio Grande Valley nonprofit organizations in support of family-led movement building.
These dollars can be used by Foundation grantees as they see fit in their grassroots pursuit to alleviate poverty and promote equity. It is philanthropic trust and movement building in action and unison. Marguerite Casey Foundation has been investing in community organizations in this region since 2003. The region’s Network started in 2005.
“We try to be a regular presence, to see how we can connect organizations with other ones. It’s about being a bridge,” says Christina Patiño Houle, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network weaver, which is like a coordinator or facilitator.
“What we provide is convening space,” Patiño Houle says. “The Network provides the focus of pulling people in so they’re in conversation. The Network gives a culture to shift the platform to be aware of the collective.”
The Network, Patiño Houle adds, consists of eight Foundation grantees in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as about 20 other ally nonprofit organizations. Many of those are in the region.
Because Network members are in regular contact with so many Rio Grande Valley residents and the focus is on grassroots movement building, local, state and U.S. government officials – including elected ones – stay in frequent communication with the organizations and their family leaders.
“It’s a testament to the Network in mobilizing people,” Patiño Houle says.
Network members meet regularly to focus on the wellbeing of families in the Rio Grande Valley, which has more than 45 cities and hundreds of unincorporated neighborhoods known as colonias.
While immigration touches all Network members in some way, families say there is more to life in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties than what is only occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border: Families are fighting for healthy, stable and safe communities, quality education for their children and peace and prosperity. So, when Network members meet in working groups, they also focus on jobs, housing, civic engagement, education and health.
From that collective focus comes passion-inspired efforts for positive social change. Families sit at the vanguard of this movement building.
The work can start at one nonprofit organization, which spreads word to other Network members. Or it can emanate from weeks or months of brainstorming after a group of Network members listen to families about steps needed to go forward. The Network also amplifies the work of ally organizations.
Families Honor Asylum Seekers – by Dancing
The morning before Mother’s Day is muggy and overcast near Edinburg, a Rio Grande Valley city about 25 miles from the border. At Sunflower Memorial Park, in the flatlands off state Route 107, the inviting rhythm of Mexican-Caribbean music blares from loudspeakers.
Under a metal shelter, about 90 people – nearly all women – are wearing workout clothing, shuffling left then right, hips twisting freely and arms flying up to the beat of Cumbia and Reggaeton music.
It looks like a normal exercise class at a local gym, but nearby are Maria Campos, her daughters and about 15 cardboard boxes full of goods.
Before participants start dancing, they hand Campos and her children toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, pasta, canned food, blankets and clothing.
The donated items will go to asylum seekers and others who were recently released from federal immigration facilities and are now waiting at shelters to be united with relatives or sponsors.
The event is organized by LUPE, the grassroots nonprofit started by activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1989. Campos and her daughters are LUPE members. They and the participants at the park are continuing the work of serving humanity.
“This is the closest that many community members will get to what’s happening at the border,” says John-Michael Torres, LUPE’s communications coordinator, as the music continues in the background. “We want to lift up treating people the way we want to be treated.”
Campos, who lives in a colonia near Edinburg, has visited shelters with other LUPE members – some of whom have read books to migrant children there – to offer support to asylum seekers released from U.S. detention facilities.
“I put my hand on their shoulder,” she says in Spanish. “I tell them, ‘You are not alone.’”
Families Lend a Hand to Asylum Seekers
By Mother’s Day, the air is still thick and humid in Brownsville, which sits about 60 miles southeast of Edinburg. At the city’s bus station – minutes from a U.S. Mexico-border crossing – Sergio Cordova has arrived with food and supplies for immigrants and asylum seekers following their release from U.S. detention.
He is a volunteer with Team Brownsville, a humanitarian organization that provides food and emergency supplies to asylum seekers and migrants on both sides of the border. The Network supports Team Brownsville by amplifying its needs and supporting communication efforts with other organizations.
As asylum seekers have arrived at the border over the months, nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, have dispatched staff members to talk with them about conditions and treatment by U.S. authorities – especially since that many must wait in Mexico to go through the formal process to apply. U.S. border guards are stationed in the middle of the bridge leading to Brownsville, and they turn asylum seekers away to wait in Mexico. Advocates say the old protocol – of allowing asylum seekers to start the process once they reach U.S. soil – was safer and more immediate for families fleeing unrest, turmoil and violence.
Inside the Brownsville bus station with its brick pillars, passengers are waiting for long-distance rides. At first, it’s hard to determine who might have been released from federal immigration detention or how long a person or family might have been at the bus station. Some newly released migrants spend days there, waiting to be with relatives or sponsors in the U.S.
Cordova, a local school district employee who grew up in an immigrant family, scans the room, looking for people without shoelaces and belts. Immigrants and asylum seekers who were just released from federal detention won’t have those items – U.S. authorities, citing safety reasons, require they be turned over.
Cordova gives food to an immigrant family who hasn’t eaten in days, and an older woman approaches, saying in Spanish that people nearby need help. A younger woman quickly follows, keeping an eye on Cordova.
The younger woman, who appears to be in her 20s, looks distraught. Her brown hair is frazzled, and a small towel is draped over her shoulder. When she moves again, it’s clear she’s not alone. An infant, a girl, is sleeping on a metal bench in the waiting area. Cordova rips open a pack of diapers and hands the mother a stack along with a toothbrush. Soon, a bowl of cereal is placed next to the girl, who is covered by a blanket.
The mother pauses, then smiles slightly. She tells Cordova she is from Honduras – and it’s taken a month for her and her daughter to arrive at the border. This is Mother’s Day.
“Any baby who comes through, we make sure they have formula,” Cordova says. “All that we give them is all that they’ll have.”
Asylum seekers often make the journey by walking.
The stories that Team Brownsville volunteers and city staff hear at the bus station are harrowing, all about the instability, turmoil and violence that people are fleeing, especially in Central America.
People are arriving from other countries, too, including Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Cameroon and Cuba.
Later in the day, Cordova and other Team Brownsville volunteers walk across the U.S.-Mexico border with food and supplies for families and individuals waiting to apply for asylum. On the Mexican side of the border, as people eat the donated food, one man talks about the persecution he faced in Cuba because he is gay. He is looking forward to living in the U.S.
Families Meet to Boost Education
Each week, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network gather at community organizations to chart ways to make progress on goals in other areas, such as housing, jobs and health.
The day after Mother’s Day, the Network’s education working group is meeting at ARISE Support Center, located in a yellow, two-story house in the city of Alamo. The house, which is the nonprofit’s main office, is now a place for community organizing. Rooms are full of chatter in English and Spanish.
It’s fitting the meeting is at ARISE. The organization works with many nearby colonia residents, especially mothers. After seeing the conditions in their colonias – bumpy roads, a lack of streetlights in some cases – they became grassroots community leaders to make positive change for their families and neighbors.
In minutes, the seats are full around the table in ARISE’s lime green meeting room decorated with photographs of its members. Parents and community leaders are there to discuss ways to improve communication between families and area school district officials.
School district board meetings, Network members say, are held only in English – but parents in this heavily Latinx region speak Spanish. Many say an English-to-Spanish translation policy at school board meetings would help support all families in their pursuit of a quality education.
Also on the working group’s agenda for the day: A discussion of how Mexican-American Studies can be introduced into the public schools. Butcher paper goes up on the walls. Participants write and discuss ideas.
“It’s democracy because we are not working only for the best of one person,” says Ramona Casas, a community organizer who helped start ARISE in 1987. “We’re looking out for the best of community members.”
A $190-Million Policy Win to Address Flooding in Colonias
Rain has just swept through the Indian Hills colonia, near the city of Mercedes, leaving the unincorporated area moist and muggy.
Near the intersection of Apache Drive and Campacuas Drive stands a sprawling tree.
When neighborhood families need to discuss community issues and concerns – say, better roads or water drainage or their kids’ safety – this is the place to gather.
Lourdes Salinas, a community organizer with Proyecto Azteca, which works on affordable housing in colonias, is standing under the tree with a few mothers. She lives in this colonia.
The women are talking about a major Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network policy victory from November 2018: A $190-million bond measure to fund nearly 40 drainage projects in Hidalgo County colonias.
The county has hundreds of colonias – some community leaders estimate between 800 to 1,000. Thousands of families live in them because they’re affordable. But colonias are located on former agricultural land designed to retain water for crops, said Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca.
When it rains, homes and streets – many of which are uneven and in need of repairs – flood. Families talk of water reaching their waists – or half way up to an SUV. The water not only damages houses, including bedrooms, and appliances, such as washing machines, but the high levels can block key streets to and from colonias.
Families are unable to leave their homes to buy groceries. Mothers talk of holding young children in their arms to keep them out of the water. But the water’s depth can cause parents and kids to fall. Kids tell parents that even the sound of rain frightens them. Sanitation systems fail during the flooding, contaminating neighborhoods.
In June 2018, the floods reached worse-than-normal levels. Some have dubbed the event the “Great June Flood.”
After that, families affiliated with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network accelerated their call for better drainage. They talked with neighbors door-to-door, documented cases of flooding, attended government meetings and studied maps and data. They and other supporters succeeded in putting a November 2018 bond measure on the ballot and spoke with Rio Grande Valley residents, explaining that associated taxes would benefit everyone.
Network members say the victory involved numerous families and community organizations, including ARISE, LUPE and Proyecto Azteca. They all work in various colonias – places where families who are members of their organizations live.
Sarai Montelongo, a mother who started an influential Facebook page in the Indian Hills colonia, used her platform to raise awareness about the drainage bond.
She launched the Facebook page to call attention to bumpy roads and the safety of neighborhood children.
“We used to be a colonia that people forgot,” she says in Spanish, standing under the large sprawling tree and near streets that have been the site of community meetings with elected officials.
While $190 million will not solve all the drainage issues in Hidalgo County colonias, community leaders say it is a solid policy step to take, as they continue to work for more improvements.
“This will be a big change,” Salinas says.
Rio Grande Valley, USA
To leave the Rio Grande Valley by highway and go north to San Antonio, motorists take state Route 281. The drive takes about four hours and can be monotonous, save for the low-level greenery on the flatland and what looks like a large gas station in the middle of the highway.
It’s actually a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Some people question these types of checkpoints in the country’s interior because there is no immediate probable cause of wrongdoing. But federal agents can operate the checkpoints if they’re within 100 miles of the U.S. border’s “external boundary,” according to the ACLU.
As the ACLU notes, U.S. border authorities are only permitted “a brief and limited inquiry into residency status” of people going through them. Cass of Proyecto Azteca says the federal checkpoints exist in all directions leaving the Rio Grande Valley, including at airports.
A few days after Mother’s Day, two U.S. Border Patrol agents dressed in olive green uniforms stand at a checkpoint lane and wait for motorists. One holds the leash to a law-enforcement dog.
As two visitors – a White American man and an Asian American man – arrive by automobile, an agent wearing reflective sunglasses waves the vehicle through. No need to stop and answer questions. No need to show identification.
But outside the checkpoint, a man with dark hair is standing in the grass just off the highway. In a matter of minutes, a U.S. Border Patrol van with flashing emergency lights arrives. Two more government vans quickly show up.
Weeks later, news breaks of crowded and unsanitary conditions at federal detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border – of humans fenced in confinement. Migrant children remain separated from parents.
Sanchez, the LUPE organizing coordinator, says these types of stories and experiences about families and individuals underscore how important it is for communities to work together for human rights, equity, justice and the alleviation of poverty.
“All of this reminds us of our humanity,” she says. “We bring things in our heart to keep us human. For people here, it’s not an option to give up.”
Brad Wong is communications manager for Marguerite Casey Foundation. He has written about U.S. poverty data, diversity and Father’s Day, the Earned Income Tax Credit and voting rights in Florida. Mike Kane is a Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. He has made images and videos about Rio Grande Valley families, Black family farmers, a memorial to those who died by lynching and Native American youth building affordable houses. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.