Eric and I realize we are just getting a glimpse of these border towns as we are zipping by and much of what we see has to do with where we stay. Our first night in McAllen, Texas, we got to stay on a grapefruit and orange orchard with Sister Marian Strohmeyer and her family. Staying with Sister Marian Strohmeyer was a great introduction into the Rio Grande Valley as Eric and I were really interested in the Sanctuary Movement in south Texas in the late 1980's.
|Sister Marian Strohmeyer|
After 1992 and the Salvadoran peace accords, Casa Merced transformed into Comfort House, offering hospitality to folks with HIV/AIDS. Jesuit and Mercy Corps volunteers came and lived with Sister Marian and assisted with the operation of this new ministry that helped people cope with their diagnosis. Comfort House remained in operation until 2000.
Eric and I got to see part of the grapefruit harvest while we stayed at the Strohmeyer farm and we got to chat with the workers, many of whom cross over from Reynosa each morning to work. The two pickers have been doing agricultural work for most their lives (they are in their 60s) and they travel throughout the year and throughout Texas and New Mexico to pick watermelons, chiles and onions. They seemed fearless and proud as they leaned their ladders on the swaying branches, climbing up to fill their bags with the tasty citrus.
|Two grapefruit pickers at the Strohmeyer Orchard|
When we planned to spend the night with the Strohmeyers, we had no idea the orchard existed. It was a wonderful surprise to see how this family farm works and to talk to farmworkers, the invisible workforce that feeds us. Of course, spending time with Sister Marian was an honor and we hope to visit her and the farm again soon.
After our day at the orchard, we scooted over to Edinburg and the home of our next hosts--four teachers doing a second year with Teach For America. We stayed with Gustavo, Leeann, Sam and Ashley for the next week, often sharing delicious meals together and hearing about their latest adventures in teaching. After hearing just a few days worth of teaching stories, I tip my hat to them for their courage! I'll just stick with riding my bike 2500 miles--so much easier.
|Ashley, Sam, Gustavo, Leeann and Nala|
|Eric with Martha Ojeda, the director of CJM (far right)|
and the family we visited in Reynosa)
Ernesto and Gume live in housing built by the government. Compared to where we stayed in Nuevo Laredo, it could seem really nice, but it is teeny and they will be paying for it for the next 30 years. There are two bedrooms, one of which has been converted into a store, and the other, where all 5 family members sleep. The third and final room is more of a hallway that contains the kitchen, dining room and a tiny space on one end that fits an armchair--I guess that makes it a living room. There is no yard, and it is exactly 8 meters wide. Ernesto drove us around the neighborhood and it is just block after block of these crammed together concrete structures. In a way, it is great that people have basic services that are lacking in so many colonias, but Ernesto says they are very poorly made and in the end they will be paying for much more than they are worth.
We spent a good portion of the day with Ernesto and Gume, talking about Mexican presidential candidates, all the places they have traveled with CJM, and their struggles with finances in Reynosa. One really interesting thing that Ernesto told us was about how the Zetas control all the vices and black market in Reynosa--alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, human smuggling, drugs, and, surprisingly, also used clothing. With the recent laws that make it difficult to bring second-hand clothing into the country from the U.S., individuals must pay taxes on the imports (yay free trade that allows multinationals to cross good without tariffs, but prevents poor folks from bringing in used clothes!) or they can pay a smaller fee to throw their load into a truck driven by the cartels, which, of course, will breeze through customs. We had no idea the control ran so deep.
|A memorial for migrants in Reynosa, Tamaulipas|
On our way back to the bridge, we passed a memorial for migrants near the Casa del Migrante of Reynosa. Unfortunately, due to time and the fact that we were staying 20 miles from the border, we were unable to return to visit this house for migrants.
Later in the week, in San Juan, Texas, we visited with Ann Cass, the director of Proyecto Azteca, which was formed in 1991 by the United Farm Workers, Texas Rural Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. Proyecto Azteca's mission is to build healthy communities by assisting low income families construct quality homes.
|Ann Cass, director of Proyecto Azteca|
Proyecto Azteca works in over 120 colonias with families that make less than $10,000/year. They construct 35-60 homes per year and give the new owners a 0% interest mortgage. Each family assists in the building of the house (550 "sweat hours") and must attend classes on being homeowners, financial education, home repair, organic gardening, etc.
In trying to create sustainable communities, a big challenge for Proyecto Azteca and the residents of Hidalgo county is economic. Proyecto Azteca has assisted people in entering technical programs, but carpenters, plumbers, eletricians in Hidalgo County only make $7.25/hour, so after people receive the training, they often leave the valley and head north, where they can earn a better living.
One of Proyecto Azteca's major projects right now is to build an entire community from scratch. The neighborhood consists of 32 houses and each will receive silver LEED certification, the rating system for environmentally sustainable construction. The neighborhood, complete with community center and garden, will be mixed income with diverse types of families.
We learned so much from Ann and loved meeting someone who was so passionate about such an important, but often overlooked, issue. We had to tear ourselves away to head to our next meeting which was conveniently right next door with another organization started by the United Farm Workers, L.U.P.E- La Union del Pueble Entero.
At L.U.P.E., we met with the director, Juanita Valdez-Cox, and one of the organizers, Daniel Diaz. L.U.P.E. is a member-based organization which serves to empower residents of the colonias to effect social change through community organizing and social services. L.U.P.E. provides legal assistance in immigration cases, English and citizenship classes, assistance with income taxes, and translation of birth and marriage certificates. As an organization, L.U.P.E. also has several goals: immigration reform, assistance in the recovery of unpaid wages, changing the requirements for getting a driver's license in Texas, and better living conditions in the colonias.
|L.U.P.E. organizer Daniel Diaz |
with director Juanita Valdez-Cox
While navigating the Valley on bicycle may not have been our cup of tea, we were really impressed with the activists we met and with the outstanding work these organizations.
|One of the murals at L.U.P.E.|