Thursday, February 23, 2012

McAllen/Edinburg, TX and Reynosa, TAM

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
Sister Marian grew up in McAllen, became a Sister of Mercy at age 16, and studied nursing and public health. In 1979, she was living with her elderly father in her childhood home (which was then owned by her brother, David) and working for the diocese of Brownsville when she began to offer hospitality to Central Americans who were fleeing the U.S. funded wars that had erupted in their home countries.  For refugees who had just crossed the river, Sister Marian's Casa Merced, one of a few similar houses in the area, was a place to rest up and connect with family members already established into the United States.  Over 5,000 refugees stayed at the Strohmeyer residence between 1979 and 1992, some of whom Sister Marian still keeps in touch with.

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.

In the 1994, Sister Marian's brother, David, and sister-in-law, Beverly, planted an organic orange and grapefruit orchard to provide a source of income for their retirement. However, the days we visited, they looked far from retired.  They were running around, managing the operations of their two orchards--one in McAllen and another in Harlingen.  We were really impressed with their set-up and their delicious organic grapefruits. I never liked grapefruits, but these were AMAZING. And unfortunately, they are not able to sell scarred fruit, though it tastes fine, because people in the supermarket won't buy it. So a good percentage of their fruit goes to the juicer just because of aesthetics, and a good portion while we were visiting got gobbled up by us.  If you want to try some incredible organic grapefruit or give some away next Christmas, look up G and S Groves here.

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
Most of the packers were women who lived in McAllen and who just did this seasonal work to supplement their income, especially during the holiday season.  They were a bit more shy in talking to us, but it was interesting to see how the fruit was washed, sorted by size and bagged up by these women who spend all day on their feet.

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
The biggest surprise (and cause for complaint) for us in the McAllen area was how spread out everything is. We heard about organizations we wanted to visit in Mission, San Juan, McAllen, Hidalgo, Pharr, Alamo, Edinburg, etc. and they are all in the same general area, but seem really spread out when you are on a bicycle.  And there was practically no public transportation.  So, when we decided we wanted to go to Reynosa, McAllen's sister city in Tamaulipas, our only real option was to bike the 20 miles to the border and 20 back home that night.  Of course, it was totally worth it.

Eric with Martha Ojeda, the director of CJM (far right)
and the family we visited in Reynosa)
Similar to Nuevo Laredo, our contacts in Reynosa were involved in the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.  Ernesto and his toddler son picked us up from the bridge and brought us to his house where we met his wife, Gume.  Both Ernesto and Gume are from the state of Veracruz and they moved to the border as teenagers to work in the maquiladoras. They met working at an autoparts factory, with whom they now have a lawsuit. Currently, Gume runs a store out of their house and takes care of she and Ernesto's three children while Ernesto is working in the fracking industry of Mexico, which, of course, pays a lot less than it does in the U.S.

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
After a few hours with Gume and Ernesto, Martha Ojeda, the director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, came by.  She had flown up from Mexico City that morning, had already attended a meeting in Reynosa and she met us shortly after lunch. She is a really incredible woman who after many years working in the maquiladoras of Nuevo Laredo began to organize the workers. Now she is internationally known and honored for her passion and devotion for the plight of factory workers. We had a wonderful conversation with her and she was very encouraging of our travels along the border.

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
Eric and I were shocked to hear that Hidalgo County has over 1200 colonias, neighborhoods that lack basic services.  It is one of the poorest counties in the country with a per capita income of $9,899. Ann also told us that 61% of children in colonias are obese, probably in part caused by the fact that they often do not have sidewalks, street lights, public transportation, nearby grocery stores, and no garbage collection so trash is in the street.

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
I thought it was interesting that L.U.P.E. is a member-based organization, based on the idea that members of the low-income community have the responsibility and the obligation to organize themselves.  Membership is $40.00/year per person or $60.00 for a married couple, and I was concerned that those membership fees may discourage people from joining, but I also see that people will be more invested in the work of the organization if they are financially involved.  Also, the members dictate the work of the organization, so if you have an issue that you want the community to address, L.U.P.E. is a place where an individual can receive great support.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Great job describing our Valley! Thanks so much for the grace of your visit, and I am so sorry that we didn't get more time to visit.