"The impossible will take a little while"

“The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while. . .”

from Crazy He Calls Me,
by Carl Sigman and Bob Russell

Candidates’ Forum, McAllen

We began on a hot day in May, talking and planning  an area-wide effort to get out the vote. The goals were clear; the task daunting. We  would choose ten precincts in the area which had high-voter registration, but low voter turnout. And they would be places where poor families lived. In the last midterm elections (2006), only 17.5 per cent of registered voters participated in the election: half of what happened in the rest of the state.

“We” were the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a group of community-based organizations located in this corner of the US/Mexico border.

Over the years, I have heard no end of reasons for the low turnout here along the border, everything from ”poor people don’t vote; they aren’t stupid, you know” to “people from Mexico don’t trust the voting process, because it was so corrupt over there.”

I have also heard, over and again, that the Rio Grande Valley is a sleeping giant, and, that if it ever woke up, Texas’ state politics would be turned on its head.

Impossible, that.

Our goals

So we began with the difficult: finding volunteers to go door to door, not once or twice, but three times or more. And other volunteers to make phone calls. And yet others to track down those who could vote and those who would vote, to creating reams of paper so that we could track folks over time. This was not a one time project. We decided, as a group, as the Equal Voice Network, to adopt these ten precincts for a long time.

And increase turnout, in this election, by at least 10 per cent.

Which, in May, when we began this project, seemed like a lot. It would be harder than ever to find reasons for people to vote–the 2008 elections had a huge turn out from the Latino community. People were voting for hope, then, and there was tremendous energy.

But by October of 2010, the Obama administration had deported nearly 500,000 people. While some claimed that these were “criminal aliens”, it turns out that they are mostly not.

In any case, each deported person is someone’s brother or cousin or uncle.

There was “increased security at the border” but there was no immigration reform. “Immigration reform” was the very first request of the 25,000 families in our network.

So, we began with the difficult. And we preached the importance of standing up and being counted. Of speaking, so as to be heard. “Mi voto es mi voz.” And of knocking on doors, and knocking on more doors.

Early voting began on this past Monday. By Wednesday, papers statewide were reporting an astonishment–voting in the Valley was up over 200%. Two hundred per cent more people were voting this year.

We were stunned, we were excited, but mostly we kept on working. There is still another couple of weeks to go.

Perhaps this turnout is driven by some heated local races; perhaps it is up because of angry voters.  I of course like to think that it is up because people were responding to someone asking them to give a damn, and to vote.

In the meantime, the large old grandfather clock in charge of marking out history tick-tocks once more towards the moment when the impossible becomes real, something that should happen in just a little while.


Different Ways to Pray

From “Different Ways to Pray”
by Naomi Shihab Nye

“There were the men who had been shepherds so long
They walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
On fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
And were happy in spite of the pain,
Because there was also happiness.”

Saturday dawned with a glorious cool, crisp bit of weather that is rare in these tropical parts. Across the Valley, men and women who normally spend their precious Saturday mornings at the market, or repairing the house, or setting straight the things that got of order during the work week, head out the door with a bounce in their step and purpose in their eyes.

Getting Out the Vote with Proyecto Juan Diego
It is the “Equal Voice Campaign’s Get Out the Vote” Saturday in the Rio Grande Valley. A thousand strong, at least (I have lost count, for the moment) slip on bright, gold tee-shirts that proclaim “Your Vote is Your Voice”, and head out the door to do some civic engagement.

In Brownsville, the voting promoters gather at a local community center, pick up packets with addresses for door to be knocked on, and head off into the streets. There are smiles all around; the get out the vote campaign in this neighborhood has always been a great success. Those who promote the vote are received with anticipation. In fact the challenge here is to be able to get around to all of the houses on your list–each person that you run into wants to talk politics. There is no voter apathy in this community.

In San Benito, the Get Out the Voters invade the local, and popular, community days celebration, passing out voting commitment cards and encouraging attendance at the candidates’ forum for later on the morning. I worry that people would be more interested in the antique car show or the karate demonstrations, but they fill a small auditorium to listen to the candidates for local offices make their pitches.
Ron Rogers, START Center
Ron Rogers, one of the local activists, tells me that he thinks that with this effort, “We might really be able to control some of the decisions made in this town. Wouldn’t that be something,” he says, “Working families dictating policy.”

In McAllen, some three hundred people pack a meeting room where forty politicians have lined up to learn what the community expects from them. The politicians are not allowed to preach, they are given thirty seconds to respond to questions that the community of poor families have come up with . “What will you do to better school bus service to our rural communities?” “How do you plan to keep school yards open after hours, so kids have a place to play?” If the politician goes on for too long, she is given a small American flag. This seems to be as effective on the politicians as blowing a police whistle.

There is water, but no coffee. This is serious business. But there is a bounce in everyone’s step—this, I think, is a kind of happiness. A precious kind of joy.

Back in Brownsville, I put on my gold-colored shirt and visit the sixty homes on my list. The first man I encounter is delusional and goes on at length about a vision of Jesus that he had when he was six. As he finishes up the detailed description of what Jesus was wearing, he looks at me over his sunglasses, takes the sample ballot, and says, “And that is why I vote!”
Voting, with faith for a child’s futu
I put a check next to “yes, I will vote” on my scorecard. He has made a connection between religion and politics that I think that I will leave alone.

The last person on my list turns out to be Lupita, the overall coordinator for getting out the vote in this community.

She is in the driver’s seat of her battered suburban, battling to get the car out of “Park.”

I wish I could help, but I am useless in these matters.

She told me that she had just dragged her sister’s car, parked on the street with the Suburban (the car stalled some place and won’t start). She had parked the Suburban right up behind the one functioning vehicle that remains, so things are an an impasse. Her family has places to go and things to do, but no one is going anywhere soon.

I am thinking that this is a great image for most of the working families here in our Valley along the border. People live surrounded and trapped by things that don’t work the way they should, be it a school system or a job, or a political system that is quickly forgetting what it means to work for the common good.

An unhappy person would give up. Or turn to violence.

I ask Lupita if she plans to vote in this election. She just laughs, a twinkle in her eye. I check the “yes” box next to her name, as she continues to jerk the gear shift back and forth.

As I walk down the driveway and back out onto the street, I am bouncing a little on my feet. I am enjoying the cool breeze, and savoring happiness.

The Border: Not Secure

On Sunday afternoon, my dad calls me from his home in Alabama to tell me that the parish priest had mentioned me in his homily that morning.

As I was trying to decide if it were ever a good thing to be mentioned in someone’s homily, my dad said, “He was talking about that time you took him across the border into Mexico, and how, on the way back, the border patrol just asked him for his driver’s license, and that was it.”

The priest went on to assail the federal government, assuring the early morning Church goers that our southern border was not secure. “All I needed to get back into the country was a driver’s license, just a driver’s license!” he repeated.

This priest is a nice man, generous and hard-working to a fault. He has single-handedly helped build more homes and make life easier for more people than I could ever count.

He is one of the good people.

He is also blue-eyed and pale complected and has the confident posture of someone from the USA. The racial profile he would fit is “white, American.”

I was not at all surprised that he was able to get back into the USA on the basis of a driver’s license.  And I was not surprised that he was astounded by this vote of confidence in him by a border guard, for there is much nervousness in our country about the southern border.

The fact of the matter is that all hell is breaking loose on the other side of the border. Just in the past two weeks, hand grenades have been tossed at city hall and at hotels in Matamoros, a man was shot to death while jet-skiing on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, and a bus was car-jacked just some miles south of the border.  The bus-jacking was particularly heart-wrenching, as one of the two people murdered was an exemplary student in a class that one of my friends teaches at the local university.  Born to hardworking parents in Dahlonega, Georgia, he was on a weekend trip to visit relatives.

And there is “spill over violence” as law enforcement likes to term it. During the same two weeks, two men were shot to death in their pickup truck on a Brownsville street. Machined-gunned to death, actually. 

So, the border is not secure.

It is especially not a safe place for those of us who are brown-eyed, brown-complected, and poor.

Those who would fit the profile of being Hispanic, for example.

People fitting this profile are viewed with suspicion. They are asked for more than a driver’s license when stopped by the police, whether this be a casual traffic checkpoint or something more serious. One Mexican American friend of mine says that it is now “open season on the Mexicans” and when I see the border patrol trucks riding up and down the levee that borders the river, or the three border patrol men bicycling through my neighborhood on a Saturday morning, the impression is distinctly that of a hunt going on.
Insecurity eating at his soul

For a while I thought that perhaps I was exaggerating this whole security detail, but then I speak with Pablo, a fellow whose family turns out on Saturday mornings to do yard work in one of the neighborhoods in San Benito, a little town up the way. Pablo looks like a wreck. He no longer sleeps well. Pablo is terrified that someone doing the hunting going to catch him, and then he would be deported. “I have lived here for twelve years and I have my entire life invested here. And we will die if we get sent back to Mexico.”

Pablo was pulled over by the highway patrol some weeks ago, racing to get his eight year old to the hospital. The officer was satisfied with Pablo’s valid Mexican driver’s license and let him off with a warning. The officer did not call the border patrol, as often happens, and as so many people seem to want to happen. The officer was from around here, and I guess he felt some compassion for a man caught between this particular rock and this particular hard place.

And that is what the border seems to be these days, for folks like Pablo, a narrow place between a rock and a hard place.

The squeeze between those two unforgiving surfaces is only going to get tighter in the months to come. President Obama just signed into law a $600 million border enforcement package. Mexican President Calderon has also upped the ante in his war against the drug gangs.

As for Pablo, his Mexican driver’s license expires in January.

He will then have no documents at all, not even a driver’s license, which, if he were to have blue eyes and a pale complexion, might have been enough to get him out from between the rock—and this very hard place.

Violence in Reynosa impacts health care needs in Las Milpas

Steve Taylor of the Rio Grande Guardian attended our Equal Voice Network community meeting. Residents got together to decide what they wanted local candidates for office to address during a coming community forum.

Narco-violence continues to plague our border community.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Increased violence in Reynosa has made Las Milpas residents more wary of crossing the Rio Grande to see a doctor, community leaders say.

As a result, there is an even greater need for more community health clinics in one of the fastest growing parts of the Rio Grande Valley.

Photo from the Rio Grande Guardian

“One of the options that has always been open to those of us who can freely cross the border is to go into Reynosa to seek medical attention,” said Project ARISE member Maria Esparza, speaking in Spanish. “Now, however, that is becoming less and less of an option because of the increased violence in Reynosa. We really need a county health clinic, particularly for those adults who do not qualify for Medicaid.”

Las Milpas is otherwise known as South Pharr. Its population in 2000 was about 10,500. Because of the increased trade with Mexico that flows through U.S. 281, its population has shot up. Pharr Mayor Polo Palacios said he would not be surprised if the Census 2010 count puts the figure at 20,000 to 25,000.

“From what I have been told by those that read the meters, there are now more water meters in South Pharr than there are in the City of San Juan,” Palacios told the Guardian. “That tends to suggest there are more families south of Pharr than in San Juan. It is growing very fast.”

Project ARISE and other community groups that work within the Equal Voice for America’s Families network, recently held a town hall meeting at Centro Comunitario to document the issues that matter to the residents of Las Milpas.

Access to health care topped the list but residents also said they want more green space and recreational facilities for children, better public transportation, more street lights, improved drainage, and better paying jobs.

“The transportation is important because Las Milpas residents do not have the health clinics they need. They have to go to Clinica del Valle, in San Juan, or HOPE or El Milagro in McAllen,” said Sanjuanita Martinez, a community organizer with
Project ARISE.

Martinez said she first moved to Las Milpas 22 years ago when it was all green fields and colonias. “Now, we have a pharmacy, Junior’s Supermarkets, doctors. It has really grown,” Martinez said.

The infrastructure needs of Las Milpas are being added to those of other communities across the Valley in preparation for a major Equal Voice event. On Oct. 16, the Equal Voice network will host a Candidate Education Forum at the McAllen Convention Center. Gov. Rick Perry and his gubernatorial challenger, Bill White, have been invited.

“We are calling it a Candidate Education Forum because we want the candidates to learn of the needs of the community,” said Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez, of Proyecto Azteca. “We do not just want the candidates to come and tell us what they are going to do if elected. We want to tell them, in an amicable way, of our needs. And, we will not just list the problems, we will offer solutions.”

In addition to the gubernatorial candidates, those running for Congress, county judge, state representative, the 13th Court of Appeals and school board are being invited to attend. “We have given the candidates a questionnaire ahead of time so we can get their answers, even if they do not show up,” Garza said.

In addition to the Candidate Education Forum, Las Milpas residents also plan to attend an upcoming Hidalgo County Commissioners Court meeting to press their case for a county health clinic.

“This Equal Voice platform is the voice of Valley working families. They created it and they want our elected officials and those who want to represent us to take notice of what it says,” said Project ARISE’s Ramona Casas. “We want to be listened to. We want health clinics, day care facilities, educational opportunities and scholarships, better public transportation. We are talking about quality of life issues.”

Pharr Mayor Palacios acknowledged that Las Milpas or South Pharr, as he prefers to call it, needs more infrastructure and facilities. However, he said the improvements that have taken place over the past decade are vindication of the City of Pharr’s decision to annex the land south of the interior flood way system back in the late 1980s.

“Look at what is available now. We have a Jack in the Box, a Subway, drug stores, restaurants, and all sorts of businesses. Our industrial parks are providing employment opportunities. You can really see the entire city coming together, with South Pharr almost at the levee. We are becoming a big city,” Palacios said.  

© Copyright of the Rio Grande Guardian, http://www.riograndeguardian.com. Publisher: Steve Taylor. All rights reserved.

Alejandra’s Home

Alejandra is proud of her home. It is not a house, but a travel trailer, parked in a small space at the back of her mother-in-law’s house. We can reach the front door today because it hasn’t rained in a while.
Her husband had paid $1,500 or so for the trailer, buying it from a friend who had lived in it for ten years, who had bought it from a couple from Minnesota who, twenty years ago, had used it while traveling through Mexico.
So it is not a house, but it is their home.
“Before,” she said, “We would rent a small room from different people. But  now we have a home.”
Alejandra gave me a tour–a small breakfast nook; a small cooking area, a very small bedroom, and a small, small, small bathroom with a smaller shower stall. There is no hot water, as the boiler burnt out some time ago.
No air conditioning either, which I noticed as soon as I entered. The word “sauna” came to mind at first, but then I remembered that in a sauna you are not wearing clothing, you go there by choice and you can leave whenever you want.
Alejandra closed the door.
Sweat streaming down my face, I told her that I had just lost ten pounds. She laughed and said, “Our trailer is a double-use–a home and a fitness center!”
The screens were intact on the small windows, mercifully keeping out the mosquitoes and flies.  Her one year old son was napping in the bed. In the evenings, Alejandra explained, they made a small bed on the floor for him. “We have to be very careful if we get up in the middle of the night not to step on him,” she commented.
I carefully backed into the kitchen/dinette/living room. I sat at the small table while she poured me a glass of water, which she then sat upon a napkin.
She filled up a glass for herself, and then sat down opposite me. A drop of sweat fell from the tip of her nose. Alejandra sighed, and noted,  “We are so blessed.” 
Then she took a measured, small sip from her glass of water, and smiled again.
The details of my visit were misleading. I had found an obviously poor woman living in a hot, leaky trailer—and she seemed happy about this. “A simple soul,” the uncomplicated part of my brain deduced.
But then we continued to talk and I learned that while this was definitely her home, and while it was a step up from a rental room, it was just that—one more step.
Alejandra had larger things in mind, which involved a decent home for her boy to grow up in and in which her family would create their living space. What struck me most about our conversation, though, was how she continually included the wider community in her dreams. How she would refer, over and again, about how nice it will be when “all of us have decent places to live.”
Her present home was indeed small. Her dreams—not so much.