Rio Grande Road Trip Part 2: The Valley

The Rio Grande Valley, some would say, begins at the Willacy county line and from there, consists of the border counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr. Others would more shrewdly remark that it begins (and for the Valley’s many undocumented residents, ends) at two internal border checkpoints along Highways 77 and 281. However, I’m not sure I agree with either assertion; for me, the Valley began when I saw the windmills.

I’d been driving through the barren, yet surprisingly green costal prairie for what felt like hours when I finally saw them. For large stationary structures, they were quite stealthy, and I hardly noticed them until I was practically on top of them. I grinned wide as I saw them standing tall against the natural frying pan below, absorbing the gulf winds to provide the energy needed by the bustling cities to the south. The wind farm, which finished construction in 2012, is one of the many proud symbols of hope for a region that has suffered terrible poverty for too long. In another way, the windmills are also a way of sending a message: outsiders, check your assumptions in the desert and prepare to learn; the Valley is nothing like you expect, nothing like any place you’ve ever been, and yet at the same time is a preview of the changes undergoing much of America in the decades to come.

             Though it’s likely no surprise, the Valley is overwhelmingly (above 80% in most places) Latino. From first generation immigrants who just crossed to families who have been established for decades, Spanish and English mix and flow seamlessly throughout daily life. One can hardly go a few blocks without passing a taquería and every diner has its own family salsa recipe. The Valley, though growing more and more industrial every day thanks to cross border trade and the booming Port of Brownsville, is still an agricultural hub for Texas. This identity crisis has manifested itself in the oddity of the colonias. The neighborhoods built backwards, as some would describe, think suburban sprawl with rural living conditions. Though some consist of longtime Valley residents while others are popular with new immigrants, they all share a history of overwhelming poverty. However, over the past decade, the residents of the colonias have fought their way to more livable conditions, winning more reliable electricity, plumbing, and even paved roads.

            Though the recent changes in the colonias are cause for optimism, the residents of the Valley still face an uphill battle to improve their living conditions. From problems in mapping (an annoyance for an interviewer trying to be on time, but a much more weighty issue for emergency services) to the absence of a major public hospital, the problems on the road ahead will take concentrated community cooperation to solve (as well as some much needed funding).

            I admit, though a stay of only a week didn’t allow me to fully grasp the nuances of Valley life, I now have a clearer window the Valley and it’s struggles. Though much of my knowledge is originated and verified through outside research, I accredit most of my learning to my wonderful hosts in the Valley. More on them next time.