BROWNSVILLE, January 6 - In the 23rd Psalm, David, affirms his faith in God as he proclaims, “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.”
As I reflected on this Psalm, I considered a contrasting application of its meaning to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This region is what I will refer to as the “Valley of the Lambs.”
For the purpose of this column, I provide, as follows, a different context for this Psalm: Even though I walk through the Rio Grande Valley, I will fear evil and be wary of the malfeasance of the lawmakers [members of elected government offices]; the disobedient acts of law enforcement officers [sheriffs and police as well as members of the Border Patrol]; the arbitrators of the law [lawyers and judges] and the community leaders who focus on personal gain rather than the common good of their constituencies. The rod and staff that are to comfort me are nowhere to be found.
The lamb has always been a symbol of the innocent, a docile helpless creature protected by the shepherd from being devoured by the wolf, lion and other predators. To me, La Gente del Valle Rio Grande, reflects the nature of the lamb. This inclination has been evident since the coming of Whites to the southwest and is described in detail by Cecil Robinson in his book, With the Ears of Strangers: the Mexican in American Literature. Robinson provides an overview of how the White settlers saw the Mexicans, who remained behind in the conquered territories after the Mexican War, as being ripe for the picking. These newcomers saw South Texas as a free range with no ownership and the platform for the practice of Manifest Destiny.
They also saw the Mexican as a different race that would offer no resistance and could be easily intimidated or subjugated to the new rules of law. Many Mexicans had no choice but to either stay and suffer these indignities and injustice or migrate to other points in North America or South to Mexico.
I am preparing my own migration from South Texas to head north of the Sarita Border Patrol Checkpoint. This will be my second departure. The first was in 1965 and it took me 38 years to come back to el Valle. Upon my return, in 2002, I found that not much, to my surprise, had really changed. There were more Mejicanos, more highways and more shopping outlets, but the attitudes and bearing of the “dócil and humble gente” was still evident and appears to be even more entrenched than before. I predict that, unless there are significant changes, when I return in another 38 years, that it may be more of the same. This is where the rub is.
My impression is that la gente del Valle has accepted its fate and status in the social, political and cultural life of Texas. Even though there are more of them in terms of population, they still adhere to the ground rules set by King, Kleberg, Stillman, “Latino Coyotes” and others who came, saw and took their lands after 1848. I’m not making this up; this is well documented in social and economic histories such as those of David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, and Armando Barrera’s Race and Class in the Southwest. Milo Kearney, Anthony Knopp and Antonio Zavaleta of the University of Texas at Brownsville also document and describe accounts of these individuals in their journal, Additional Studies in Rio Grande Valley History.
Into this colorful history, the “heroes” came with guns, the cover of law and the brute force of the Texas Rangers. My grandfather and others of his generation used to lovingly refer to them as, “los pinches rinches.” Once in a while there would be someone with the bravado and courage to stand up and fight, write and speak for la communidad as did Juan Nepomucino Cortina, Americo Paredes, Catarino Garza, Dr. Hector Garcia, Irma Rangel, and Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa.
In due time their stand and struggles would disappear, as do footprints, when the tide comes in on the sandy beaches of Padre Island. I see no modern hombres and mujeres stepping forward to demonstrate “Brave Thinking.”Instead, sadly, this new generation sprouts forth “Latino Gringos” who do the bidding of their handlers in Austin and Washington as they tell us that what they do for us is what we need done to us. That is the orientation of the leaders of the UT System, its Board of Regents and of the Texas A & M System. That is also the character of our politicos who tolerate incompetent leaders in public institutions rather than demand accountability and excellence. Their lack of action engenders the mediocrity of leadership in regional post-secondary educational institutions and school districts as well as in this region’s myriad of municipalities.
The passive orientation of La Gente del Valle is disconcerting and reminds me of part of the chorus in Don McLean’s American Pie when he sings, “Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, With no time left to start again.” This Gente, these Tejanos, these Mexico-Americanos and these Hispanics are in one place; the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley. Many dare not leave and those who do depart often come back unsure as to why they returned. Some, like me, depart again.
This place, this geographic misnomer, this Rio Grande Valley, is a Third Space as Edward Soja, the urban sociologist from the University of California at Los Angeles, designates such in-between social and geographic spheres. It is neither here nor there; it does not belong to Mexico and sometimes it has trouble being accepted as a part of Texas or even Norté America.
It is a place that Tom Miller contends has come to represent many things to many people, yet it remains the most misunderstood region of North America. He claims that, “our southern frontier is not simply American on one side and Mexican on the other. It is a third country with its own identity. It obeys its own laws and has its own outlaws, its own police officers and its own policy makers. Its food, its language, its music are its own. Even its economic development is unique. It is a colony unto itself, long and narrow, ruled by two faraway powers in D.C. and in Mexico City.”
The residents of South Texas put up with a lot. The lawmakers are mistrusted as several have, through their misdeeds, cast a pall over the governance structures. The enforcers of the law: the police, the sheriffs and the constables are also mistrusted as several have been found guilty and sentenced to federal and state prisons. As protectors of our communities the sheriffs, their deputies and members of the U.S. Border Patrol have been found at times to be as perverse as the outlaws they are sworn to protect us from. Then there are the interpreters and purveyors of the law; the judges and attorneys who are also held in disdain as several are under indictment or on their way to serve prison time for their transgressions. What we have in South Texas is an ever-increasing rogues’ gallery that has been part and parcel of the corruption that is common practice in this region.
I have never been or will ever be in the political camp of former Texas state representative Aaron Peña. However, I do agree with his assessment of this region’s leadership, as provided to the Rio Grande Guardian in a recent interview. Peña’s observations have much merit as he offers the reproof that the, “Rio Grande Valley voters have to be vigilant. They need to study the character of the candidates. They cannot simply follow what the political boss tells them what to do. You have to make decisions for yourself. Unfortunately, here in the Valley, candidates are being vetted by the political bosses, not the citizens.”
There is nothing more frustrating to me than to learn of the misdeeds of superintendents, members of school boards and elected municipal officials who behave as if their election came with a key to the vault that holds our community’s resources. I am especially chagrined when I hear that a superintendent or a member of a school board has stolen from our community. These scoundrels should be considered the lowest form of thief since they steal from our children’s dowry; their future. I propose that they receive the full measure of the law when they are sentenced for their crimes.
Yet, as the daily events of lawlessness become the story of the day on the regional news media, the common retort from la Gente is simply, “bueno, este es el Valle.” Simply put, it is what it is here in el Valle.
It would seem that such conditions are only present in South Texas. Believe me, as one who has spent a majority of his life in what Diego Rivera referred to as “Gringolandia,” that is not the case. Corruption and bad leadership is a part of the political and social landscape of any community when there are individuals with singular and personal goals and the presence of a self-centered agenda in the mix. What stands out, in South Texas, is that bad leadership and corruption receive a greater share of the spotlight. That may be, in part, due to the fact that it happens in a compressed geographic area populated by a majority ethnic population. Mexican Americans comprise 92% of this region’s demography and they are both the victims and the abusers. So what is to be done?
Hillel, the Jewish scholar and religious leader, admonished his people by asking them, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? This exhortation is one that the Mexican-Americans of South Texas must consider. To simply rely on the elected officials to look out after our interest, safety and welfare is not enough. I contend that this region’s common folks and grassroots leaders must be engaged in what Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, refers to as a, “change insurgency.”
The term insurgency has been given a bad rap in popular media as it is used to describe groups that are in rebellion against dictatorial regimes or who take up arms in opposition to the foreign policy of the United States. In many videos from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan the insurgents are seen driving around in pickup trucks with arms and cannons welded to the floorboard. In reality, an insurgency is a collective of individuals who challenge the status quo and not necessarily through the use of violence. To Reich, an insurgent is a change agent who makes institutions nervous by holding them accountable by calling forth their shortcomings or by demanding the inclusion of the common citizen in the decision making process.
What the Rio Grande Valley must have are lambs ready to morph into insurgents who will rise and shout as Peter Finch did, in the film, Network, “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” Not to do anything is to admit impotence and the acceptance of directives from those in power that are somehow endowed, at their election, with great knowledge and awareness about what we need and how they will look out for our well-being. All one has to do is confront them with data based questions and challenge them to provide the facts to back up their proposals to expand our quality of life. You may be surprised that they have not the faintest understanding of who we are as a people or what we wish for our children’s future. They may claim to be one of us but have not walked among us or understand our cultural identity or the complexity of South Texas. To speak Español does not suffice.
I contend that what we need in South Texas is a change insurgency that is guided by informed citizens. These individuals must be trained to be active proponents and sponsors of reasonable dialogues about the challenges and opportunities that affect us all. We must train our communities to stand up for themselves and not to take everything that comes down the pike from Washington or Austin as gospel truth. The grassroots leadership must learn to use data and to effectively convey studied agendas to those that have been elected to supposedly serve the region’s shared interest and future.
The proposed “new” University of Texas for Las Americas or whatever name it eventually winds up with, should take on the role of engaging South Texas by creating leadership centers throughout the region. These centers would focus on leadership training that enfranchises citizens to be advocates and proponents for their common well-being. They should also be prepared to speak out with a studied and rationale voice that affirms their property rights and be ready to confront those leaders whose behavior demonstrates an absence of awareness of what matters to South Texans. My contention is that we have individuals, in leadership roles in South Texas, who lack the courage and fortitude to speak with affirmation and conviction on behalf of our communities. They are either intimidated by the system or have become interwoven as part of that fabric that will keep South Texas at the periphery of its future and the full realization of its potential.
There is an existing community leadership model that may be useful. It has been in practice for over thirty years at MALDEF: The Mexican American Legal and Education Fund. MALDEF’s headquarters are located in Los Angeles, California. I used this model to establish the MALDEF Community Leadership at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1985 under the auspices of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Gus Lee in this book, Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, states that a critical component of any community’s or organization’s sustainability will be the development of leaders with courage and conviction. These leaders will be those that work hard to develop followers who believe, as he states that, “we have the opportunity to build our individual and collective courage.” There is nothing that stands in the way of South Texan’s shared development except “Ganas” or the will to own their future.
The admonishment from the Jewish scholar Hillel concludes with this question, “And if not now, when?” That is the same question that I am posing to the residents of this region. We must be attuned to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson who observed that, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” South Texans should, through the accord of a strong voice, make leaders fearful of taking their rights and votes lightly.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D. is the founder and lead consultant of the Borderlands Group of Corrales, New Mexico and Waco, Texas. He is a distinguished graduate of the College of Education at the University of Texas in Austin.