Highway 281 cuts sternly down the south Texas plains, as the projected glow of San Antonio fades to indigo. Save for the occasional Dairy Queen or roadside Tex-Mex dive, the journey toward the United States’ southern border offers only dust, sporadic clusters of prickly pear cacti and a sea of low-hanging mesquite. Brush country envelopes you in its vast expanse, and just when you suspect you might drive off the face of the earth, you see it — the subtropical oasis of the Rio Grande Valley.
Emerald-green palms 30-feet high burst from the loamy soil. Texas sage bush too. The fragrant, yellow blooms of the Esperanza shrub hang on every corner like golden bells, chiming the hour for flourishing, which is always. Migratory birds arrive from distant tropical lands and dance through the crepe myrtles, incessantly singing. Greater McAllen, now 800,000 strong, sings its own tune, the thrum of a bustling international trade hub and Texas’ fifth largest metro area. South of Interstate 2, the soggy floodplain extends in one long pause before reaching the source of Hidalgo County’s great cacophony of life, the Rio Grande.
But peer out over its life-giving current, and you will meet another force. Stroll through its empty banks and riverside parks — deserted by all except a stray cat and U.S. Border Patrol SUVs — and you will discover its power to withhold life. Sit with those who have crossed it, with or without permission, and you will confront its knack for stripping away home, career, savings and even health. Listen to the stories of the more than 268,000 in Hidalgo County living below their federal poverty threshold and you will learn that its waters are rarely hospitable to newcomers, most of whom must take on the slow, agonizing work of rebuilding life from scratch on the other side.
Among the United States’ most relentless areas of rural poverty, Hidalgo County stands alone, namely because its premier city, McAllen, contains the nation’s largest immigration processing center. Immigration, rather than isolation and economic disinvestment, dominates life in the Rio Grande Valley, contributing to widespread deficiencies in education, employment and health care among Hispanic and Latino households that account for 92 percent of its population. Although a shared border, commerce, and identity with Mexico are considered utterly ordinary to citizens of Hidalgo County, immigration requires hundreds of thousands — many of whom do not speak English or have a high school degree — to start over in a highly competitive U.S. economy.
Many immigrants take the only job readily available, picking fruit and produce in the vast agricultural fields of southern Texas. Because of their unmatched cultural work ethic and dedication to family, too many migrant families will simply continue working more than 12-hour days in the fields for their entire lives, explains Diann Berry, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in McAllen. At some point, however, many also discover that emerging from poverty is only an English class or GED course away. That’s why Berry founded the Rio Grande Valley Literacy Center eight years ago to combat systemic poverty in Hidalgo County. If immigrants can acquire English proficiency and a high school equivalency through ESL, GED and citizenship classes, she says, they have an enormously better chance at earning a living wage and finding a sustainable career in McAllen’s opportune metro area.
Eloy Mendiola, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Calvario de Weslaco and ally with Berry in the fight against poverty, echoes the power of education, as his congregation engages local families living in poverty through language courses, GED classes, a food coop, and clothing boutique. Yet, immigrants living in poverty must repurpose their desire to work hard not only toward earning a degree but toward a search for God and their God-given purpose, Mendiola says. Education is not simply the feeding of your mind, he explains, but the awakening of an inner voice, the voice of vocation that tells you who you are and the deeper life that is yours to live.
Thus, despite the Rio Grande’s unmistakable capacity to both give and strip away life, there is yet a more formidable power in Hidalgo County, Texas, and it flows from within. It is a mighty current of resilience, propelling you toward more than fields and dollars, toward another semester of English classes, toward finally earning your GED, toward the purpose and passion that God has placed inside of you, toward a new opportunity to grow, to thrive and to find home once again.
Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:
Audio: Eloy Mendiola (coming soon)
Related commentary at baptistnews.com:
On immigration, Franklin Graham is dead wrong | Mark Wingfield
The day life changed for a legal immigrant — and his church | Lauren Efird
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Despite the Rio Grande’s unmistakable capacity to both give and strip away life, there is yet a more formidable power in Hidalgo County, Texas, and it flows from within. It is a mighty current of resilience, propelling you toward more than fields and dollars, toward another semester of English classes, toward finally earning your GED, toward the purpose and passion that God has placed inside of you, toward a new opportunity to grow, to thrive and to find home once again.
This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.
Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.