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She is here to love this country, not be a burden. She just needs an opportunity for a better life.

“I didn’t want to come here. Leaving everything that I knew — my life, my friends. I’m so thankful now, but I was very upset with the United States for a while.”

Aracely Salazar sits tranquilly in the sunlit atrium of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association headquarters. The reception desk will survive without her, at least for half an hour. Besides, it’s Friday and she is eager to tell a harrowing story. Behind her, the south window opens to a quaint street of pastel casitas, peppered with palm trees, Aughts-era minivans and Esperanza shrubs touting their golden-yellow trumpets in the September sun. Her delicate voice barely clears the hum of Interstate 2, as eastbound hordes whiz past Weslaco toward Brownsville and South Padre.

Salazar has found indelible peace in her role as ministry assistant for the RGVBA and nearby Iglesia Bautista Calvario de Weslaco. But the road here was anything but serene. It began 45 years ago just across the border on the outskirts of Matamoros, Tamaulipas in Mexico, where she grew up. Life was somehow simpler then, despite that Salazar’s father — the family’s only full-time wage earner — took home about 80 pesos a week as a truck driver. That’s very little, she says, especially with a wife and five kids.

Salazar did her part as well. When her uncles and grandmother would bring vegetables from Texas, six-year-old Salazar would sell them to local neighbors to supplement her family’s income. Somehow she understood their struggle, even then, but “poverty” was never her reality.

If you wanted to eat meat, that was once a month. I don’t know how we survived. It was difficult, but it didn’t affect us much. It was just a way of life for us.

“We didn’t have much, but somehow we didn’t realize it because everybody in the neighborhood was the same,” she says. “We all lived day to day. We all had the same used clothes. You wouldn’t go to town unless you had to go to school or buy shoes, and that was only once a year. If you wanted to eat meat, that was once a month. I don’t know how we survived. It was difficult, but it didn’t affect us much. It was just a way of life for us.”

Even her parents’ inability to afford shoes for her and her siblings was lost on her. “My dad would get upset because he was not able to buy us shoes to wear every day, but I just loved to be without them,” she explains with a smile. After all, she adds, while everyone else played stickball, she would climb to the top of the colossal tree in the center of her family’s plot, where she could see the city. In the evenings, friends from across the street would join the family and chatter on the patio until bedtime.

“It was like a big family for us,” Salazar says. “There was a lot of love, and we were always together. I think that’s what helped us make it through.”

But everything changed the day her youngest brother was born with special needs. Doctors in Mexico simply couldn’t accommodate his disability, so the family applied for citizenship in the United States in order to access more advanced medical resources and care. In May 1981, Salazar’s all-guitar estudiantinas band was set to make its debut on Mother’s Day. But one week before the big moment she sold her guitar and moved to West Texas with her family. None of them spoke English. None of them had jobs waiting. Plus, she says, Americans stayed inside all day, and she was left to explore the outdoors on her own.

Hidalgo County

A young boy gets off the school bus and returns home after attending Saturday classes.

Salazar, age 12, started school, along with her siblings, only to discover loneliness and ridicule. Their American classmates pelted them with harassment and pet names, all because they couldn’t speak English. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the U.S. forced the entire family to take next-to-no-paying jobs in the fields picking fruit. From early May through the end of October, Salazar would work from 10 to 18 hours a day, trying desperately to fit a year of school into three or four months. Moreover, what little English Salazar picked up at school became her parents’ only lifeline for communication. Eventually, it all became too much. After the first semester of ninth grade, she dropped out of school.

“That’s a big responsibility for a child,” she says. “Leaving everything that I knew — my life, my friends. I was so much into Mexican culture, music, all of that stuff. I just loved it. It was a completely different way of life here, and I was just a little girl. When I came to school and didn’t understand anything, and realized that people wouldn’t like you just because you couldn’t speak their language, it was just very difficult. I was very upset.”

More dismaying than the hard labor and ridicule was a sudden, acute awareness of her family’s poverty, as if the United States had flipped a switch on her perspective of wealth.

Ironically, with school off of her plate, Salazar dedicated what little free time she had to learn English, her only hope for survival in the United States. That, and working dizzying hours in the fields. Still, she says, it was at least a chance to be outside and to spend her days singing with her father while they worked. In the back of her mind, however, she knew she was enduring the impossible. More dismaying than the hard labor and ridicule, she says, was a sudden, acute awareness of her family’s poverty, as if the United States had flipped a switch on her perspective of wealth.

“Somehow we understood a little bit of what was going on as kids but not fully, until we were living here in Texas and saw different things,” Salazar explains. “It was like, ‘Wow.’”

“When we came here, my brother got married, and my brother’s wife would celebrate so many things because she lived here. We started celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving. We started to learn about this feast that we never had. We saw the difference, and we realized that we were poor.”

Hidalgo County

According to the Pew Research Center, 77% of Hispanics living in the United States believe that hard work will pay off and that each successive generation will be better off than the one before, compared to 62% of native-born Americans.

Eventually, Salazar abandoned her back-breaking job in the fields for vocational school, but like the endless baskets of picked produce, her roots had been irrevocably ripped from their life-giving soil. Still, she never stopped working. Armed with a new degree in secretary work, Salazar proceeded to Wal-mart, to K-mart, to her first marriage, to two children, to a divorce, to single motherhood and finally to Donna, Texas, just east of McAllen, where she worked for 18 years as a teacher’s aide, elementary school assistant and administrative secretary. Salazar remarried and had a third son, but her husband soon turned abusive, she says, and she filed for a second divorce. Three kids and lingering trauma was a weight she could no longer bear alone, she explains, so Salazar resigned her position with the school district and took a job with her brother’s cleaning company. It was time to start over, again. But this time, she says, she would begin with a literal leap of faith — back into a conviction and church community that would support her as she healed and rebuilt her life.

One day, as she was listening at work to KRIO Radio Esperanza, her moment came. “After my second divorce, I had started looking for churches again. I found Radio Esperanza, and they kept saying, ‘If you want to meet Jesus, come to Rio Grande Bible Institute.’ I kept hearing that and I told myself, ‘I want to go meet Jesus.’”

When Salazar contacted RGBI to inquire about a new career in ministry, she was instructed to submit a pastor’s letter of recommendation. She didn’t have a church home, let alone a pastor to speak on her behalf. So RGBI gave her a recommendation: Iglesia Bautista Calvario de Weslaco. “Honestly, I was thinking three weeks, and they’ll give me the letter,” Salazar says with a chuckle. “I arrived and asked the pastor for the letter, and he said, ‘Sure, we’ll give you the letter, but just get to know us.’”

God gives you a lot of good things, even though we come from a family that is very poor, with a lot of difficulties. It was a hard ride. What we have now is not so much about the jobs, but the peace.

Salazar’s “three weeks” turned into five years and counting, first working with IBCW’s youth ministry and now employed part-time as a ministry assistant. She continues to pursue her commissioning as a missionary through RGBI, but she isn’t waiting on a diploma to share her story of transformation.

“God showed me that I needed to go and find him,” Salazar says, holding back tears. “My family changed. I got baptized, and then my son, my sister and my younger brothers. My dad even gave his life to Christ a year before he died. Through that year, even though he never stepped foot in the church, he would tell everybody to stop suffering and find Jesus.”

“God gives you a lot of good things, even though we come from a family that is very poor, with a lot of difficulties. It was a hard ride. What we have now is not so much about the jobs, but the peace. God is so great, and he’s given us so much, and I see it in my family. Before, we would go to work and do whatever, but now we can do anything with God. God is great.”

Hidalgo County

Even though a family may pay on a lease for years, the land owner may evict them for one single default of payment.

 

Though Salazar’s journey is far from complete, it is ultimately emblematic of the more than 11 million Mexican-born immigrants living in the United States. Arriving in the U.S., even legally, is simply no guarantee for prosperity or even a marginal rise from poverty, despite that 70 percent of Mexican immigrants 16 and over participate in the civilian labor force with one-fifth of the educational attainment of native-born and other foreign-born populations. Furthermore, Hispanics living in the U.S. are significantly more likely to believe in the American dream than even native-born residents. According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent have faith that hard work will pay off and that each successive generation will be better off than the one before, compared to 62 percent of native-born Americans.

Yet, Mexican immigrants like Salazar continue to shoulder a greater share of poverty than native-born and other foreign-born populations living in the U.S., with a median household income of more than 30 percent less than the national average. There’s a misconception that immigrants come here to draw benefits from the United States, says Salazar, but that is simply not reality. She recalls the fields where she began her bewildering journey, where she met children as young as five working 18-hour days for below-poverty-level wages. These people are here to love this country, she says, not be a burden.

“These are good people. They just need an opportunity for a better life,” Salazar explains.

Arriving in the U.S., even legally, is simply no guarantee for prosperity or even a marginal rise from poverty.

“I worked many years in the fields and met a lot of people like us. And they weren’t looking to take anything away from the United States. They want to give if they can get the opportunity. I think that the United States should be able to see that because a lot of the work in this country is done by people like that. They need that help. People are good, if you allow them to be.”

In 2019, Salazar will celebrate her 15th wedding anniversary with her husband, Juan Angel, who was persistent and patient through her hesitancy to ever marry again, she says. Her three sons, Carlos, Rolando, and Christian, are now proud fathers to three little girls, all of whom she now spoils with gifts and trips to McDonald’s — a luxury she never enjoyed as a single mother.

Today, at the end of another workweek at Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association, gratitude far outweighs any regrets, she explains. Like so many of the families with whom she shared a field, a song, a smile, she is here to love this country, to work hard, to help her family thrive and to find peace.

Hidalgo County

As fear of deportation increases along the U.S.-Mexico border, riverside recreation areas such as the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park are deserted by all but stray animals and the U.S. Border Patrol.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

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.




What can we learn about poverty from those who work along the Texas-Mexico border?

Like most of the Hispanic residents of Hidalgo County, Texas, I’ve met, Pastor Eloy Mendiola of Iglesia Bautista Calvario de Weslaco is slightly puzzled by the word “poverty.” Perhaps it doesn’t translate well to Spanish. Or maybe the rift runs deeper.

“Poverty, but according to whom?” he asks, albeit in Spanish, his first language. He refuses to speak English unless he’s getting paid to, he remarks with a smirk. “That’s what the world doesn’t understand. Poverty doesn’t come from your environment; poverty comes from what’s inside of you.”

Indeed, Mendiola hails from a poor, rural community in Mexico, where generations of his family worked for mere pennies in the fruit and produce fields. But he wields himself like the CEO of Goldmann Sachs — imposing, razor-sharp, with effortless poise. He towers well over six feet with a two-inch boost from his dusty cowboy boots. Decades of wisdom cascade down his chest in a half-foot gray beard, reaching away from a charcoal mustache, tightly waxed and extended toward his ears. The camera is ready, so he polls my opinion on wearing his sombrero. “Absolutely,” I say, as he tips a sandy-white, ten-gallon hat over his head and settles in the fluorescent glow of the sanctuary, now empty as Friday afternoon draws to a close.

Hidalgo County

“I believe that the first thing humans must address, and was true in my case, is the inner life,” Pastor Mendiola says. “The root of the problem of humanity is the heart. Poverty is fixed from the inside.”

Mendiola always possessed the scrappy, hardworking spirit of his family, he says. But he also understood that true liberation from poverty would come through education — one that integrates intellect with God-given purpose. Education isn’t just a feeding of your mind, he explains, but the awakening of an inner voice, an inner power from God that neither poverty nor riches can command. Though his grandmother imparted to him a dynamic faith, Mendiola’s family simply didn’t model the power of education but instead sold their labor for cheap in the fields. As a young man, Mendiola briefly joined them, but his own soul was beginning to wake up, and it was restless for more.

“I realized the fields weren’t going to take me very far, because my family never went very far on their abilities, going to work and selling their labor, using their hands,” he says.

Education isn’t just a feeding of your mind, but the awakening of an inner voice, an inner power from God that neither poverty nor riches can command.

“Working in the fields is a really difficult life, and even more so in Mexico. A lot of people come to the United States and continue doing the same thing. They think that, here, they will progress simply because they get paid better. But it’s the same. I became convinced that people must educate themselves and do so from the inside. I decided I wanted to make a difference, because of Jesus Christ. That’s the waking up that comes from the inside.”

Mendiola’s growing sense of vocation led him out of the fields and back into school, despite that his peers were beginning to earn a little money and disregard their studies. Eventually, he earned an advanced degree and began teaching math at the university, which propelled him to the United States to pursue a career in politics.

God, however, had a different idea, he says. Deep down, Mendiola knew that his call to spiritual awakening could not end with him; his journey would expand, as he helped his own people — Mexicans and immigrants living in Texas — wake up to education and to the spiritual power within. Instead of politics, he enrolled in seminary, where he studied theology and trained to become a pastor.

After more than a decade at Iglesia Bautista Calvario, Mendiola has helped his congregation mount a clear assault on systemic poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, offering ESL, GED, and citizenship classes as well as a food pantry and free clothing boutique. Yet, just outside of McAllen, where opportunity for education and employment abounds, the fight against poverty remains spiritual, rooted in the heart, Mendiola explains. Socio-economic forces are indeed formidable, but every human being retains the power to choose more in life, to cultivate true riches.

“People want to separate the spiritual from the secular, but that’s not possible. If a person has not experienced this awakening, he or she can have a lot on the outside, but, in reality, continue with the same inner poverty. We have many cases of people — artists, millionaires — who achieve the highest level of outer riches and power, but soon realize that there’s nothing else there, only money, power, and influence. So, I believe that the first thing humans must address, and was true in my case, is the inner life. The root of the problem of humanity is the heart. Poverty is fixed from the inside.”

Hidalgo County

Hispanics and Latinos comprise more than 92% of Hidalgo County’s population, and immigration has touched nearly every individual in some way.

Hidalgo County and the surrounding counties of the Rio Grande Valley continue to host some of the highest poverty rates in the United States. With nearly 34 percent of families and individuals living below their federal poverty threshold, Hidalgo County consistently boasts the highest poverty rate in Texas. Unlike other pockets of rural poverty across the country, however, the greater McAllen area includes more than 800,000 residents and remains the fifth largest metro area in the state. Widespread deficiencies in health care, employment, and education, therefore, are not rooted in isolation or disinvestment, but in the most prevailing reality of life: immigration.

“There are several pockets of extreme poverty along the U.S. southern border because it is full of those who have immigrated from Mexico,” says Diann Berry, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel and ally with Iglesia Bautista Calvario.

“They’re leaving for a reason, and usually it’s not a good reason. When they come in, they have nothing and have to start completely from scratch, building a home, saving money, working and things like that. And typically, when they immigrate in, a border town is as far as they get, so they stop and live there.”

The root of the problem of humanity is the heart. Poverty is fixed from the inside.

While the other 3,000 counties in the United States struggle to cope with the notion of immigration, Hidalgo County has immigration written into its very DNA, Berry says. In fact, McAllen, Texas, is home to the single largest immigration processing center in the country. Unsurprisingly, Hispanics and Latinos comprise more than 92 percent of the population, making a shared border, economy, and identity with Mexico simply commonplace, especially with the inception of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which transformed the greater McAllen area into a bustling international trade hub. Among most families living in poverty, immigration tells a familiar narrative: a family arrives from Mexico with few resources, speaks little or no English, acquires low-wage jobs working in fruit and produce fields and seeks to build life anew from a low-income housing area or “Colonia.”

Because immigration places such acute force on first-generation migrants, adult education and development is paramount in addressing systemic poverty, Berry explains. According to the Migration Policy Institute, second and subsequent-generation immigrants from Mexico display higher education levels as well as higher household incomes than their parents, commensurate with spending more childhood years in the U.S. to naturally develop English proficiency, attend public school and build their imagination for the future. Those who immigrate as adults, on the other hand, have vastly fewer opportunities to receive public education, learn English and conceive of a well-paying career, leading much straight back into the backbreaking, manual-labor jobs they left in Mexico.

“Many migrant workers who work in the fields grew up in migrant families,” Berry says. “Their grandparents worked the fields, their parents worked the fields, and that’s all they knew, so they work the fields. But at some point, many of them realize, ‘If I don’t do something about my situation, I’m going to be working in the fields my whole life.’ They want to step up out of the hole they’re in and try to become employable. So, the first thing they need to do is learn English, because so many of the jobs, even here in the Rio Grande Valley, require somebody who is bilingual.”

Hidalgo County

Diann Berry arrived in Hidalgo County in 2011 as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel addressing systemic poverty and founded the Rio Grande Valley Literacy Center.

The fight against systemic poverty in Rio Grande Valley is an inner work, Berry explains, not only because U.S. employers largely require a high school or college degree, but because education is typically the only missing piece of the puzzle for Mexican immigrants, who, as a whole, possess a certain grit and a vastly stronger work ethic than most Americans. Effectively, if Hispanic immigrants can add English proficiency and a general equivalency diploma to their desire to work hard, she says, opportunities to emerge from poverty multiply exponentially. That’s why Berry founded the Rio Grande Valley Literacy Center when she arrived in Hidalgo County eight years ago with a mission to alleviate poverty.

If Hispanic immigrants can add English proficiency and a general equivalency diploma to their desire to work hard, opportunities to emerge from poverty multiply exponentially.

Located in Pharr, Texas, the RGV Literacy Center provides ESL training, GED courses and citizenship classes to adults seeking the economic boost that education brings, no matter their age. In fact, RGVLC students now range from age 18 to 72 years old. For many Hispanic immigrants, Berry explains, it’s never too late to take responsibility for one’s education and invest in the next step. Many older women, for instance, apply for ESL classes at the literacy center only after their husband — who withheld them from learning English — has passed away. Other students struggle to negotiate multiple jobs and still attend classes, she says, but in the end, students will negotiate nearly any obstacle to persist in their decision.

For Aracely Salazar, ministry assistant with Iglesia Bautista Calvario, repeated decisions to push through barriers and invest in her education made all the difference in her journey through poverty. When she immigrated to Texas with her family in 1981, she spoke no English and began working 18-hour days in the fields picking fruit, all the while trying to cram two semesters of school into four or five months. Eventually, she couldn’t sustain both and dropped out of school halfway through ninth grade. Ironically, her journey toward education had only begun.

“During those times I put myself to learning English and taking care of my family,” she explains. After teaching herself English, Salazar continued to vocational school, where she earned a professional secretary degree. Through two decades, three kids, a divorce and an abusive husband, Salazar rose from one job to the next, eventually becoming an administrative assistant with the Donna Independent School District just east of McAllen. A second divorce, however, forced Salazar to discontinue her career as a secretary and start anew, so she began searching beyond mere education, she says, toward her passion, toward the voice of vocation. That voice, she explains, was calling her to share her lifelong journey of faith with others and become a local missionary.

Ultimately, discovering a deeper vocation was the true key to finding peace on the other side of poverty.

She picked up the phone and contacted Rio Grande Bible Institute, which accepted her application and paired her with a local congregation, Iglesia Bautista Calvario, where she has now served for five years as a part-time minister while earning her degree in theology. Learning English and acquiring a degree was crucial to supporting her three sons as a single mother, she explains, but ultimately, discovering a deeper vocation was the true key to finding peace on the other side of poverty.

“God showed me that I needed to go there to find him, and since then, everything changed,” Salazar says. “God has given me a lot of good things, although we come from a family that is very poor, with a lot of difficulties. It was a hard ride. What we have now is not so much about the jobs, but the peace. God is so great, and he’s given us so much, and I see it in my family. Before, we would go to work and do whatever, but now we can do anything with God.”

Hidalgo County

Lupita Marquez grew up living in poverty in Mercedes, Texas, and now serves with Iglesia Bautista Calvario de Weslaco and their food pantry, which supports more than 130 families each month.

Today, Salazar and Eloy Mendiola serve side-by-side as Iglesia Bautista Calvario seeks to inspire its community toward literacy and education, offering professionally-taught GED, ESL and citizenship courses from the church building just of the 83 expressway. IBC is even advocating at the Mexican consulate to develop a Spanish education system, Mendiola adds. Along the way, the church supports more than 130 families each month with a food coop and clothing boutique, creating a deeper relationship with local families. Sooner or later, he explains, those stuck in cycles of poverty must begin the search, not only to feed their minds but to discover a passion and purpose behind their life that only comes from God. Nobody is exempt from listening for the inner voice of vocation, he explains, even and especially those seeking a pathway out of poverty.

For those of us on the other end of the productive chain, the only thing that can lift us up is education. But my concern is that sometimes we see education as a commodity.

“We have to educate ourselves,” he says. “For those of us on the other end of the productive chain, the only thing that can lift us up is education. But my concern is that sometimes we see education as a commodity. I am a teacher of vocation. We are different from the merchants of education.”

“I’m talking about a spiritual awakening. People need to search for God because, truthfully, without God, it’s all building for nothing. We are not made for that. People grow when they develop a deeper knowledge of God. And you can go anywhere, to the depths of the jungle, wherever you want, and you’re going to find that people adore something because that searching is already inside of us. Even if people don’t believe in God, they have to begin to believe in something because you can’t wake up to something that you are not searching for.”

Hidalgo County

With the inception of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, McAllen exploded as an international trade hub and currently remains the fifth-largest metro area in the state of Texas.

 

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

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.




Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

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.

The subtropical oasis of the Rio Grande Valley attracts a myriad of distant visitors, including migratory birds, butterflies and Canadian nationals during winter.

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.

Hidalgo County

Thirty-three percent of Hidalgo County’s 860,000 live below their federal poverty threshold.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

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.




Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

All photos taken in this photo gallery are by Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey.

Hidalgo County TX
With the inception of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, McAllen exploded as an international trade hub and currently remains the fifth-largest metro area in the state of Texas.
Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey
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Storytelling ProjectsDespite 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:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

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.




Video: Diann Berry on Education

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.

 


Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

 

 

_____________

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.




Video: Diann Berry on Literacy Center Success Story

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.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

 

 

_____________

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.




Video: Lupita Marquez

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.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

 

 

_____________

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.




Video: Eloy Mendiola

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.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

 

 

_____________

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.




Video: Aracely Salazar

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.

 

Read more in the Hidalgo County, TX series:

Along the Texas-Mexico border, overcoming poverty requires spiritual liberation

A Mexican immigrant’s harrowing rise from poverty in Hidalgo County, Texas

Hidalgo County, Texas: A Mighty Current

Photo Gallery: Hidalgo County Texas

Video: Diann Berry on Education

Video: Diann on Literacy Center Success Story

Video: Lupita Marquez

Video: Eloy Mendiola

Video: Aracely

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

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Engaging the immigration debate: Ethicist, pastor differ on New Sanctuary Movement

Border wall, immigration among top concerns for Hispanic Baptists, leader says

 

 

 

_____________

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.