Shades of Blue in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, as Wendy Davis Launches Her Campaign

South Texas' Rio Grande Valley came into the spotlight this summer during the state legislature's battle over an omnibus anti-choice bill, but for the people who call it home, politics are much more complicated than "red" or "blue."

South Texas' Rio Grande Valley came into the spotlight this summer during the state legislature's battle over an omnibus anti-choice bill, but for the people who call it home, politics are much more complicated than "red" or "blue." Image by RH Reality Check

Read more of Andrea Grimes’ reporting from the Rio Grande Valley here.

The owners of the brand-new Beef O’Brady’s in McAllen, Texas, have transformed the former bank space into a sports bar, with massive projection screens that cover the top half of a two-story ceiling, surrounding patrons with 360 degrees of big-screen sports and beer advertisements. The effect is much more Times Square than Texas border town.

On this Thursday evening in early October, the Texas Longhorns are set to play an unusual weeknight game against Iowa State. But the booze-swilling crowd at Beef O’Brady’s isn’t here to see if Longhorns coach Mack Brown can do what he’s paid more than $5 million a year to do—which is to say, win football games. They’re crammed into a private party room in the back corner with their own big screen TV, dipping into gargantuan bowls of chips and salsa and watching an empty podium 500 miles away over a Texas Tribune live video feed.

These Hidalgo County Democrats, like thousands of their party-affiliated Texans that night, are waiting to hear from Wendy Davis, the state senator representing Fort Worth who made national headlines in July when she spent 13 hours filibustering an omnibus anti-choice bill in the state’s capitol. Members of the press, from Univision to local television affiliates to the McAllen Monitor, line the back of the room. Candidates for local offices and judgeships avail themselves of the opportunity to get their names out, dropping full-color campaign cards on tables and shaking hands. A young woman from Reynosa, the Mexican city just across the border from McAllen, solicits interest from her fellow young Democrats in splitting a massive hunk of Beef O Brady’s “molten” chocolate cake. Everyone’s in.

Davis takes the stage to an eruption of applause, then a swift round of hushes. No one wants to miss the words they’re so anxious to hear. Finally, halfway into her “Texas story” speech about her journey from teen motherhood to Harvard lawyer to state senator, Davis says, “I’m proud to announce my candidacy to be the 48th governor of the great state of Texas.”

Everyone is grinning, made rapt by the appearance of, at last, a Texas Democrat with the star power to match her policy smarts. This particular Davis announcement party is a combined event sponsored by the Hidalgo County Texas Young Democrats and Battleground Texas, the monied organizing group that has set its sights on turning Texas blue despite national naysayers and intimidating odds, given Texas’ strong Tea Party showing in recent years. Naturally, there’s an email sign-up list at the door alongside a pile of stickers.

Of course, Hidalgo County, like much of South Texas, already runs blue, though in a different shade than that of its Democratic counterparts in Austin, Houston, Dallas, and even San Antonio. Predominantly Hispanic and deeply Catholic, the Rio Grande Valley is much like a small town spread across four counties and nearly 5,000 square miles, where “Democrat” doesn’t always mean pro-choice or pro-marriage equality, and where running on a winning ticket can be as much about who a candidate went to high school with as promises made on the campaign trail. It is geographically beautiful—the phrase “big Texas sky” doesn’t do it justice—and populated by folks who take Texas hospitality to the next level.

But at the bar, residents tell me they feel both forgotten and taken for granted by more geographically central, and economically enfranchised, parts of the state. The four counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley—Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, and Starr—are among the very poorest in the state. In the Valley, over 2,000 colonias, patchwork developments of hand-built homes and trailers sitting on land that often has little or no access to sewer, water, electricity, or drainage services, abut McMansion-style subdivisions, sorghum fields, and new highway construction. McAllen and Brownsville, the largest city in the Valley, were last year ranked the two poorest cities in the United States.

So perhaps the line that the Beef O’Brady’s crowd is really waiting for, the line that they didn’t expect, isn’t Davis’ official gubernatorial announcement, but a line that came later in her speech:

“Until every child from Longview to Lubbock to McAllen to Mesquite makes it to a stage like this, and gets their diploma, and knows that nothing will wash out the road to their future dreams, we will keep going.”

The McAllen name-drop sends the party room into another frenzy of applause, and the grins get even bigger. After Davis walks offstage and the live feed is cut, a Battleground Texas representative gathers everyone in the room for a group photo with their new red, white, and light blue “Wendy Davis for Governor” signs, excitedly reminding each other, “We all saw today that Wendy Davis mentioned McAllen! That was amazing!”

A half-hour later, during a post-speech debriefing over a Bud Light, as the Longhorns eke toward a 31-30 victory over Iowa, Hidalgo County native Kathryn Hearn, who works for Planned Parenthood in the Valley, lays it out straight: “We’re so used to fighting for crumbs, here.”

A day before Davis’ gubernatorial announcement, a different group of Rio Grande Valley residents are gathered for a decidedly less celebratory purpose in a decidedly less boozy locale: the brightly painted sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception Mission in the middle of one of Hidalgo County’s nearly 1,000 colonias, a couple of miles outside the McAllen city limits. This neighborhood is called Lopezville, and its residents are looking for a permanent home, hoping to be officially annexed into the municipality of San Juan. Then, they might be able to convince a bureaucrat to install some street lights, or round up the stray dogs that roam the neighborhood.

On a whiteboard, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) community organizer Ruben Garza makes a list, in Spanish and English, of the issues this handful of Lopezville residents, gathered on a hot Wednesday afternoon, hope to address: luzes, casas abandonados, perros, drainage.

At the meeting, a woman not five feet tall and waving a bulky clipboard wrangles everyone who walks through the door, even this reporter, into filling out an attendance sheet with their name and contact information. This is 74-year-old Josefa Gonzales.

“Too much people are scared to come over here,” she tells me later, but she is committed to doing what it takes to convince city officials to annex Lopezville. “I do this for my community,” she says. “I do this for myself.”

Cities are often reluctant to claim colonias, the TOP organizers say, because officials don’t want to be responsible for providing basic infrastructure like water, drainage, electricity, or even paved roads to people they believe can’t or won’t pay for them. Implicit in this reluctance is a more insidious belief: that people who live in colonias don’t deserve basic services, a not-so-low-level disdain that colonia residents are all too aware of.

Speaking in Spanish to emphatic nods from his fellow residents, Lopezville resident Pedro Garcia talks about feeling less than human in the eyes of politicians and city officials. He passes out bottles of water and offers Wal-Mart brand granola bars to his neighbors, many of whom, like Josefa Gonzales, have lived here for decades and are working with TOP to mobilize toward getting the infrastructural services that most Texans take for granted.

Gonzales says her children are always trying to convince her to move away, but she believes she shouldn’t have to do so, and neither should her neighbors. “I like my house,” she says. “I like it here. I’m working here in my community.”

But progress is slow. After the church meeting, I walk the block with another organizer, Amber Arriaga, who jokingly flips her hair when she describes herself as “such a Valley girl.” At seven-months pregnant, she doesn’t do as much canvassing as she used to, and Wednesdays are slow days anyway because it’s everybody’s church evening, but she wants to show me the street lights in the next neighborhood over, which ends at the intersection just outside Josefa Gonzales’ home at the edge of Lopezville. In the daytime, Gonzales can squint and see the new solar street light from her house, but at night it does nothing to illuminate her dark street.

The conditions of Lopezville homes vary widely lot by lot, depending on how much and how often residents can afford to keep them up. Some homes, with paved driveways, flower planters, and uniform exteriors of clapboard or brick, would pass in any middle-American neighborhood. Others are patchworks of plywood and corrugated siding, expanded room by room over the years.

Progress is so slow, in fact, that when colonia residents do get their streetlights, after hard-fought battles with and beside state and county officials and state legislators, they make the newspaper. Arriaga says she has seen first-hand the difference that mobilized residents can make in their own neighborhoods, which is why the first question she and her fellow TOP workers ask when they knock on a door is: “If you could change anything in your community, what would it be?”

But there is much standing between an organizer like Arriaga, or a neighborhood advocate like Josefa Gonzales, and someone on the other side the porch or threshold. For residents of the Rio Grande Valley there is, says Arriaga, a deep, sometimes generations-deep, feeling of being “forgotten.”

Earlier that Wednesday morning at TOP headquarters—a manufactured home-turned-office that shares a bumpy, gravel-covered plot of land with other community outreach organizations like LUPE and Proyecto Azteca—Arriaga tells me that when “basic necessities aren’t being met” year after year, it can be hard to convince people that their efforts will pay off—until they do.

“When they see the little wins, they see that if they could do that, things can get resolved,” says Arriaga. But for people in the Valley, change can be an uphill battle, particularly when the starting point is just getting a city or county official to listen to an argument for a paved road or a reliable drainage ditch so residents can access their homes when it rains.

For example, as part of TOP, Arriaga’s been particularly focused on educating residents about the Affordable Care Act, leading workshops and block-walking in the community hoping to enroll her fellow Valley residents.

“We want to see people getting health-care coverage,” says Arriaga. However, she says, they often respond, “But we don’t have lights.”

This is one of the many political challenges in the Valley: How can organizers energize a voting base that has been historically disenfranchised, despite the advances of the Chicano and Latino movements in the Civil Rights era, and mobilize a constituency that is often focused on day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month survival? Part of the answer has been to cultivate community leaders from the ground up, educating people like 26-year-old Mallory De La Rosa in the best ways to navigate the often frustrating world of local politics and bureaucracy.

De La Rosa, who stops by the TOP offices after the Lopezville community meeting, says she’s here because Amber Arriaga, relentless in her canvassing, knocked on her door one day and recognized her as a high school classmate. De La Rosa and her husband—her high school sweetheart—live in Pharr, a neighbor city to McAllen, with De La Rosa’s elderly aunt, whom she cares for full-time.

Like a lot of young people from the Valley, De La Rosa left for a time, living in North Carolina while her husband was serving in the military, but they’ve both returned, taking over the payments on De La Rosa’s aunt’s house. De La Rosa says she, like so many people who come into contact with TOP, is trying to improve her aunt’s neighborhood one trash can, one street lamp, at a time.

“It’s this cycle, that in the neighborhood nothing’s gotten any better, that this is our lot in life,” De La Rosa explains. She’s currently taking a class on community organizing, aimed at educating people in the Valley, she says, on “how we can actually get something done, and the political process.”

That political process is something that De La Rosa says many of her peers and neighbors don’t have much faith in, because over the years, they’ve been paid too much lip service and witnessed too little on-the-ground change. She talks about voter identification troubles, and, recounting her last attempt at voting, describes an exasperating trip to four different polling locations. I ask her if she believes in her local representatives.

“I could lie and say yes,” she says, with a humorless smile. “But they’ll tell you anything you want to hear if it’s an election year. Maybe I’m jaded, but I’ve yet to meet a politician that has fulfilled their promises.”

But De La Rosa says she hopes to be an agent of change, moving people out of the mindset of, “mi familia first, everyone else is second.”

“There’s always people who don’t want to sit and take what they’re given,” says De La Rosa, and she’s one of them. But she says she’s frustrated with some of her neighbors in the Valley who vote only for their compadres: “Most of the people vote because they know who [the candidates] are. They don’t take time to do their homework on people.”

This is a refrain I hear from almost everyone I speak to in the Valley, whether they’re newly involved in the political process, like De La Rosa, or seasoned veterans like Rosalie Weisfeld, a long-time Democratic organizer in Hidalgo County.

Weisfeld meets me for coffee at the Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble, one of the storefronts in McAllen’s sprawling web of strip malls and retail developments that house medical offices, fast-casual restaurants, and big-box retailers, filling the space between outposts of every two-and-a-half star hotel a seasoned business traveler could name.

Weisfeld, a veteran of venerated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards’ campaign in the early 1990s, bemoans the compadre mentality, and says it’s just that kind of voting philosophy that has prevented progress in the Valley.

We’re talking about reproductive rights—the very issue that put Wendy Davis on the national radar this summer when her filibuster forced Gov. Rick Perry to call a third special session to pass an omnibus anti-choice bill, HB 2, requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at local hospitals, severely limits the prescription of medication abortions, and which critics of the bill expect will shutter all but six existing abortion clinics in the state by requiring abortion facilities to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers.

Valley residents seeking abortions will be particularly hard hit by the legislation, which will require them to drive hundreds of miles round trip to San Antonio, where the nearest abortion-providing ambulatory surgical center is located, for safe, legal abortion care.

“Now here we are, 40 years [after Roe v. Wade], fighting these same battles!” exclaims Weisfeld. “How did we get here? How did we have this battle a generation ago?”

Weisfeld remembers that battle. She was in high school before Roe v. Wade, and recalls her friends, or at least those whose families could afford it, traveling to Reynosa, California, and New York to obtain abortions. A “ferocious reader,” she was the first among her group to discover Planned Parenthood, and became the go-to source for information about sex and contraception as a teenager.

The Valley may vote blue, she says, but it doesn’t mean Valley Democrats support reproductive rights.

“I think that what happens here is that people vote, but not necessarily according to the lines of pro-choice or anti-choice,” explains Weisfeld. More often, people look at a candidate and say, “This is my buddy.”

“There’s a unique personal relationship to the elected officials here,” says Weisfeld. “When you vote for someone, you’re voting for someone you’ve known for some part of your life.” When that “buddy” is an anti-choice Democrat, like Brownsville’s Eddie Lucio Jr. of Texas’ mandatory adoption counseling bill fame, or Weslaco’s Armando “Mando” Martinez, personal relationships take precedence over political issues.

“They effectively have eliminated the possibility for their constituents to have access to a safe medical procedure,” says Weisfeld. “I don’t understand how these legislators think what they’re doing is good for their constituents, either medically, financially, or emotionally.”

Davis’ opponents have already begun targeted efforts to sway voters in the Rio Grande Valley and environs against the senator, who will likely face Republican Greg Abbott, Texas’ Obama-slamming, gun-toting, and Bible-beating attorney general, in 2014’s gubernatorial showdown. Anti-choice groups are counting on conservative South Texas to be appalled by Davis’ record on abortion rights, but South Texans’ views on reproductive rights, “pro-life” Democrats notwithstanding, are more nuanced than many anti-choice groups may like to believe, thanks in large part to Valley residents’ daily encounters with the economic realities of poverty.

“I don’t believe in [abortion],” says Mallory De La Rosa, “but I’m not going to force my belief on anyone else.”

Of course, family planning is intertwined with every other decision Valley residents of all income levels must make, and that reality is one that may push people to say one thing in public, in keeping with the cultural conservatism and Catholicism in the area, but another in the voting booth. To focus on abortion, even if that is Davis’ latest news-making cause, may be to sell Valley residents short.

Andrea Ferrigno, now the corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with five locations in Texas, has been on the front lines of abortion care in the Valley ever since she began working for her uncle, an OB-GYN who provided abortions in McAllen, after moving to McAllen from Venezuela for college.

“Recently, we’ve seen this change in the Valley that’s actually hopeful for some of us,” says Ferrigno, speaking by phone on one of her frequent five-hour drives between the Whole Woman’s clinics in Austin and McAllen. She says she’s seen a marked decline in clinic protestors in McAllen over the last four years or so, and an increasing political awareness around abortion. “We’ve seen this change happen, where there’s a lot more interest in reproductive rights and social justice, and we’re seeing that support in the community.”

What Ferrigno is seeing at Whole Woman’s clinics may be part of what Rosalie Weisfeld, with her four decades of political organizing in the Valley, describes as a swinging pendulum, one heading back in a more progressive, multi-issue oriented direction.

Weisfeld compares Davis’ appeal to that of Hillary Clinton and Ann Richards. She remembers both those women making explicit efforts to meet the people of the Rio Grande Valley where they were, talking about practical and intersectional problems and their potential solutions. People still talk, says Weisfeld, about the connective highway project that Ann Richards promised, and delivered on, in the ’90s, linking Highway 83 and U.S. 77.

In the first two weeks of her campaign, Wendy Davis has been quiet on the reproductive rights front, concentrating on highlighting her political record on education—it was, after all, her 2011 filibuster that first gave Davis name recognition across the state when she challenged conservative leaders who wanted to make deep cuts to public education. As a teenage mom who graduated from community college before working her way through Harvard Law, Davis has made accessible and affordable education a major focus of her work in the state legislature and in her earlier tenure as a Fort Worth City Council member.

But above all, Weisfeld says that party leaders, Davis campaigners, and the candidate herself must work to develop the personal relationships that people in the Valley so appreciate. And Weisfeld is optimistic about Davis’ chances. “She’s going to get a huge amount of support from South Texas.”

Below, view photos from Andrea Grimes’ trip to the Rio Grande Valley:

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