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Poor Border Town Spells Out Top Priorities

New America Media, News Feature, Video, Written by Elena Shore// Photos: Joseph Rodriguez// Video: Cliff Parker Posted: Feb 01, 2008

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Editors Note: Thirty-seven million poor people live in the U.S. but their voices are absent from national debates. The first in a series of town hall meetings that will take place nationwide as part of the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign asked residents of one of the poorest regions of the country the border towns of South Texas to list their greatest needs. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. This is the first article in a multimedia series from the Texas border.

SAN JUAN, Texas Its 40 degrees in this border town in South Texas, less than a mile from the Mexican border, but 400 people have crammed into a tent on a Saturday morning. Maria del Rosario is one of them. I came here today to stop them from building the wall, says Del Rosario, a single mother with eight children, who works as a housecleaner and lives in a nearby colonia.

This is one of the poorest regions of the country, where 95 percent of the citys population is Hispanic. Its also the site of the first community meeting in a national campaign dedicated to bringing the voices of low-income families into a political process that has long ignored them.

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The Equal Voice for America's Families campaign, funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation, aims to bring the concerns of these low-income families into a national dialogue leading up to the 2008 presidential elections. The first of 40 town hall meetings to be held across the country, the gathering in San Juan was facilitated by local non-profit groups including La Unin del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), ARISE, AVANCE, the Azteca Community Loan Fund, the Brownsville Community Health Center and Proyecto Azteca.

Did you know there are 37 million people in the United States who are poor? asked Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Imagine if those people could connect, join together and begin to create the change we need. Instead of sending money to the war, they should send the money here.

The vast majority of attendees were women, observed Alma Diaz, who works in construction. Women here are like the voice and strength of the family, she explained. We come from Mexico, where the role of women is very strong.

listAn attendee of the town hall meeting
holds up her table's list of concerns

Inside a large tent, groups gathered around tables, exchanging stories about the challenges of single motherhood and the frustrations of being affected by immigration policies that are created far from the border region. No one hears our voice, said Roberta Ayala, a mother of six who has supported her family by caring for seniors since her husband fell ill with cancer and kidney disease. Who listens to the complaints of immigrants? Of battered women?

This is a great country, but they tell lies, abusing undocumented immigrants, putting them in jails with no heat, spending money on a war that makes no sense, Ayala said. There is a just God, she added. I await His divine justice.

The wall affects us all, said Araceli Olbera, a native of the Mexican border city of Reynosa, who is studying to be a special education teacher. We all have family on both sides.

The town hall meeting, conducted in Spanish, divided participants into groups to answer key questions about their values and needs.

Life hasnt changed drastically from that of their parents, who worked hard for low wages and lived in poor conditions. I used to sell chicles as a kid on the streets of Mexico. Now I work at Wal-Mart, said Zulema Cavazos, a young woman whose seven-member family shares two beds.

Today residents of the colonias in South Texas live in dilapidated homes with no sewage system, contaminated tap water and some of the lowest salaries in the nation.

Table 26Education, working and kids made up
the top priorities for Table 26.

But participants pointed to some important changes from the lives of their parents: running water, toilets, electricity. The improvement in their quality of life is even more apparent for children growing up in the colonias, who have access to better health care and education, and the hope of a career with a higher-paying salary.

Its not that my life is that much better here than in Mexico, says Rosa Resendez, 33, a resident of a nearby colonia. But its better for my kids. Thats why I came here.

Locals identified the values that were most important to them, including respect, dignity and faith, education and family unity. In contrast, they viewed the values of U.S. society which Ayala described as materialistic, cold and judgmental as largely out of step with their own: more concerned with profits than human dignity, more interested in clothing than character.

Participants were then asked to list their greatest needs. These included access to education and health care, a living wage, and housing. Each group voted on the issues they felt were most important, and posted their list on the walls of the tent. The responses are being tallied in order to present at national meetings Sept. 6 in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Birmingham, Ala. The platform approved at these conferences will then be presented to the presidential candidates in October.

family Two of the top responses on almost every single sheet were access to health care and quality education, specifically higher education, said Armando Garza, South Texas regional coordinator for Equal Voice for America's Families, which plans to hold three youth meetings at local colleges in March. The third issue that I saw on all of them was equality, Garza said. The theme that emerged from the responses, he said, was that they feel that theyre not treated as equals and they believe thats the basis for their problems.

In a region where Washingtons immigration policies have concrete effects on peoples daily lives, locals said they were excited simply to be taken into account.

These are decisions made up above by people who are led more by their mind than their heart, said Diaz. Id like to think that a lot of people protesting will make them think about the needs of the poorest people.

Photos Joseph Rodriguez/New America Media

Related Articles:

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Keeping Dr. Kings Dream Alive on the Border

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More Walls Won't Work in My Neighborhood

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