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Where César Chavez Meets Lil' Wayne: Youth Organizers in South Texas Embracing Past, Shaping Future

Posted: May 16, 2012

Teenagers in South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley can dance to anything – even two songs at the same time.

Last week, Silicon Valley De Bug paid a visit to La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a community-organizing powerhouse created in 1989 by César Chávez. LUPE’s building is adorned with United Farm Worker flags and Diego Rivera-esque murals, evoking generations of struggle in this border town of San Juan, Texas.

Grandmothers are making homemade tostadas in the corner of the warehouse-sized space, and a team of elders is diligently folding membership newsletters in the back. Clearly, there is work to be done, but all eyes are on the 14 teenage girls who giggle and groove in the middle of the room to a Lil Wayne rap, backed by a cumbia beat that is bouncing off the walls. Everyone, regardless of whether they have heard of Lil Wayne or not, is smiling.

We’re here from the Bay Area to do a social media training for youth at LUPE and other Rio Grande Valley organizations, and as part of an activity to get them moving and talking, we’ve asked the teens what type of music they dance to. Some name the traditional Mexican music they listen to at home; some say the rap music they download onto their iPods. So, rather than choose, they simply do what comes natural to them – they play both at the same time, and it sounds just right.

This instinct, to blend and create, rather than choose one or the other, is a way of being in the Rio Grande Valley. These youth live in a community built on the edge of two national boundaries and two cultures. And, most important, they carry two responsibilities: to honor the past and to invent the future. For them, life is not an “either-or”; it’s an “and.”

That’s why the evolution of youth organizing for communities across the country may – unexpectedly – be located here, in the southernmost tip of Texas, where young people don’t choose between the organizing traditions of their parents and carving out their own struggle – they do both.

Organizing: It’s All in the Family

Many of the teens have been coming to LUPE since they were children, brought along by their parents to community strategy meetings. The resident DJ for the workshop, Samantha – a sharp, glowing teen – came with her abuela, Doña Mari, who is making lunch for the group. Natalie, an observant, quick-witted high-schooler, is the daughter of Genaro, a longtime UFW organizer, who at the previous night’s membership meeting shared stories of how black and Latino workers came together to win union contracts in the South.

Organizing – families coming together to demand what they deserve – is the environment in which these young people grew up, just as their parents did.

“Start dreaming now – that is how the movement has carried on,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of LUPE, says over a plate of homemade mole. “I tell the youth that nothing is impossible; it is only a matter of time.” Valdez-Cox became part of the movement years ago the same way Samantha and Natalie did – her parents joined. Her mother joined the UFW when César Chávez was seeding farmworker campaigns in the fields of the Rio Grande Valley. Chávez established LUPE as a nonprofit for low-income families in the region to advocate for themselves. Valdez-Cox’s 91-year-old mother still attends LUPE’s monthly membership meetings.

Youth Issues Are Community’s Issues

That teenagers would join their parents’ and grandparents’ fights for equity may come out of the reality of their communities. Living in colonias – unincorporated communities, often without basic public infrastructure and utilities – organizing is, arguably, the one thing they can rely on. It’s how their families got paved roads, a sewage system, dignity. As such, generational distinctions are a luxury communities here may not have or be interested in. When LUPE communities recently had success advocating for the building of a much-needed park in an underserved colonia, the victory was not just for the youth, but for the families, just as the advocacy effort to realize that win relied on all of the families’ organizing resources: youthful energy and elder wisdom.

But young people here also know they face issues that are particular to their lives. When asked about what issues they face as young people in the Valley, they quickly rifle off issues around their broken school system, the proliferation of drugs, the lack of hope they see in some of their peers who are struggling to get by.

When asked about causes, they frame the issues in the context of the political landscape of their colonia, the politics of the border. And when asked for solutions, they draw upon the traditions of their parents: power from the ground up, organizing – and amplify it with the skill sets particular to their generation. They talk about murals by young graffiti artists that would both beautify the colonias and convey a message of empowerment. They talk about making a video series so that young people in colonias across the Valley could hear one another.

Hashtagging the Movement

Our social media workshop culminates in a Twitter chat asking Rio Grande Valley youth what they would say to the rest of the country. Most of the youth have Twitter accounts, and so some of them help older participants get up to speed. A few “adult staff” from partner organizations have also come to the workshop, and the youth take particular care that they participate.

Coming from the Bay Area, where we’ve spent the last 15 years creating “youth organizations” to carve out and protect space for young people, this impulse to include older generations is striking and illustrates how the Rio Grande Valley youth are showing us the next phase of our work. We hadn’t realized that building a protective wall for young people to build community also meant isolating them from mutually beneficial intergenerational relationships; we didn’t see that a community doesn’t have to choose between tradition and innovation.

On May 20, LUPE – youth and elders – will be participating in the Equal Voice Online National Convention, a convening of organizations around the country that work on elevating the voices of low-income families – from big cities to small border towns, and everywhere in between.

The event, sponsored by Marguerite Casey Foundation, is the first to create a national family platform facilitated through the power of technology. The event, in some ways, is a magnification of what happens here at LUPE every day: to transcend the demarcations that distinguish us – geography, race, age, issue – and to find power in our commonality – the needs and hopes of families.

LUPE youth, like Samantha and Natalie, will likely be twittering their thumbs off on May 20, making sure their issues are heard on the streaming chat, responding to youth they may never meet in person in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, and locating where their Rio Grande Valley issues fit in the national platform. But they won’t be doing so only as “youth” representatives -- they will be giving voice to their entire community, including the issues of the older generation as well. Since the lens to look through for the convening is family, they don’t have to choose between their issues and those of their parents. Even if they did, they would probably just choose both.

Raj Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley De Bug, a community organizing and media outlet in San Jose, CA, that is part of New America Media.

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