The Rio Grande Valley is a complex place with a complex history. It has undergone huge societal and economic changes over the last 200 years.photo

Once a rural, sparsely populated frontier, the Valley is now one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the country. It is a major international trade zone with agriculture, retail, tourism, restaurant, logistics, construction, health care, transportation, and manufacturing industries.

The Valley’s four counties stretch along the US-Mexico border and are home to roughly 1.3 million people, with many more seasonal workers and Winter Texans migrating to the area for part of the year.

According to the US Census Bureau, close to 90% of the population is Hispanic and 47% is under the age of 25. A substantial part of the workforce is made up of undocumented workers.

NAFTA has lifted trade restrictions and dramatically increased the activity of maquiladoras, industrial plants located along the border that rely on labor-intensive work done in Mexico and logistical support from the U.S.

Gilberto Salinas of the Brownsville Economic Development Council estimates that business in the Valley has tripled since NAFTA took effect in 1994.

The inequality of this growth and wealth is plain to see. Low-wage workers live in colonias that lack basic infrastructure while highly paid professionals live nearby in luxurious gated communities.

According to economist Paul Osterman, the region has the lowest paid workers in the country. A quarter of adults earn less than $6.19 an hour and household income is $20,000 below the national average.

“People have this hacienda mentality, plantation mentality, that, ‘Well, it’s an immigrant worker and they stay with me, so I can pay them whatever I want. I’m feeding them.’ But that’s not the case. Labor law clarifies that you need to pay domestic workers at least $7.25 an hour, as well as any other employee.” — Hector Guzman Lopez, organizer

Texas is also a right-to-work state, which makes it difficult to organize workers through traditional labor unions.  As a result, only 5.7% of workers belong to a union, well below the national average of 11.3%.

These factors along with weak labor laws and regulatory agencies leave the vast majority of workers under- or unprotected.

OutreachinAltonThe Valley also has a long tradition of resistance to racism, exploitation, and intimidation by those in power, be they Spanish patróns, Mexican ranchers, Anglo farm owners, or multinational corporations.

The first farm worker strike in Texas took place in Starr County in 1966. A few months later the United Farm Workers organized a 400-mile, 15,000-person march from San Juan, Texas to the capitol to demand a wage increase from 85 cents to $1.25 per hour.

Over the years, workers, community organizations, and faith groups connected to the farm workers, Chicano, Sanctuary, and immigrant rights movements have fought for human rights and social justice.

These community efforts have helped defeat Jim Crow policies and won better wages and safer working conditions. They have also opened up opportunities in employment, housing, higher education, and politics.

Fuerza draws on these experiences and relationships to overcome the racial, class, gender, and immigration barriers that keep our communities from being healthy and successful.