Keeping the Dream Alive on the Border

By Father Michael Seifert

If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be marching in the Rio Grande Valley. Forty years after his death, it is here that his lovely dream of equality for all God’s children is suffering to be born.

Dr. King rightly named poverty as a blight on the American Dream. And it would test the imagination to find an area of our country poorer than the Valley. We fail every social indicator of well being: access to medical care, employment, affordable housing, and high school graduation rate. My own community, Cameron Park, has a per capita income of $4,135 — less than that of Guatemala.

Yet we live in Texas — one of the wealthiest entities in the world. Texas produces more wealth than entire nations. But Texas doesn’t take care of our own. The heartbreaker is that most of those forced to suffer the stingy misery of Texas’ poverty are children.

Not long ago, I had a visit from a group of public health professionals. They had come to see me because health care is so abysmal here that my community has become topic of exotic interest to scholars.

We went for walk, ending up looking out over a creek that runs in front of the church. The academics took note of the collection of cement and tar-papered shacks lining the stream. Someone was burning garbage. The stench drifted over us.

One of the visitors asked me, “Are we in the United States or in Mexico?” I said, “This is Texas. Why do you ask?” She said, “Because it reminds me of home.” “Where is that?” I asked her. “Calcutta, India,” she said, unsmiling.

But we aren’t India, or Guatemala, or Mexico. We are Texans. We are working Texans, men and women who work two shifts or two jobs, and then another on weekends. Salt of the earth, the Bible calls us. “El pueblo de Dios,” Cesar Chavez named us.

But for all our effort, we barely pay our bills. Minimum wages cannot support a family, no matter how many jobs you manage to hold down. We are too proud to beg, so we don’t all eat the way we need to. We pray, always and fiercely, that we don’t sicken, that the shadow of an accident not cross our homes. We simply cannot afford to be sick.

Despite the hardness of life here, we love the Valley. There is a quality of life here that is missing in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. There is here an intangible spirit that defies the measures of the social sciences. Some call it solidarity, others a love for the extended family. Church people call it community. The Valley is one place in America where neighbors still unashamedly go door-to-door to ask for donations for a funeral, where no one sleeps on the streets, where no one goes without a meal, however simple that offering might be.

We consider ourselves brothers and sisters, and today’s harsh anti-immigrant voices have deepened that sense of community. We especially care about our children. When the president vetoed the expansion of children’s health coverage, the anger here was palpable.

We look forward to the 2008 elections, for many here have recently discovered the power of the vote. One after another, the presidential candidates call for “change.” We in the Rio Grande Valley are ready for change. We believe, as Dr. King said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We are people of faith, hope and long-suffering love. We understand the hard work that social change requires, and we are not afraid of that. After all, we are working people. After all, we are the legacy of Don Cesar Chavez and of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Rev. Michael Seifert of San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church in Brownsville, Texas, is president of Proyecto Digna, which is co-sponsoring a series of Town Hall meetings for low-income families in south Texas this winter, sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2008

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