|WACO, March 31 - I am impressed with Texas State Representative Bobby Guerra’s vision and pronouncement about the Rio Grande Valley finally becoming a “region.”
In a recent Rio Grande Guardian column he asked his constituencies, “to imagine the Rio Grande Valley with more educational opportunities, more access to health care, a more educated workforce for our businesses, more job opportunities for our young people, more transportation dollars passing through our ports and roadways, and, most importantly, a better quality of life for our families.”
(Click here to read the op-ed from state Rep. Bobby Guerra.)
In this column I will propose several precursors that must be the foundation to Representative Guerra’s pronouncement.
One of my research agendas is regional institutionalization. In essence, I study how regions and communities develop and mature as viable social entities; that is what institutionalization is. There are several stages to consider here as the Rio Grande Valley/region assumes the “new” identity or tag as proposed by Representative Guerra. These stages, from my research, are:
Stage one, construction of territorial shape:
This region has had a defined geographic shape since the United States drove Mexico south of the Rio Bravo after the Mexican War in 1848. It is a region comprised of four counties: Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy. The challenge to the South Texas legislative delegation to consider is the power relations among the different agents or constituencies acting within and outside of this region. This is a matter that requires constant vigilance as the potential for compromise and the undermining of agendas is always a threat to the continuous sustainability of the Rio Grande Valley.
Stage two, formation of the symbolic shape:
In this stage the region’s name emerges and certain symbols become evident that will guide its continued identity. These symbols are important since they serve to link the region’s image with a broader social consciousness of its existence and development of inhabitants’ identification with the collective practices of the region (a circular process). This process establishes the region as a socio-cultural unit. So whatever happens, the Rio Grande Valley must maintain its name and not be given names as was suggested by the vice president for institutional advancement at UT Pan American who proposed that this region’s name should be changed to “Borderplex.” The marketing campaigns must be anchored to the region’s name and not devalued by such tags as the “Magic Valley”, “Rio South” or other such terms. The Rio Grande Valley should suffice.
Stage three, emergence of institutions:
In this stage, activists, elites and mass media engage in the establishment of both formal institutions and local or non-local practices in the spheres of politics, economics, legislation and administration. Taken as a whole, this is the development of a regional culture with implicit socialization of individuals into the region. This stage is important as all types of stakeholders emerge and each with their own agendas. The Rio Grande Valley’s culture and its adherence to bilingualism, extended families and its cross-border relationships must not be deterred or modified to accommodate new comers who will surely arrive in droves. This region can begin to prosper and hopefully become a linchpin to the border economy and a crucial element in this state’s economic wherewithal. What the leadership of this region, inclusive of its legislative delegation, must not allow or tolerate the type of bad behavior, in its public officials, that has historically undermined the quality of its elected officials.
This leadership is obligated to respond, with vigor, to claims and allegations by elected state officials such as Attorney General Greg Abbott who painted, with a very large brush, this region as one replete with corruption. Elected officials, at that level, use the bully pulpit to cast stones that are easily digested as truth by uninformed and misinformed citizens who have never traveled south of Falfurrias. As one who has resided in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and now Waco, I know that corruption is part of the political parcel and flourishes where citizens and elected officials are mute and disinterested or accommodating.
Stage four, establishment of a region:
This stage sets the tone for the continuation of the institutionalization process, after the region has an established status structure and social consciousness in its society, whether through formal administrative institutions or local practices. At this point the region is ready for wider acknowledgement and potentially place marketing. There may be an ongoing struggle over resources and power. Unfortunately, this is too common an occurrence in the Rio Grande Valley. Witness the present jockeying for position to become the city that becomes the new headquarters for UT-RGV. Step four is one that Representative Guerra, unfortunately, leaped to without considering the other essential elements. A region is never as the French state a, “fait accompli” or an accomplished fact. It is rather in a constant stage of evolution and it is imperative that its leadership be diligence in recognizing the social, political, cultural, demographic and geographic trends that will impact its continued sustainability.
The representatives to the Texas legislature must recognize and be aware that this region’s vitality is impacted by its geographic location and by a burgeoning demography and in many instances political and economic policies and events that begin in the far-away capitals of Mexico City’s Federal District, and Washington, D.C. or even up the road in Austin.
It is important to reiterate a major tenet of regional institutionalization; a region is never fully institutionalized and the process is continuous and always in flux. Harvey, a Canadian geographer posits that, “the institutionalization of regional spaces also appears as a process in constant evolution over time involving different social actors.” It will be daunting task to determine how the institutionalization of the Rio Grande Valley is occurring and should be a charge to scholars at the new UT-Rio Grande Valley. By doing so, current and emerging challenges may be identified and used to determine if there are indeed threats, challenges or opportunities for this region to maintain its sustainability. The guiding question here must always be, “so how are we doing?”
Representative Guerra and the rest of the south Texas legislative delegation would be well advised that the outcomes of one legislative session wouldn’t matter if there is no ongoing strategy to maintain what has been acquired. As in baseball, your last at bat does not matter. At this point, in the political process, the group that posed for the photo-op that appeared on the Guardian’s website should have already begun to map the issues of concern for the Rio Grande Valley in the next legislative session. If they have not, then they are way behind what is happening at the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments and at the North Texas Area Council of Governments. Those folks, north of the King Ranch, have already plotted tomorrow’s legislative agenda and the successes of the past session are mere stepping-stones to the next session.
The future waits for no one. As a reminder, I offer an admonition from former president Bill Clinton who observed that, “The future is not an inheritance, it is an opportunity and an obligation.”
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., consults communities and municipalities on regional challenges and opportunities. He served in the Clinton administration as the lead consultant to the southwestern municipal empowerment zones. He is a former tenured professor of research and leadership at UT-Pan American.