HARLINGEN, RGV – Latinos make up about one million of AARP’s 35 million members, which is less than three percent of the total.

Across the U.S., Latinos make up about 16.3 percent of the population. On average a younger population than Anglos, they make up about seven percent of the total population over 50.

AARP Texas is trying to improve its relevance and visibility among Latinos and an obvious area to focus on is South Texas, which has a very high percentage of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

To this end, AARP Texas recently appointed Veronica de Lafuente as its associate state director of outreach for South Texas. Based in Harlingen, de Lafuente will work within the community to develop partnerships that will help serve seniors in McAllen, Harlingen, Brownsville, Laredo and Corpus Christi.

“Our goal is to be more relevant in South Texas. To be a more relevant organization for social change that is good for the 50-plus population,” said Ollie Besteiro, president of AARP Texas. “So, we have hired a young lady who was born and raised here, who understands the culture of the Hispanic community in this part of the state, which is a little different to the culture in other parts of the state. We think that is a plus for us. Veronica de Lafuente is the perfect candidate for us to have chosen. She is well connected and well liked. We are very proud of her.”

Texas AARP leaders Veronica de Lafuente and Olivia 'Ollie' Besteiro. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Texas AARP leaders Veronica de Lafuente and Olivia ‘Ollie’ Besteiro. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

Bob Jackson, AARP Texas’ state director, agreed. “We’re proud to welcome Ms. de Lafuente to the team. We look forward to working hand-in-hand with local groups and leaders in an effort to improve the lives of the 50-plus population in the Rio Grande Valley,” Jackson said. He added that de Lafuente will serve as the voice to champion issues important to older Americans in the community, such as health and long term care, transportation, Social Security and Medicare.

AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, with a membership of more than 37 million. It says its mission is to help people turn their goals and dreams into real possibilities, strengthen communities and fight for issues that matter most to families such as healthcare, employment and income security, retirement planning, affordable utilities and protection from financial abuse. The group has offices in all 50 states.

De Lafuente has more than ten years of experience working in governmental affairs, including being a director for both Cameron and Hidalgo county elected officials. She has founded a public strategies company that focused on public affairs and grassroots political campaigns in South Texas. In 2009, de Lafuente served as South Texas political director for former Houston Mayor Bill White’s U.S. Senate and Governor campaigns. In 2012, de Lafuente served as campaign manager for former state Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, a Democrat from Alice.

“I am loving my job. AARP it is a great organization to be a part of and we are affecting social change. I am working in an area that I love,” de Lafuente told the Guardian. She said she has learned a lot about the healthcare needs of those over 50 because of what happened to her father.

“My father was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer two years ago and I’ve fought hard to ensure he had the best medical care possible. Having to deal with the complexities of health care, Social Security, and Medicare has really made me more aware of how many other families encountered similar challenges and how many of those families slipped through the cracks,” de Lafuente said.

“I feel like it’s really come full circle for me, because these issues hit close to home – they affect my family and my community. I want to work as an advocate for people who need a voice to help them through, and I think I can do that here in the Valley.”

De Lafuente said one of her areas of expertise is the Affordable Care Act. She said she will be making herself available to community groups on the issue. “I will be concentrating on the Affordable Care Act. A lot of people in South Texas will be hit by a lot of letters so we will be engaging with them. We want to make sure we have enough information out there so people can make the best decisions. We are ready to speak at events and make presentations,” de Lafuente said.

Besteiro is also from South Texas, having served as an educator in Brownsville for 29 years. She was one of the first certified bilingual teachers in Texas. Before becoming president of AARP Texas, Besteiro served as part of the “Capitol Gang” of AARP Texas volunteers. “I am picky about what I volunteer for. This is my passion. We want to make life better,” Besteiro told the Guardian.

Besteiro said AARP Texas did well in a number of areas during the recent legislative session in Austin, such as better pay for those working in nursing homes, and helping teachers and state employees. She said this was done through working in coalition with other advocacy groups.

However, one area AARP Texas was not successful in was reform of the payday lending industry, Besteiro acknowledged. The Texas Fair Lending Alliance says Texas borrowers pay an average of $840 or more for a $300 loan and about $1,000 per month in fees for a $4,000 auto title loan. AARP Texas believes payday and auto-loan businesses can prey on the economically vulnerable citizens, destabilizing families and undermining the local economy.

The payday lending industry has a powerful lobby in Austin and it was able to persuade lawmakers to water down and thwart reform legislation, recruiting support from some unlikely legislators, including some from the border region.

“We did not do well with pay-day lending but that is not going to stop us. We are going to continue getting as many cities as possible to pass an ordinance, like Dallas, San Antonio and some other cities in Texas have done. We are going to have to deal with this at the local level as the Legislature did not want to deal with it at the state level,” Besteiro said.

AARP Texas would like to see Valley cities adopt a payday lending ordinance similar to that passed by the City of El Paso at the beginning of the year. When the ordinance was passed, the El Paso Times listed these aspects of the ordinance:

•  Limits payday loans to 20 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income.
• Limits auto title loans to the lesser of three percent of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70 percent of the vehicle’s value.
• Limits loans to no more than four installments or three rollovers or renewals (a rollover or renewal is defined as an extension of consumer credit made within seven days of the previous extension of credit).
• Requires the proceeds from each installment or renewal to reduce the loan principal by 25 percent.
• Requires that every contract be written in a language the borrower can understand, or be read in its entirety to any borrower who cannot read.
• Requires the lender to provide to the borrower a form created by the city, which mentions nonprofit agencies that provide financial education and agencies with cash assistance programs, and contains general information regarding extensions of consumer credit.

“We are going to get some of the local communities, Brownsville, McAllen, Harlingen, to pass an ordinance dealing with payday lenders. We will make a big push,” Besteiro said.