LAS VEGAS, New Mexico – At present there are many concurrent and integrated social issues affecting the lower Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Immigration, low educational attainment at all levels of education, isolation in colonias, low employment, disparities in health, disenfranchisement in electoral politics, corruption, an absence of visionary leaders, and the enumeration goes on.

To fully understand these conditions I propose that we must gain an understanding of the historical context of how this region came to be so that we may explain and understand the present phenomena that surrounding the residents “el Valle.” I propose that its residents have lived, since it very founding, at the vortex of a never abating storm. I will focus on the good that is emerging in different sectors, both public and private in this region in the closing section of this series.

This column is the first in a brief series that will present a historical overview of the Valley’s development along with succinct images of heroes and villains who have been both impediments and catalyst to its development. Attention will also be given to present issues that are both advancing and impeding the sustainability of this region. I will not cover the history of the whole of Texas and will only refer to those events that have had an impact on this region’s development and its quality of life. One can not consider the history of the Rio Grande Valley without referring to its relationship to a third world region that abuts it, northern Mexico.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas represents the easternmost geographic point of the border between the United States and Mexico that spans over two thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean to the west. Chad Richardson, a former historian at the University of Texas-Pan American proposes that, “international borders often create unusual situations. Few situations are more unusual that the one on the southern end of the Texas-Mexico border. This region, a frequently disputed territory in the past has emerged as neither fully American nor fully Mexican.”

Tom Miller shares a similar perspective when he observes that, the border has come to represent many things to many people, yet it remains the most misunderstood region of North America. Our southern frontier is not simply American on one side and Mexican on the other. It is a third country with its own identity. This third country is a strip two thousand miles long and no more than twenty miles wide. It obeys its own laws and has its own outlaws, its own police officers, and its own policy makers. Its food, its language, its music are its own. Even its economic development is unique. It is a colony unto itself, long and narrow and ruled by two faraway powers [Mexico and the United States].

The Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley is a nexus that both connects and defines the rich history and geography of a territory that, once part of Mexico, was lost during the 1836 Texas Revolution and finally ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. It was in this region that the initial military clashes between Americans and Mexicans led to the Mexican War [near what is now Texas Southmost College], and it was here that the last battle of the American Civil War, 12 miles east of Brownsville, took place [The Battle of Palmito Ranch]. These crucial historical events occurred in what are today Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico and along the Rio Grande to present day Rio Grande City, Texas. If anything, one could surmise this region’s founding was rooted in battle cries, bloodshed, gunpowder, the sword and death on both sides of the Rio Grande. Recent events convey to us a truth; that the elements of human suffering are still very evident on both sides of the Rio Grande and these too have historical roots that are to be considered in parts II and III of this series.

There are very strong historical roots to how the region’s predominately Mexican-American population defines itself in relation to the rest of Texas, the United States and Mexico. Its regional history is grounded in shifting geographic boundaries, warfare, colonization, and the continuing search for an identity of a people who appear to be in continuous transition on the border. This region’s identity 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. and always in Austin, the Texas state capitol.

The line of demarcation between the two nations was stretched to 60 kilometers north and south of the U.S/Mexico border by the La Paz Agreement of 1987 by President De la Madrid of Mexico and President Reagan of the United States. It is within this strip of land that Americans of Mexican descent are expanding demographically and this growth presents many challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. The borderline, between the Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico, is the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. John Kay refers to this boundary as “a wide, sluggish river, of no great natural beauty or interest. But because it forms the border between the United States and Mexico for a thousand miles, it has great political, social and economic significance.” To me, the Rio Grande is the umbilical cord that connects the history, culture, language, economies, and shared societies of families whose lives and affinities straddle two nations.

Part II, about the role of the Rio Grande in this region’s history and development, will follow in a few weeks. I am traveling throughout the southwestern United States to gain more insights about what is transpiring at the ground level in this region. I will be bypassing Arizona since I do not have a passport to enter that territory. I also take umbrage to its treatment of its non-white citizens, Native Americans and Mexicans.

Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D. is a Chicano activist, writer and researcher who is currently involved with several community development initiatives to expand the quality of life of the residents of Waco, Texas. His research and writing is directed at investigating the lives of Mexican Americans in Texas and in the southwestern United States. He resides in Waco, Texas and Corrales, New Mexico. The above column is the first in a four part series.