Chairman Hines and esteemed members of the committee, as well as Congressman Gonzalez, thank you for the opportunity to come before you and share information about the Texas border colonias and the unprecedented opportunity to deploy fiber-based broadband to the South Texas region to attract industry, create jobs, improve health outcomes and transform the economy. 

I am Jordana Barton and I am from the colonia of Benavides in South Texas. My career path has taken me from public education, to Latino studies in higher education, to nonprofit community development and micro finance, to banking to the federal reserve and to the leadership of a major health system philanthropy serving South Texas. 

I am currently the owner of a small business, a social enterprise, Barton Garcia Advisors and senior fellow with Connect Humanity. 

I am working with many stakeholders to advance the deployment of broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion programs to transform the economy of the South Texas Triangle region. 

While at the Federal Reserve I authored Las Colonias in the 21st Century; Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border. And several publications that came upon its heels regarding closing the digital divide and preparing people for the expanding digital economy. 

So, it was actually the people of the Texas border colonias that brought the attention of the digital divide and the digital economy, indeed, to the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. It was their stories that told us how significant it was. I learned about the homework gap from families in the colonias before I knew it was called the homework gap. And I learned about the digital divide on workforce opportunities, even being able to partake in workforce opportunities and having the skills as well to be able to fill the jobs that we currently have. 

Growing up in a colonia, my brother, he dropped out of high school. There were very low expectations for the children. He dropped out of high school. He worked the middle skills job, those are jobs that don’t require college degrees. But there were opportunities for him to get his life together and figure out what he was going to do. He got his GED, went to community college, went to university and then went to medical school. He became a surgeon and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well, with the Air Force Guard. Incredibly, serving his community everyday; bilingual surgeon. 

He was a dropout. We could have lost him if we did not have those pathways into the middle class that we had in our generation. We had ways in. We could fill those middle skills jobs and put ourselves through college and have a career. And leave the millions of dollars in taxes that he and the rest of our siblings have paid – even if you are just looking at that stark number, it is incredible, right? Plus the giving back into our community. 

So, that’s who is in the Texas border colonias. It might look confusing. The house is kind of substandard. Indeed, if you look at my house, it was self-built as well. You would not know what could come out of it. But that is what can come out of it. 

The reason it is important and the reason it is important to the Federal Reserve and to all of you is that what it tells us is what’s changing. We are well into the digital economy. We are well into the fourth industrial revolution. Indeed, economists are telling us that we were pushed ten years forward into the fourth industrial revolution with Covid. Everybody had to transition at a much quicker rate and we got to see the harsh disparities in access.

So this shrinking middle class, increased digital skills, where 90 percent of those middle skills that used to be entry points into the middle class, they were manufacturing and retail. Now that has been overtaken by healthcare. And so this digital transformation that we are all having to go through, we are not preparing our population. 

What investing in the broadband infrastructure of our economy will do is unleash that. And I reveal some of that evidence about what it means to young people to have access. And then to be able to not have the brain drain here in the Valley, where young people go away to start their businesses and innovations. They can start right here because that is the foundation for the economy. 

The most important learning of the colonias study was that there are huge assets to invest in, huge human and social capital assets. We have assets such as VTX 1, a co-op and broadband provider here with vast fiber assets that just need to be invested in to get to the communities. We have Pharr, Texas. Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, Cindi Garza, people from here that became a municipal broadband provider because they could see what they needed to create. They are creating a student run health desk. The students are going to be the experts in their community. They are going to get the paying jobs and internships and apprenticeships even to build these broadband networks. We are talking about these billions of dollars. Let’s prepare our young people to be out there. VTX likewise is doing the same, creating apprenticeships and internships as well. And, the City of Brownsville, likewise, created a public-private partnership model. 

They were the people, along with the colonia residents that came together after the colonias study and told the Federal Reserve, we want to do something about the digital divide. You can see in the colonias study, it was a couple of little paragraphs. I didn’t understand it well enough. I had to learn it with them, what are the best practices, how do we really create an inclusive economy and invest in local companies and local governments. And it is totally bipartisan. It is about the innovation and bootstrapping of the people and taking on this understanding of the digital economy. 

Thank you. 

Editor’s Note: The above remarks were made by author, small business owner and digital inclusion adviser Jordana Barton Garcia at a field hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. The hearing was held June 17, 2022, at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service will have more coverage from the select committee’s field hearing in future editions.

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