MCALLEN, RGV – In all the research the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas is conducting on closing the Rio Grande Valley’s digital divide, no thought has yet been given to reaching out to Mexico.

While Texas and Tamaulipas share electricity along power lines, and natural gas pipelines are being developed under the Rio Grande, few have looked at combining telecom projects.

In some ways, northern Tamaulipas is more “wired” than the Valley because companies like Tel-Mex provide internet at affordable rates through telephone land lines. In South Texas land lines are going out of fashion.

Jordana Barton is leading the Dallas Fed’s efforts to reduce the RGV’s digital divide. In a wide-ranging interview, she acknowledged that her studies have yet to focus on Mexico.

Jordana Barton

“I have not explored this. Definitely, the border trade was a huge issue in the engineering study that Pharr and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo has done. They might have a lot to say about that later, that connection to the border trade. But, as far as cooperation with Mexico, it seems very natural and a great opportunity,” Barton told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Barton said that during her research on broadband opportunities for the Valley she has learned a lot about utility law.

“I have learned a lot about utility law, I have not learned about international utility law. It is worth getting people like the NADBank, who work on both sides of the border on infrastructure and we have already had conversations about what are the possibilities. We are at the beginning stages of that. It is a natural question that I would like to understand more.”

Barton said her lack of understanding of international utilities law will not inhibit the Dallas Fed’s work in helping reduce the Valley’s digital divide.

“Oh, goodness, if I waited to jump into an issue until I understood it completely, I would not do anything. You have to be willing to learn and willing to say, hey, I don’t know but I can find the best people in the world who can help us.”

In fact, Barton said, one of the great strengths of working with the Dallas Fed is using the organization’s connections to find potential partners.

“When we convene, we are trying to share the social capital. We are trying to say, hey, we have access to these people, these foundations, equity impact investors. People in our world that we want to bring to the table, who might be interested in this world. We can say, there is a plan here, something to be invested in that is great and innovative, that means economic development here. That is real direct,” Barton said.

While Barton and her team have not studied potential telecom partners in Mexico, they are very much aware of the impact Mexicanos have on the Valley’s economy. They are well aware that it is always the next influx of immigrants that makes the Valley’s economy so dynamic.

“The border region attracts immigrants and keeps those who cannot afford to go further inland for higher paying jobs and opportunities. So, there is that challenge. We know that 73 percent of the Valley’s population are U.S. citizens, and 95 percent of children 18 years and younger in the Rio Grande Valley are U.S. born citizens,” Barton said.

“Also, you have mixed families. It is a very complex challenge. Language is so key. In the colonias study I talked about how limited English proficiency is profound in the colonias and certainly in the Valley counties in general. There is a labor market penalty for limited English proficiency. Definitely, you don’t have those opportunities, right. But, there is a labor market penalty for limited Spanish proficiency, also.”

The study Barton was referencing was her 2015 report titled “Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress Along the Texas–Mexico Border.”

PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King speaks at a news conference about the digital divide at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Las Milpas. Also pictured, Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.

Barton was full of praise for Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. PSJA is a partner with the Dallas Fed on a memorandum of understanding for a pilot project that seeks to make inroads into the Valley’s digital divide. Other partners include the City of Pharr and UT-Rio Grande Valley.

“What Dr. King knows and PSJA know is there is a labor market reward for bilingualism, as there is across the world. But, here, in a binational region, where Spanish is widely spoken, where international trade is so important, to do business with Mexico and Latin America you need to have both languages. Dr. King knows that. They have dual language professional certification in English and Spanish,” Barton said.

This, she said, is a great example of an asset-based approach.

“The kids that suffered for years in Texas, discrimination because they spoke Spanish in school, as if it were something bad, it has completely flipped. Not only are you going to know Spanish at a professional level, you are going to know English at a professional level, and you are going to be bilingual, and multi-lingual, we hope. That is better for the brain. Instead of this limited view of the capacity of people, here we have higher expectations for our youth, where language acquisition is from infancy to 14. Get them then.”

Barton said that based upon her research of the Valley, there is also a challenge with the U.S. born population in Valley. She said part of this is because of the history and legacy of discrimination.

“Having leadership like Dr. King and others in the Valley, who believe in raising expectations, rather than lowering them, that it going to be the key and we are seeing the results. The statistics that I show in the study, they are a moment in time. They are important. They were important. The stories and the qualitative, that is much more important, because that is the future,” Barton proclaimed.

“Somebody said, statistics are the just people with the tears wiped off. The statistics in our study, that is just a moment in time. The future is Dr. King, (Pharr) Mayor (Ambrosio) Hernandez and other leadership on the border who have high expectations, who want more for people. And they are not telling that old story. That old story does not fit. But, we know we have to be smart. The poverty is not going to disappear overnight. We need to look for the structural things that are stopping people, that are limiting their opportunities.”

Barton said she has a chapter in an upcoming Dallas Fed workforce development book talks about preparing workers for an expanding digital economy.

“It is critical that we recognize this expanding digital economy and, for the border, as fast as technology is moving, we can be more innovative, we can be innovative in reaching low and moderate-income level people, and changing their trajectory and say no, we don’t think it (the status quo) is okay.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporters Steve Taylor and Patricia Martinez conducted an in-depth interview with Jordana Barton about DO4RGV at the conclusion of the Dec. 1 stakeholders meeting. Click here and here to read two other stories based on the interview.

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian staff members Patricia Martinez and Dayna Reyes contributed to this series.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story was included in a report by the Dallas Fed about digital inclusion.