SAN JUAN, RGV – Juanita Valdez-Cox says she knows how McAllen can avoid being branded one of the “Top 10 Cities where Americans are Pretty Much Terrified to Live.” Erect more street lights in the colonias.

The executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero was saddened to see another negative story about the Rio Grande Valley in the national media. The story ran in TIME magazine and was based on data gathered by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. TIME said the data showed “less than half of all respondents in McAllen felt comfortable outside their homes after dark.”

However, Valdez-Cox said the data is skewed because the data does not cover McAllen per se but the McAllen Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as all of Hidalgo County. It therefore includes more than 1,000 colonias that have built up outside of McAllen and neighboring cities such as Edinburg, Mission and Pharr over the last few decades.

Valdez-Cox points out that the TIME article acknowledges the violent crime rate in McAllen is well below the national average.

“It is not border violence or drug violence that makes people feel unsafe going out at night. It is the lack of street lights and walkways,” Valdez-Cox said. “Thousands of colonias in Hidalgo County do not have street lights. It is just common sense. If it is dark you do not go out. You just invite more danger.”

In February, 2013, in Weslaco, RGV Equal Voice Network members protested a lack of street lighting in Hidalgo County colonias. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
In February, 2013, in Weslaco, RGV Equal Voice Network members protested a lack of street lighting in Hidalgo County colonias. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

LUPE has been pushing Hidalgo County Commissioners Court for years to be much more aggressive in pursuit of federal and state funding for colonia street light projects. At a recent conference, LUPE members made street lights one of their top four issues for the next biennium. Valdex-Cox hopes the TIME magazine article will lead to cities like McAllen, Edinburg, Mission and Pharr getting behind LUPE’s campaign.

“We do not have to come out in the Top Ten Worst lists if we just make an investment in our community,” Valdex-Cox said. “Colonia residents have devoted so much of their time to this issue. They have said and are still saying, ‘look, our children are not safe.’

“In the morning, when it is still dark, our children have to get on that school bus. You hear of all the accidents. It is so sad, when cars run over children in the colonias because it is so dark. Hopefully, the leadership in McAllen and the surrounding cities will take note of this TIME article and support our campaign. We need public lighting in the colonias.”

The TIME article’s headline was “Top 10 Cities where Americans are Pretty Much Terrified to Live.”

The article said that according to Gallup, “70.5 percent of Americans surveyed in 2012 and 2013 said they felt safe walking alone at night. This is effectively unchanged from 2011, when 71 percent of respondents said they felt safe.”

In a number of metro areas, however, far fewer residents felt safe at night, TIME stated. “In McAllen, Texas, where Americans were least likely to feel safe, less than half of all respondents were comfortable outside of their homes after dark.”

Seven of the ten metro areas in which residents felt the least safe had violent crime rates above the nationwide rate of 386.9 incidents per 100,000 people in 2012, TIME stated. “In the Memphis, Tenn., area, there were 1,056.8 violent crimes per 100,000 people, the most of any metro area in the country. Stockton, Calif., also had one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, with 889.3 incidents per 100,000 residents.”

However, TIME acknowledged that not all metro areas where residents felt unsafe had high violent crime rates. “In two metro areas, McAllen and Yakima, Wash., there were just 319 and 349 violent incidents, respectively, for every 100,000 residents in 2012. In both cases, this was below the national rate.”

Valdez-Cox said it would be easy for those living in other parts of the U.S. to deduce that the reason residents living in the McAllen MSA do not feel safe going out at night is the fear of drug-related violence. She said this is not the case because McAllen and other neighboring cities do not have high violent crime rates. A more plausible explanation, she reiterated, is the lack of street lights and walkways.

“LUPE, ARISE, Proyecto Azteca and other groups in the RGV Equal Voice Network are working hard to get more street lights. Hopefully, this poll in TIME will be the catalyst for positive action in our county. Supported by our cities, let us start looking at the issue of street lights as one of the main factors as to why our residents feels unsafe,” Valdez-Cox added.

The Rio South Texas Economic Council is planning to respond to the TIME article. An op-ed is being penned by McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and will appear in a newspaper such as the Austin-American Statesman or the San Antonio Express-News.