MCALLEN, RGV – A board member for the non-profit, non-partisan, Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas says the Rio Grande Valley is developing a culture of voting but there is still a long way to go.

Speaking to Valley media outlets and local businesses and organizations that are working with AACT NOW, Juan Peña said things are a lot better than they used to be.

“You reach a certain age and the future gets blurry and the past gets clearer. I reminisce mentally about the times we sat at coffee shops because this is a coffee shop community. You want to take care of your legal problems, your medical situation, you go have coffee with your friends. During those periods we would invariably talk about politics. It was so interesting that we were looking from the bottom up. Where everything was controlled from the up and we were at the bottom. And this community has suffered for that,” Peña said.

“But now as a I sit here and I see all the wonderful contributors that are here and they recognize that if politically we succeed all of us in this room succeed – whether you have a (McAllen) Monitor that will have more people ordering it, or you have a TV station where you have more viewers, or whether you have a business where you have more people to supply to. So it is invigorating to see that I am looking at the top hoping to take care of the bottom. I congratulate you, I thank you. It is a very, very, pleasant situation.”

Edna De Saro
Edna De Saro

The meeting was held at the headquarters of Lone Star National Bank in McAllen. AACT NOW put on the event to thank media outlets for running AACT NOW public service announcements for free and to thank local businesses and organizations that have run AACT NOW-related voter registration and get out the vote efforts. Among the entities working with AACT NOW are Lone Star National Bank, Valley Land & Title Company, South Texas College and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Interviewed after the meeting, Peña spoke about the old days.

“We would have meetings all the way down from El Paso to Brownsville. They were trying to see how they could impact voter turnout. Finally, I was asked to participate. My only comment was, if you don’t get assistance from the top, and the top being the moneyed areas, to help out the bottom we would never succeed. That has become a wonderful circle with AACT.”

When a reporter challenged the idea that entities from outside the Valley have helped very much in getting higher voter turnout in the region, Peña said he would have to agree.

“The (AACT NOW) funding is self-generated. This is one of the few movements where we really don’t care if you vote Republican, Democrat or Independent. We just want you to vote. Voting means money in the long run,” Peña said.

“When you consider that our median age is 26 years old, it is clear that this is an area that continues to grow, both internally and from elsewhere because you see a lot of transplants coming in. This is a bright spot that is, quite frankly, going to have a major, major impact in the state. Once we open our eyes and realize it and just do it – vote.”

Peña’s optimism echoed comments made the week before by Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if one day our statewide candidates and our federal candidates say something like, you’ve got to win the border if you want to win Texas,” Cascos said, to loud applause, when speaking at a Texas Border Coalition meeting in Pharr. “Unfortunately, that is not true today. But, it can be. It can be true soon.”

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo of Dallas told the Rio Grande Guardian that Mexican Americans on the border and across Texas started to get involved in the election process in a big way with the 1960 presidential election. He said many communities formed Viva Kennedy clubs. However, after his victory, Robert Kennedy told Latino leaders they were no longer needed because the election was over, Alonzo said. “But, Latinos got a taste for political involvement and would not go away. They wanted to stay involved, which led to the rise of La Raza Unida,” Alonzo said.

As evidence that its group is having a positive impact, AACT NOW leaders point to higher involvement in the electoral process among students in the Valley and the fact that the percentage turnout in the general election was higher in Hidalgo and Starr counties in 2012 than in 2008.

“Every year, through the collaboration of its partners, AACT registers over 8,000 people. To date AACT has registered over 30,000 people since 2012. Three quarters of the registrations were conducted at our high school, college, and university partner locations,” said Edna De Saro, marketing director for Lone Star National Bank and a spokesperson for AACT NOW.

“Currently, 36,612 students – 18-24 year olds from high schools, colleges, and universities – participate in AACT’s program. In 2012, 18-24 year olds participating with AACT turned out to vote at 50 percent, and 23 percent of them turned out to vote in 2014. AACT’s 18-24 year olds had a higher turnout than 18-24 year olds in Texas and in the US for both elections.”

De Saro thanked media outlets for helping spread the word about the importance of voting but offered a suggestion on how exposure could be increased even further. “We would love to see Lamar Billboards donate a couple of billboards to AACT. That would be fantastic,” she said.

Israel Rocha, CEO of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, is a board member of AACT NOW. Like De Saro, he thanked Valley media outlets for working with AACT NOW.

“Without your support and your continued advocacy on the need to come out and vote, AACT would not be as successful as it is. It is your platform and your network that allows our message to go out to the community. The best ways to turn ideas into action is to vote,” Rocha said.

“The community is recognizing that in South Texas, something is going on. It is not business as usual. People around the country want to know what AACT Now is all about.”

Another AACT NOW board member is Mario Reyna, dean of business at South Texas College. He said: “We know there is something dynamic happening. We just had close to 35,000 students enroll, which is a record. We want to advance regional prosperity for a better quality of life. Part of this vision includes educating our community on the importance of voting,” Reyna said. “If we have 34,000 students and they all touch ten people, that gives you a perspective on how far we can reach into our community.”

Another AACT NOW board member is businessman Alonzo Cantu. He said: “We need to vote. In the past we have been neglected when it comes to infrastructure funding, education funding, healthcare funding. We need to get our community to go out and vote and be one of the top areas of the state so we make a difference in the state elections. Then we will get recognized by elected officials.”

Rodrigo Rodriguez, owner of Rio Bravo Pictures, produces AACT NOW’s TV commercials for free. At the media appreciation event Rodriguez said: “We are hearing some great, creative ideas and suggestions. We definitely will be incorporating them. Everybody who is sitting here needs to realize that we are at the core of making some major, fundamental, changes to South Texas. It is this room full of people that are leading the way. It is quite humbling that we are making such an impact. We only now just getting started.”