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LAS MILPAS, RGV – Valley Interfaith has garnered the support for their top six agenda items for Las Milpas from most of the candidates running for Pharr city commission and both of the candidates running for mayor.

The agenda items are: a bridge across a canal to link the neighborhood north of West Las Milpas Road to Jones Box Park; more funding for Project VIDA; the building of a library and resource center in Las Milpas, an end to predatory lending; more buses and bus routes for Valley Metro, and paving of more neighborhood streets in Las Milpas.

Claudia Garcia
Claudia Garcia

“These issues came from the people of Las Milpas. They came from our house meetings, from our block walks,” said Claudia Garcia, a Valley Interfaith leader in south Pharr. “Today, we heard a lot of positive comments from the candidates about our agenda. I am hoping that after the election those elected will meet with us when we go knock on their door. They said ‘yes’ to this. We have to make sure it happens.”

Garcia was speaking immediately following an accountability session at St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church. More than 130 Las Milpas residents attended to learn where the Pharr city commission candidates stand on Valley Interfaith’s agenda. The Pharr city commission election takes place May 9. Early voting starts today, April 27.

All four candidates on the Pharr Forward slate attended the Valley Interfaith event. They are Dr. Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez, who is running for mayor, educator Eleazar Guajardo, who is running for Place 1, former Pharr Mayor Ricardo Medina, who is running for Place 5, and Dr. Ramiro Caballero, who is running for Place 6.

Two of the four Pharr First slate attended. They were City Commissioner Adan Farias, who is running for mayor, and educator Mario Bracamontes, who is running for Place 6. City Commissioner Arturo Cortez, who is running for re-election in Place 1, City Commissioner Aquiles ‘Jimmy’ Garza, who is running for re-election in Place 5, did not attend.

Diane Olivar
Diane Olivar

“I am disappointed that two of the candidates were not here. We met with all of them, one-on-one and we told them today was the day. It makes me upset they were not here. I am a citizen of Pharr, of Las Milpas. I am a voter. I do not know where they stand on these issues. These are issues affecting my family, my child,” Garcia said.

Roughly 40 percent of the residents of Pharr live south of the Main Floodway in an area historically known as Las Milpas. It was annexed by Pharr City Commission in 1987 in preparation for the building of the Pharr International Bridge. At the time, many Valley Interfaith members opposed annexation.

Asked what the economic state of Las Milpas is today, Garcia told the Rio Grande Guardian: “It has grown a lot over the past 20 years. I moved here in 1985. There are a lot more businesses, but our finances are still the same. Our family incomes levels are still very low. A lot of our families are in that low socio-economic area. This is why Project VIDA is so important. If a student gets help with their finances, as the two young ladies who spoke today told us, families can move out of the poverty line.”

The two Valley Interfaith members who spoke about Project VIDA were Cielo Maya and Jonie Venell. A single mom attending South Texas College with plans to become a nurse, Venell said her potential income level will rise from $22,000 $68,000 upon graduation.

“I am just one voice out of literally thousands in the Pharr/Las Milpas area who are waiting for the opportunity to rise above the poverty level,” Venell told the candidates. “As part of your community, I urge you to increase funding for the VIDA Program from the current $50,000 a year to at least $100,000 a year. As city leaders, please step up to the plate and honor your commitment to us to help us progress. Invest in us so that one day we may continue this investment in our wonderful community.”

Diane Olivar spoke at the accountability session on the need to end predatory lending. Olivar said she needed to borrow $1,000 in a hurry and used her car title as collateral. “I paid $150 each month. After a year, I decided with my income tax return I was going to pay my whole balance. That balance was still $750. I waited and I paid for it. I did the calculations. I ended up paying for a $1,000, paying $2,550. That it is 150 percent interest. These types of predatory businesses should not be in our community because they affect us a lot.”

Thirteen-year-old Luke Singh spoke about the need for a bridge to connect his neighborhood to Jones Box Park. He said at present it is not easy to cross the muddy canal. Singh said that two years ago he, his mother and his friends went to a Pharr City Commission meeting to ask that a bridge be constructed. “Two years later my friends and I are still waiting,” he said.

This year, Singh said, his mother suggested a different approach. He, his mother and friends have been block walking and have secured 140 signatures in support of a bridge. “My mom says this time we will get our bridge and I believe her,” Singh said.

The format for the accountability session involved the candidates giving yes or no answers to Valley Interfaith’s six agenda items. The candidates were twice given two minutes to address the audience on those issues. No propaganda was allowed into the hall, no one was allowed to wear a campaign T-shirt, and candidates were not permitted to verbally attack their opponents. They were instructed to only answer the questions about Valley Interfaith’s agenda. Valley Interfaith members and supporters pledged to mount a strong Get Out the Vote effort in Las Milpas.

Afterwards, candidates from both slates expressed their pleasure with how the accountability session went.

“It was an awesome event. I know where the people here are coming from. I can relate to their passion because half of my students are from Las Milpas. My heart is here,” said Bracamontes, of Pharr First. “Jones Box Park is important to me. They are asking for a bridge and that is good. But, you know what; we need more than that, a lot more than that. What I want to do is this. They are asking me to commit to Valley Interfaith’s agenda. I am asking them to commit to me because I have a lot of projects that I am going to bring up and I need their support.”

Mario Bracamontes
Mario Bracamontes

Asked if it hurt Pharr First to have two candidates missing, Bracamontes said: “Just like Las Milpas there are other communities, like north Pharr and the middle of Pharr that also want to hear us talk. We have to separate ourselves and cover separate events. I am glad we came here but to tell you the truth it is about the whole city of Pharr, not just one part of it. I love Las Milpas but we have to pay attention to every single part of Pharr. We have to respect that.”

Asked if the structure of the session was slanted against Pharr First because their candidates always had to answer the questions first, Bracamontes said. “It might look that way but the answers I gave came straight from the heart so whether they ask me first or last, I am still going to put it out there. Talk is talk. Action is better. That is what I am going to be doing. I am probably doing the most community service, voluntary work with kids, of anyone on the ballot. I have been doing it for ten years. I am not going to change.”

Bracamontes said the only thing he would change about the agenda is allow more time for the candidates to give more in-depth answers. “Anybody can say yes, yes, yes, to Valley Interfaith’s agenda. It sounds beautiful. But, I would have liked at least a minute or two minutes for every question so that we could really show the people why we are saying yes. I am willing to talk to them anytime they want because I too have an agenda, I have a plan.”

Eleazar Guajardo
Eleazar Guajardo

Pharr Forward’s Guajardo said the accountability session was insightful and helpful. “It was a very productive forum. The issues we discussed today are very important to this community and they need to be addressed. We aim to do that,” he said. Asked if there were any surprises in the agenda, Guajardo said: “No. We are very aware of the problems this community is facing today. The only thing that surprised me was the amount of money the young lady had to repay for that $1,000 loan. I had heard about shark loans, predatory loans, but that was ridiculous. That is something that definitely needs to be protected.”

Guajardo said some of the issues Valley Interfaith raised may have to be dealt with by the Legislature or by Hidalgo County, not by the City of Pharr. “If it is a problem, then there is a solution. It might not take one step, it might take several levels of government to tackle them but somebody has to initiate the process and if we have to do it then that is where it is going to start.”

Asked what the economic state of Las Milpas is, Guajardo said: “If you walk around the community here you will probably see it is the forgotten area. On the main street it looks okay. But, once you get into the neighborhood you see a lot of problems that are not being dealt with. Safety, infrastructure, a lot of the roads need attention and it is not happening. I see this community as not being represented properly at the city commission.”