Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Challenge of Tejano Island

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is anchored by several cities. To the west it is anchored by McAllen and to the a southeast by Brownsville. Each city has a distinct character and many strengths and weaknesses. The region, being many things, is unique. It is the southern most part of the mainland continental United States. It is almost tropical in nature. It shares much in common with Mexico to the south yet it is still a part of the United States. In reality it isn't really either country it's more like a third country, an island of sorts.........Tejano Isand.

Separated by a 120 mile wide sea of privately owned ranch land to the north, an ocean to the east and an international border to the south and west, the Rio Grande Valley is isolated from the radically different worlds around it. So isolated that the RGV is the only metropolitan region in the United States not connected to other United State cities by a federal interstate. Closer to Mexico City than Dallas, the region while American, is overshadowed culturally by its neighbors to the south, the metropolitan areas of Matamoros and Reynosa being the more dominant cities.

Media and culture are highly influenced by Mexico but the RGV hasn't really been influenced by the social changes that have taken place in Mexico. Nor are they immediately impacted by social changes in the United States. The region, particularly Brownsville is caught in a negative feed back loop. With minimal outside influences, the region seems to be lost in time and ghettoized from both countries. This ghettoization is exploited by the local political and economic elite, many of which are from original land grant families that have controlled the region for generations.

In a region where poverty is the norm and not the exception, exploitation is an accepted reality. This type of system is perpetuated by a deeply held philosophy of fatalism which is shared by a great many of the Valley's inhabitants. Partially born from deep Latin Catholic roots as well as generational poverty, fatalism is another defining characteristic of this region. A similar reaction has developed in New Orleans; another island type city.

In both locales the commonly held belief of the people is that life is hard and most are destined to failure. People accept their situation...with much commiseration, but rarely do much to fight the power structure and improve the overall situation for society as a whole. Without outside influences this line of thinking may seem rational. Where these cities differ is in their response to their fatalistic beliefs. New Orleans will New Orleans differs is in their response to fatalism. New Orleans will party whereas Brownsville and the rest of the RGV will wallow in suffering.

It is these types of differences that repel outside influences. Particularly in Brownsville this has been true. Whereas McAllen has attracted more growth, primarily because of its close relationship to Monterrey, Mexico, the overall growth that has taken place in Brownsville has not been sustainable. Brownsville lags behind in all areas which would attract the more well off and higher quality investments. This in turn create another negative feedback loop that attracts low quality industries and the poor, which in turn sets off another negative feed back loop of social degeneration.

The Rio Grande Valley faces colossal challenges which are regional in scale. The entire region will need to learn to work together in the future in order to overcome these challenges. The region will need to better balance their cultural relationships with both the north and the south or risk becoming alien to both. If it doesn't learn to work together and to balance its interests, it will tear itself apart. Without balance and collaboration the social differences that exist between people and cities will be magnified and the whole region will eventually be trapped in a vortex of social and economic decline that it is unlikely to escape.

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