BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Way Down in the Valley BY GARY MOUNCE POOREST OF AMERICANS: The Mexican-Americans of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas by Robert Lee Maril University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989 THIS IMPORTANT BOOK fills a void in our published knowledge about two important subjects: Mexican Americans and poverty in Texas. The secret is now exposed. Maril, the author of Cannibals and Condos: Texans and Texas Along the Gulf Coast, taught at the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas-Pan American and is now at the Department of Sociology, at the University of South Alabama. Such cr y entials may not matter, however, to some oAthe Valley’s elites, many of whom ignore the pov \\erty in their own back yard. According to Maril, the elites Mexican American as well as Anglo often deny the poverty and kill the messenger who dares mention it. In the past, articles focusing on the region’s poverty in The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, or Bill Moyers’ documentaries were all derided as biased. Moreover, some members of the wealthier classes in the Valley have not only socially and physically distanced themselves from the poverty around them, they have rationalized it in their own minds. Groups such as Valley Interfaith, United Farm Workers, their few middle class or intellectual allies, and others that champion the cause of the poor are pilloried or simply ignored. As Maril explains, the McAllen-EdinburgMission area is the poorest in the nation; the Harlingen-Brownsville area, the third poorest. The percentage of poor has decreased, due to the growing presence of retirees and other northern transplants, but the total number of poor has increased. The last three decades have brought some improvement, but not Much. For example, the median income in Hidalgo County in 1960 was $2,780, 49 percent of the national figure. By 1980 it had risen to $12,083, but was still only 61 percent of the national median income. In the Valley, poverty is not shared equally. As Maril points out, only 6 percent of Anglos Gary Mounce is a professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American. are poor, while 40 percent of Mexican Americans fall in that category. The poverty rate for Mexican Americans in the Valley is double that of the rest of the nation’s Hispanics. “By almost every quantifiable measure which describes poverty,” writes Maril. “Valley MexicanAmericans are much poorer than those who live in the cities.” There is one difference. The Valley is not the stereotyped landscape of urban poverty familiar to TV viewers. In the Valley’s barrios, colorful, single-family dwellings, care Some members of the wealthier classes in the Val ley have not only socially and physi cally distanced themselves from the poverty around them, they have rationalized it in their own minds. fully fenced and tended, are the norm. Cans of aloe vera and flowers line the porches, dogs bark, children play; “urban blight” is not so blatant as in other regions of the country. In the colonial, however, poverty is more acutely visible: no paved streets, no sewage, no governments \(in the builders or realtors. With poverty, naturally, comes poor health and poor education. “Public education is highly politicized in the Valley,” Maril writes. Elites traditionally sent their children to private schools and, later, up state or out of state. Data cited by Maril demonstrates that the Valley’s public education system has perpetuated a “system that fosters discrimination and inequality.” In terms of higher education, only 14 percent of Mexican Americans have some college education, while 43 percent of the Anglos are so prepared. The Valley’s health system is a dual one. Surveys in the past found not only an exceptionally high rate of all manner of medical problems and infections, but even rickets and diseases abol ished in the rest of the country. There is no char ity hospital and general medical fees are as high or higher than the rest of the nation. The tradi tional approach to treating the problems of the needy is still, too often Maril says, that of char ity. A few families are targeted at Christmas with well-publicized efforts to contribute food, then forgotten the rest of the year. OME CHANGES HAVE come; a little progress has been made. Maril admits that the electoral political scene is changing \(only one county-wide Anglo elected seat remains in gains can be easily and quickly erased; the Valley’s formerly progressive delegation to the state Legislature \( including Moreno, Hinojosa Maril also recognizes and praises the work of grassroots groups, the Catholic Church, and Valley Interfaith. But he warns that other new groups, such as the maquilas, may deny their ability to affect poverty in the long run; rather, the rich will get rich and the poor poorer. AccOrding to Maril, a “Marshall Plan” for the Valley would be necessary for any measurable economic advancement, and that seems unlikely given the budget constraints in Austin and Washington, D.C. What will happen if nothing is done? Maril suggests various scenarios in his concluding chapter, “Blueprints for the Future.” Almost certainly, he says, the quality of life will decline for those who live in the Valley. He also predicts the poverty will be exported to the rest of Texas and the nation. The more than 250,000 poor people in the Valley are a problem for the state and nation. Their difficulties affect us all. Progressive action is necessary and will help not only all ethnic groups of the Valley, but will improve the general economic and moral strength of the state and the nation. How do we begin? We might start by making Maril’s book required reading for all public officials and other citizens truly interested in facing facts and changing them. The impressive 20 pages of notes and 20 more of bibliography, plus a short index, are useful to scholar and public policy maker alike. Maril’s scholarship is substantial. His critical warning can no longer be ignored: “It is long past time seriously to consider ways in which these poorest of Americans may be helped and may help themselves.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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