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Alan Pogue and both end up pregnant.” Poverty wages have long been the hallmark of the labor market in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the unemployment rate is roughly triple the state average, and 45 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. Yet many cost of living indicators are actually higher in the Valley than in San Antonio, where the same work pays much better wages. Unions are virtually non-existent. And although the Valley is growing at an extremely rapid rate, the economy has actually gotten worse in the last ten years. One of the largest area employers, Levi Strauss, laid off 1,700 garment workers this summer and moved to Mexico, as has much of the garment industry along the border since NAFTA took effect in 1995. Workers with no high school diploma and little English could earn $10 per hour in the garment industry. Nothing has replaced that old standby. Agricultural employment is down, too. Many citrus growers never recovered from the disastrous freeze of 1985, selling out to colonia developers and leaving the business altogether. “Being from the Valley, we have experience working the fields, and that was okay for us, but if you look around now, there’s not too many fields left anymore,” says Estella Soza-Garza, a leader from the parish of Holy Spirit and a clinical social worker. Interfaith leaders discovered that fully 30 percent of the county’s workforce earned minimum wage or slightly above. Many were on public assistance. The same was true for other public employees in the Valley, where roughly one-third of all employees work in the public sector. Interfaith brought in an M.I.T. economist to hold a seminar on wages for leaders from across the Valley. “He really shook us up,” says Mody Guzman, a leader from the Alton area near Mission. “He told us that markets are not the only thing that determine wages. Political decisions are made. And wages stay low as long as we allow them to,” she explains. “Here in the Valley, historically, decisions are made by only a few people. That’s the culture we have to change.” Leaders spent a year holding house meetings, where neighbors gather to discuss issues and plan strategy, and meeting with area elected officials and school superintendents. “The most radical thing we do,” explains Sister Judy Donovan, one of the few full-time, paid Interfaith organizers, “is bring people into conversation. Most people are victims or outsiders in the political process. We make them subjects.” Relying on their network of leaders in the Valley’s school districts, Interfaith convinced school boards and superintendents to come to the table. In 1998, the McAllen I.S.D. brought more than 400 employees up to $6.65, and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo I.S.D. followed suit soon after. The Mission I.S.D. then raised wages to remain competitive. The Texas Education Agency also raised wages at the area Regional Service Center to a base of $7.50, as did the city of McAllen. Interfaith leaders next took their proposal to the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court, a bastion of old-school Valley politics. Because they are not beholden to elected officials, Valley Interfaith leaders don’t mince words when it comes to talking about politi 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 3, 1999