Lourdes Flores

Tyrant’s Foe: Lourdes Flores Helps Colonia Residents Help Themselves


A version of this story ran in the March 2013 issue.

Above: Lourdes Flores

Lourdes Flores didn’t know she wanted to help others until someone helped her. She was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and moved to Mission, Texas, at age 12. When she graduated from high school she couldn’t legally work, so family members suggested she join a new community organization an Irish nun had founded in nearby Las Milpas. Las Milpas is one of many colonias along the border wracked by poverty and lacking basic necessities. At the time, the colonia didn’t have paved roads, public schools, a fire station, doctors or a pharmacy.

Flores, 42, has been with the organization, A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), ever since, working to improve conditions in colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. ARISE’s mission is to aid communities by helping residents identify life goals and helping them reach those goals on their own. Its guiding tenet: Don’t do anything for anybody that they can’t do for themselves. The organization’s founder, Sister Gerrie Naughton, recruited Flores early on and encouraged her to share her skills.

“I was discovering I had abilities I didn’t know I had; it made me feel really good,” Flores says. “I saw how much ARISE changed me, and I thought, ‘I can’t keep this for myself; I have to share it with other women.’”

Flores was involved in ARISE’s very first program: English lessons for women in the colonias. When ARISE was founded in 1987, the Immigration Reform and Control Act had granted legal amnesty to some immigrants living in the U.S. To qualify, the women needed to learn English. Flores was one of the few in the community who spoke English, so she started teaching other women. As more women obtained legal residency, they became eligible for driver’s licenses—so ARISE began a program to teach women how to drive.

Today ARISE has four community centers in three colonias near McAllen: Las Milpas, Muñiz and South Tower, each with a different director. Flores helped open the Muñiz center, headed the South Tower branch, and now directs the support center in South Tower.

At each center, the organization offers initiatives focusing on youth and adult leadership, and personal development. It runs three cycles of programs each year and helps about 3,800 families each cycle. ARISE members go door-to-door to ask women about their needs and encourage them to share their talents, often through teaching others.

Three of ARISE’s centers are dedicated solely to community programs, but the support center helps with training for all four centers. It also offers programs of its own: It recently opened a community garden and compost facility to teach the residents of Hidalgo County, one of Texas’ poorest counties, about sustainability, and it provides solar water heaters to South Tower families who cannot afford to have hot water in their homes.

One of Flores’ responsibilities is to create new programs and curricula to expand ARISE’s reach. Among her biggest struggles, she says, is saying no to programs the community needs but the organization doesn’t have the resources to handle.

Despite limited resources, ARISE has helped poor families living along the border and has promoted civic engagement among the Latino community in the colonias. During last year’s election, ARISE members, many of them undocumented immigrants, held a voter-engagement campaign. They knocked on doors and marched. Though they couldn’t vote, they still wanted to make a difference by informing eligible voters about the issues and candidates.

Because the group is largely composed of individuals with only basic education and limited English, Flores says public forums and other events engaging the larger community and elected officials can be a challenge.

To that end, one of ARISE’s main goals continues to be education, providing classes and tutoring services for kids and adults. The group’s other focus is immigration, to offer residents the opportunity to lead their communities and be active members of society.

“Our biggest goal is to help the community reach its dreams,” Flores says. “We want people to be informed so they know they can stand up for themselves.”