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The life, culture and politics of voters across the Rio Grande Valley

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump hold a rally while waiting for Trump's arrival in McAllen, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump hold a rally while waiting for Trump's arrival in McAllen, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

The people of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley are fiercely proud of their dual Mexican-U.S. heritage.

“I don’t think that the rest of the country knows just who we are down here in the Valley,” Xavier Villarreal, a rancher, says. “We’re the greatest American people that can ever exist because we identify ourselves as Americans. We’re not brown, we’re not Black, we’re not white. We’re Americans. All of us.”

But they feel misunderstood by Washington and the media.

“People that are analyzing the politics of South Texas are not understanding that the folks down here come from different perspectives,” congressional candidate Rochelle Garza says. “We’re not a monolith.”

Until recently, the nation’s two political parties saw the voters of the Rio Grande as exactly that — a monolith, and historically, a Democratic monolith. That’s been changing over the past two election cycles.

Today, On Point: We get to know the voters of the Rio Grande Valley.

Guests

Cynthia Villarreal, retired teacher and counselor. Currently, she does educational counseling and consulting.

Xavier Villarreal, rancher. He raises cattle on 525 acres.

Michael Rodriguez, deputy editor of The Monitor.

Rogelio Nuñez, co-founder of the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center. Executive director of Casa de Proyecto Libertad, which provides legal services, education and advocacy to immigrants.

Perla Bazan, substitute school teacher. Formerly a Democrat, she switched parties and voted for Trump in 2016. In 2020, her whole family joined her in voting for Trump.

Also Featured

Ross Barrera, Republican politician in Rio Grande City.

Rochelle Garza, Democratic congressional candidate for Texas’s 34th District. (@RochelleMGarza)

Interview Highlights

On the unique population of the Rio Grande Valley

Michael Rodriguez: “It’s not very diverse in the sense that … over 93% of the population here is Hispanic. There is kind of a melting pot attitude here, and it’s very live and let live. There’s … a kind of caring for family life that although it’s everywhere, is a little bit more, I suppose, important here. And some of the things that people would vote for aren’t necessarily issues.

“Perhaps that’s the case on a local level with local governments, mayoral races, school districts, even counties. But when it comes to matters of Congress, the Senate, presidential elections, it’s a little different. And people won’t necessarily vote the same way in the booths that they would for their local elections.”

On how residents of the Rio Grande Valley vote in elections 

Michael Rodriguez: “I’ll mention the recent race in McAllen. A lot of fuss was made about the new mayor of McAllen, Javier Villalobos, being a Republican. However, what people outside the Valley don’t understand is that it’s been more than 20 years since a Democrat was mayor of McAllen. People don’t vote based on party affiliations for their local races, and therefore they don’t vote primarily on political issues. They vote more about infrastructural issues. Industry. Also on personality, largely.

“And I’ll give you a for instance, there’s been mayors [of local cities] who’ve been barbers … who’ve been elected repeatedly. Even though they’ve faced some issues with the law. And primarily because there are people who live down the street from them. There are people who help them, they counsel them. They’re individuals who’ve known their families for a long time.

“And although they may run into some trouble, although they may not see eye to eye, even politically, they trust them. They’re individuals who they feel they can talk to. And as a result, are fit to lead their cities, or their school districts or counties. And like I said, when it comes to issues of presidential elections, it gets a lot different.”

A resident of the Rio Grande Valley reflects on her political and cultural identity 

Cynthia Villarreal: “We are very proud to be Americans. We’ve always identified as Americans. We do take the best, I think, from both worlds. Because we happen to be in an area where we have a strong influence, of course, from the Mexican heritage that we possess. As well as the American heritage we possess. And truthfully, we’ve taken the best from both worlds, everything from holiday celebrations, music and food.

“We even have our own Tejano music, which is almost a combination, a little bit of a blend between the Mexican music and the country music. And you can even hear the song, sometimes be bilingual. So I just think that we have taken the best of both. We take great pride in being Americans. We possess a lot of things having to do with our heritage, that is Hispanic. And we’re very proud of that.”

” … I’m too white for my Mexican relatives sometimes. They just see me, Oh, you’re so Americanized, she’s so white. And then yet with my white friends, I can see where they see that I’m too Mexican to be completely white. So I’m too Mexican to be white and I’m too white to be Mexican. And the truth is because we are Texans and this area, we’re very proud of being Texans. And at one time we didn’t want to be.

“We did not want to be with Mexico and we didn’t want to be with the United States. We wanted to be our own republic. I know that my own family, they fought in those wars because, you know, we have our own beliefs. And of course, one of the biggest beliefs is pride and in being respectful and having honor and dignity in the things you do. And we are Americans. And we proudly, our family has served heavily in the military, in law enforcement.

“So when when I feel that someone wants to ostracize me and pretend I’m not American enough, that’s very offensive to me. Because you know what? My family has served. My family has produced and helped, and we continue to do so and we will always continue to do so. And I believe a great portion of the people in this area, they are determined to be better Americans.”

On political lessons the rest of the country can learn from the citizens of the Rio Grande Valley

Michael Rodriguez: “You can really lose any community just simply by not being present. And I’ll give you a for instance. In 2016, Cameron County had voted for Trump, 31% of their vote. In 2020, 42%. In Hidalgo County was 27% in 2016, and in 2020 was 40%. There is a rising sentiment. But just like the Democrats, [if] the Republicans are not present in both policy and also in simply just reaching out to the people, they can just as well lose this area.”

From The Reading List

Texas Tribune: “Donald Trump made inroads in South Texas this year. These voters explain why.” — “It was a strange sight in Starr County: More than 70 vehicles, decked out with Trump 2020 flags, parading 13 miles along the Texas-Mexico border from Roma to Rio Grande City.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.