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The Rio Grande Valley had a hell of a summer.
Over the last four months, the over 1 million people who call the southernmost tip of Texas home have endured: more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19; flooding, structural damage, and power outages from Hurricane Hanna; and an ongoing racialized terror reign at the hands of local police and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Government systems have long failed to meet people's basic needs in the valley, crisis or not. Nearly 90 percent of residents are Latinx in the RGV, a region often leading the nation in unemployment and poverty.
Against the odds, young organizers spent the summer launching mutual aid projects to meet their neighbors' basic needs, including tackling the high rates of food insecurity in the region.
One such project was the RGV Free Fridge in McAllen Food Park, coordinated by two 23-year-old activists in the mid-sized city home to a University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus.
Ángela García, a 20-year-old senior art history student at Trinity University who is known for having a wide smile and sharp eye, volunteered to design art for the fridge with hopes people would genuinely interact with the project.
The inspiration for both the project and García's art embodies the Black Panther Party's free breakfast program and general "free" stores set up across the nation in the '70s and '80s to provide supplies and resources to those in need. García was inspired by the movie Yellow Submarine for the colors and imagery—in particular, a performance of the song "All You Need is Love."
The spirit of the song captured what the young people here are trying to offer alongside basic services.
"This fridge project, much like many other mutual aid projects in the RGV, is our extension of love to our RGV family," García said.
Filled with staples like water bottles, eggs, milk, and bread, organizers relied on donations to refill the fridge daily and keep highly sought after items in stock. The organizers relied on a team of volunteers to sanitize, clean, and conduct inventory in order to maintain food handling standards.
But in spite of organizers' best efforts, the City of McAllen's Health and Code Enforcement recently ruled that the project had to be shut down. City officials cited an "inability… to ensure proper internal cooked food temperatures" as the official reason for halting the project, but called the organizers' efforts "commendable."
With the academic year underway, a historic election approaching, and pushback from local governments against hard-fought aid projects, organizers know setbacks are inevitable—but that won't stop them from helping people in the RGV, a place they say is often forgotten or overlooked by outsiders.
As Indigenous organizers built collective action through mutual aid, they also created a coalition for a new generation's work toward decolonization along the border.
"Here in the valley, if I'm working to help my community, I'm working to help myself as well," said Vic Guerrero, a serious and thoughtful 21-year-old reproductive justice organizer.
RGV youth see themselves as part of their community, not part of a college bubble separate from the community at large, Guerrero said. When she was attending the University of Texas A&M University in College Station, the vibe was very different.
Many of the organizers there were more focused on beefing up their resumes and pursuing their political ambitions than creating sustainable change, she said. Even when the intentions were good, most campus organizations focused on helping more privileged college students than community members outside of the institutional safety of the university.
None of the mutual aid projects that blossomed in the valley this summer were dedicated to college students.
Anyone in need was eligible to apply. And there was a lot of need.
Hurricane Hanna was the first hurricane to make landfall in the RGV since 2008. Dangerous flooding carried debris: the remnants of homes and businesses, uprooted trees, unharvested cotton, and fruit trees. At least 250,000 people in the valley were without power in their homes for days.
Low income communities near the border, known as colonias, stayed flooded for several weeks until the water receded.
Both mainstream media and government agencies failed to support those who had lost everything in the storm. Immediately following the hurricane, Good Morning America labeled the valley as "'a good spot for the hurricane to hit," and Governor Greg Abbott assured Texans that the valley was "good" based on a video of residents buying Whataburger.
FEMA quickly determined that the total monetary damage didn't meet their thresholds for providing aid, leaving those who lost everything with no federal help.
The combination of these dehumanizing moments sparked the motivation to create a mutual aid fund and provide the support that the state was clearly not going to provide.
"It was clear that the only people who actually care about our region are ourselves," explained Andrea Juarez, a 23-year-old with a passion for social justice as bold as her eye makeup.
On July 26, the day after Hurricane Hanna hit, Guerrero and other organizers, including Juarez, launched the Rio Grande Valley Mutual Aid Fund. Their team, made up primarily of University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley students, raised almost $50,000 to date through donations from community members, nonprofits, and political candidates.
"The RGV is always forgotten by the rest of the state, but we're still gonna take care of each other," Guerrero said.
They're guided by love of home but also by a desire to address the root problems that have caused such scarcity in the RGV such that Latinx people are disproportionately at risk for hunger and housing insecurity.
This summer, Andres Garza, a 23-year-old with a passion for food justice, moved back to the valley from Austin with their partner and launched Neighborhood Molino in McAllen.
Neighborhood Molino provides "pay what you can" heirloom maíz sourced from small-scale Indigenous communities. They focus on feeding community members who are experiencing food insecurity, but more than supplying food, "the project aims to nourish, decolonize, and educate the community," Garza said.
The dream is to create "utopian food spaces" that not only provide basic resources, but address this history and politics of traditional food in the Rio Grande Valley.
Garza and their partner make weekly drop offs of maíz goods and seeds to community members. Despite providing contactless delivery to follow COVID-19 safety precautions, they have still been able to build connections between the Indigenous communities who provide the goods and the community members who are making purchases and reconnecting to their ancestry and culture.
The project is based in Garza's home kitchen, with only the couple putting together and dropping off meals. Despite this, the Neighborhood Molino Instagram page shows that they have sold out several times, with deliveries to 6 different cities in the Valley. The Instagram page also provides historical information about maíz, tortillas, and the Indigineous populations that call the RGV home.
Garza believes the project has garnered interest from other young people in the valley because they want to learn about their roots and histories, and they have the energy to get involved in mutual aid projects.
"Our future depends on the work we do now, and the older folks are not going to be here to see nor reap the benefits," Garza said.
The Rio Grande Valley's unique success with mutual aid stems from multiple places—from the youth investment in the collective well-being of their neighbors, to the high need from COVID-19 and hurricane relief. Mutual aid funds in the DFW Metroplex and Houston were only able to raise $15,000 and $10,000 respectively. These areas also didn't experience any strong storms over the summer, which meant that they were primarily focused on COVID-19 relief.
A common theme around the work that RGV youth organizers created was the accessibility of the projects. Organizers used social media to advertise the mutual aid fund and provide updates on the project. Twitter especially was used as a call out tool to encourage local politicians and statewide nonprofits, to donate to those in need in the valley.
With the summer behind them, Garza anticipates having better luck with the future of Neighborhood Molino in the upcoming months.
Guerrero and Juarez said the RGV Mutual Aid Fund may have to slow down. The collective recently stopped taking donations to focus on their structure and finances, which aligns with many of their organizers having to dedicate more time and energy to school, work, and mental health.
Guerrero hopes people will take time to address "the trauma our community has gone through in the past few weeks" in whatever way they need.
"Even if we're working at a slower pace, we'll still get there and we'll still make a difference," Guerrero said.