Neta on the Border
If you would have asked me 2 years ago if the U.S. South was on my Lesbihonest travel list, I would have said no.
But then, the 2016 elections happened. And in the meantime, news of one discriminatory bill or action after another, many of them taking place in the South, was popping up on the airwaves every day. I didn't want to focus on it - on that certain individual with far too much power in his hands and on the actions and beliefs he was promoting and enabling. But I also didn't want to sit back in my closet in San Francisco and generalize about a vast region of the United States that I clearly needed to learn more about.
I knew that the South, as much as it symbolized bigotry and backwardness in my sheltered California-inclined brain, has also long been a place of resistance, cultural richness, and strength. I wanted to go there and meet some of the people who make the South a beautiful place. So I packed my bags and got on a plane to Texas. This is how I found myself in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, talking to Dani Marrero Hi.
Dani was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, México, which is a ten minute drive from McAllen, Texas. She’s lived in McAllen since she was seven, when she moved from México with her family.
The following is an excerpt from the interview I recorded with Dani in McAllen, which is one of the several cities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (also known simply as "The Valley").
Dani describes The Valley like this:
The Valley is right along the Texas-Mexico border, in the southernmost tip of Texas. It's composed of four counties, and we have some of the fastest growing areas in the in the country - like the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area, which are three cities in one of the counties, Hidalgo County.
We have everything you would find in a big city. We have all the restaurants, all the shops and everything. But we also have like a small town feel, where you can’t talk shit about someone because someone’s gonna find out, you know someone IN THE ROOM is gonna be like “That's my cousin!”
We're also a super young area - I think that like more than 50% of the population in this metro area is younger than 32. And we're also brown – like, brown as heck! [Almost] everyone here is Hispanic or Latino, and mostly Mexican.
La Shaguita: I met Dani at the McAllen Public Library, which is an active community space located in a former Wal-Mart building. Inside, LGBTQ themed books were on display across the entire library in honor of pride month. Turns out the library has even launched an LGBTQ book club since then.
Dani is the founder of NETA. NETA is a bilingual source of articles, videos, and podcasts created by activists and journalists from the Rio Grande Valley. Through the site, Dani and other contributors challenge mainstream narratives about what life is like in the Valley in terms of both its hardships and its beauty.
La Shaguita: Hidalgo County is only one of the four counties in the region collectively known as the Rio Grande Valley. Despite its growing economy, the Valley is a very disenfranchised area. It was recently rated as the county with the most poverty in Texas and it also has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the state. And then there's the border - which, by the way, already has a wall along large portions of it. The border is to the south of McAllen.
Dani: And to the north we have the immigration checkpoints. So that creates a cage, in a sense. And then north of those checkpoints - which you'll see when you travel north - it's just about 3 hours of kind of nothing. There are small towns every now and then, but the next big city is San Antonio.
La Shaguita: The checkpoints and the 3 hours of next to nothingness above McAllen pose further barriers to people who manage to cross the border. Those who do often experience dangerous temperatures, deceitful interactions with coyotes (people paid to lead immigrants across the border and through the wilderness) and the possibility of being detained by border patrol. This encourages many undocumented individuals to stay within the Rio Grande Valley instead of risking the journey farther north. Yet despite the challenges of life in this very policed area of Texas, the Valley is also a growing metropolis with a deep sense of community that reflects both its resilience and its uniqueness.
Dani: We know in the Valley that we have to look out for each other, because there's nothing else out there intentionally looking out for us. That social aspect of it also translates to activism in certain ways. In other places, I would say it's so easy for there to be something like this big gay group who supports the Democratic Party to death and then there’s the radical queers and then they never interact with each other. One of them is at the skate parks and the other one's at the Democratic National Convention and they never interact with each other.
Here in the Valley ... we have to work together because we can't afford to not talk to each other. [But there are] times when we have differences. There are some groups like Aquí Estamos [that believe] we can't fucking cooperate with the Border Patrol. Like there's no point in us teaching the Border Patrol pronouns if they’re gonna fuckin’ deport us right? And then there are other groups that are like, “But let's teach them, you know, let's celebrate pride with them.”
In other places, perhaps the area’s big enough that you can just ignore each other. In the Valley though, there's a bigger need of us creating change and working through our problems as we’re moving along than just ignoring each other.
La Shaguita: This understanding that the Valley needs to be looked out for internally is one of the reasons that Dani created NETA after the most recent presidential elections. With the combined skills between Dani and others she knew, together with lots of hard work and dedication, Neta has now become a hub for progressive news in the Rio Grande Valley. This didn’t happen overnight. Dani describes the process as “building the bicycle as we go. A key goal among Neta contributors is to “share narratives that are authentic” to the Rio Grande region.
Dani: [There’s an] external narrative that the border is just this wasteland, that Border Patrol can do whatever they want. So when people look at NETA and see that it's people from the border and we have pride, [they see that] when we talk about the border wall, we're talking about real people.
Us creating this the this media, these videos, these articles, and podcasts of new narratives … that are authentic to this region, it helps people see that “hey, I don't have to leave the Valley to feel like I could be openly gay, openly queer or trans. I don't have to leave the Valley, I don't have to leave because I don't feel like there's no place for me here.”
And fighting that narrative also helps activism because if we change the idea that the Valley is not worth fighting for, then people stay and people fight that, you know? And so that's kind of the two fold of how does the world see the Valley and how does the country see the Valley? And then how do we see the Valley and how can we change that so that we make real change to the core.
La Shaguita: Despite the ongoing challenges posed by the Trump administration to the Valley and beyond, Dani feels positive about her work and the work of NETA in the years to come.
Dani: I think that if this intense political time is good for anything is that it's moved people who previously thought that they weren't also in this burning train with us. They're like “Oh crap, I am also in this burning train, I need to do something about it.” People are moving, people are getting involved. We see that queer people are getting involved in politics … and beyond politics too, taking a critical glance at like who we are as a society and what are things that we need to change.
La Shaguita: One important example of this change is the annual Queerceañera celebration organized by Neta.
Dani: Queerceñera, if it isn’t evident [is a mixture of the words] queer and quinceañera … We wanted to have Queerceañera because quinceañeras are still super popular than in this region quinceañeras are a big fuckin’ deal. So we wanted to have an event that reflected our culture and that also celebrated who we were and that also was fun.
We had it at Yerbería Cultura … which is probably the most LGBT friendly venue in the McAllen. We said, we're gonna have a queerceñera, we’re gonna have norteño music, we're going to have the typical music you always dance at quinceañeras, we’re gonna have food, we’re gonna have a cake, we're gonna have everything, and you come dressed however you want. It’s going to be like the quinceañera you always wanted - and it was so much fun! We had a norteño band who plays your music that you would traditionally dance with your tíos and primos, your abuelita. But maybe at your quinceañera or the quinceañeras you went to, you had to dress strictly to whatever gender role you had to confine to …
[And it] was nice because people were like I CAN listen to norteño music AND be me. I CAN wear this big poofy dress and be me. It doesn't only belong to like a heteronormative thing. I can also make this for me.
Check out netargv.com to learn more about life in the Rio Grande Valley from local residents like Dani who are challenging mainstream narratives on the region.
Listen to the full Lesbihonest episode with Dani here.
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