Finding my way in the Rio Grande Valley

Young people in border towns like McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley need to build strong communities and make their voices heard to create real change, says Abigail Piando

“If you had to take a friend to a spot in your town, where would you take them?” 

I was asked this in a work meeting, and it was challenging to answer. In any big city, it is a no brainer. The big cities in Texas (Austin, San Antonio, and Houston) have common tourist attractions: The Capitol, the Alamo, NASA. However, coming from a small border town like McAllen I had to think deep. The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) resembles many small towns in the country. If you asked a 15-year-old version of myself, I would have said it was the most boring place in Texas. 

There was nothing to do, no amusement parks to play in. I always craved adventure and excitement. It always felt like time itself passed by at half speed along the Southern border. All of us were tired of the same old routine, and instead imagined a future where we were free to be ourselves in the great big world that was waiting for us. We talked about taking trips to New York, backpacking around Europe, but they were all hopes and dreams to evade the innocent reality that greeted us every day. 

The Beginning: South Texas Ideas

In my sophomore year of high school, I was approached by a friend to join a new club that he was creating called South Texas Ideas (STXi). I immediately said yes – I just wanted something to do, and sure enough, that was how it all began. That was the moment the illusion of time started to fade, and the way I perceived my whole town changed forever.

How was I to empower other youth about their own identity and pride if I had none?”

STXi’s first meeting was more complicated than I had expected. We spent four hours in the public library study room discussing our mission. The team leaders introduced us to the main goal: to educate and empower South Texan youth over their unique culture, community, and identity. Just then, I began feeling a sense of hopelessness and displacement. How was I to empower other youth about their own identity and pride if indeed I had none? Reluctant to quit the club so early, I decided to go with the flow and wait. I had no idea what I was doing and the best I could do was learn and grow my admiration for my hometown as STXi’s first guinea pig. 

Rediscovering Rio Grande Valley

In the beginning, I felt lost amongst all the chaos, but eventually, I found my way. Amanda Elise Salas was the first speaker I listened to at the club. She was a local campaign organiser and activist passionate about Rio Grande Valley politics. Listening to her story and watching her speak about our community with pride made me think about what I felt proud about. 

The previously boring vacant plots of grass around town became symbols of the endless possibilities of growth for the community.”

It was around then that time that the way I viewed my town and my place in it changed completely. The rows of orange trees on the way home were no longer an eyesore but became representative of the seasonal migrant community in the Valley. The previously boring vacant plots of grass around town became symbols of the endless possibilities of growth for the community. The purple and yellow sunrises on the way to school every morning suddenly began reminding me of the Philippine sunsets that I missed terribly.

Finding Strength In Community

In my first year as a team member, we created a local festival for 150 youth to celebrate our region. Notable speakers included Sister Norma Pimentel (Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020), Vicente Gonzalez (U.S. Congressman), and Abel Gonzalez (American Ninja Warrior.) My passion for the RGV grew, and so did my role within the organisation. I was appointed the President during STXi’s second year and was introduced to a whole new world of leadership skills and opportunities. I attended TEDEd weekend in New York City, was interviewed for the newspaper, and became more confident in myself, my identity, and the power I held as a Hispanic Filipino American leader. I met Olympians, Senators, creators, and most importantly, fellow youth in my area who felt the same drive and passion. We became a powerhouse, a collective, and overall, a team to make our wildest ideas come to life. 

I am proud of the work I did at STXi, but I am even more proud of the incredible leaders that took my place and grew the team, the organisation, and the mission that led us here.”

The festival and the local projects we put together would not have been possible without the support of young people in our town. Without their determination to inspire others, learn about who they are, to make a difference, and to stand up to our nation’s false narrative, we could not have made the same impact in our community. I am proud of the work I did at STXi, but I am even more proud of the incredible leaders that took my place and grew the team, the organisation, and the mission that led us here. 

Making Our Voices Heard

Whether it be to lead, to follow, or leave, you have a purpose.”

I am aware that our border town is only one of the 50 in our entire country. There are 49 other towns just like ours with youth who may feel uncertain about their identity, vulnerable about their cultural differences or displaced in their community. Therefore, I call upon other youth who share a similar story to mine to stand up and believe in yourself, your ideas, and your power. You come from one of the most diverse regions in the country, and you can create real change by making your voice heard about the important national and local issues that matter the most to you. Whether it be to lead, to follow, or leave, you have a purpose. Regardless of your destiny, no matter what, I hope you remember to be proud of where you came from and all the moments that shaped who you are. 

“If you had to take a friend to a spot in your town, where would you take them?” 

I thought long and hard about this one but eventually decided on the Hidalgo Pumphouse. The perfect spot where you can take in the lovely Rio Grande River amongst the glistening sunset, have a sweet picnic, and view the monarch butterflies cross the 30 ft border fence. If only you could take in the beauty of it all for yourself.

Abigail Piando

Abigail Piando

Abigail Piando was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley and now attends The University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas. She was the former President of South Texas Ideas (STXi), a local youth-led nonprofit driven to empower bordertown youth. After matriculating, she now engages in various nonprofit work related to environmental sustainability, education, and youth engagement.

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Finding my way in the Rio Grande Valley

by Abigail Piando Reading time: 5 min
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