LUPE launches campaign to connect rural RGV residents

SAN JUAN — A nonprofit here wants to make sure that children living in some of the poorest areas of the country have access to affordable internet in the wake of an educational revolution that has made the service a necessity.

La Union Del Pueblo Entero launched a virtual campaign Tuesday, calling for signatures in support of bringing internet services to rural residents across South Texas, specifically focusing on Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties, where organizers say one third of the population lacks connectivity.

“The internet is not a luxury. Unfortunately, right now it’s something necessary so that our children can continue their education,” Alberta Ramirez, a LUPE member and volunteer said during a Zoom meeting Tuesday. “Our worry, as parents, is that they have a (quality) education and that they are well-prepared.”

Ramirez was one of a handful of members that gave testimonies about their virtual woes, calling for accessibility and affordability.

Olivia Castro, who lives in Bentsen Palm near Bentsen Road and Mile 9 ½, said she can’t afford the service.

“There’s only one company that will come in here, but it’s very expensive,” she said about her neighborhood. “And work has been reduced a lot. We don’t have the means to pay for expensive internet, and that also affects our children, our youth, because without internet they can’t complete their homework. We have phones, but the phone’s signal is not always good, and so we’re asking that the counties help us with signatures.”

Eleven-year-old Maria Arias, who lives in a colonia north of Edinburg, was the case in point. She joined the Zoom meeting through her phone’s internet capabilities to talk about her struggles, but it was difficult to understand what she was trying to convey because her signal was weak.

“It’s just, I can’t hear the question,” she said at one point.

Through a choppy connection, Arias explained she has to do her homework by hand and has trouble keeping up with lessons.

“I have to do it on paper because I can’t go to the library because my parents are afraid I’ll contract COVID-19. They tell me to do what I can, but I don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “But, I understand because they work in the fields, picking fruits and vegetables, and it’s not enough to pay for internet or Wi-Fi, and that makes me sad.”

Many of her peers are in the same situation, she said.

“We know the schools are making big efforts,” said Martha Sanchez, LUPE community organizing coordinator. “PSJA is putting Wi-Fi in each bus and then they’re going to go park them in specific areas, but they’re areas. Not every child goes to PSJA. We have many school districts that don’t have the ability that PSJA has.”

And while there are some programs offered via individual internet service providers, the need is too great and there are just not enough resources, Sanchez said, also noting there was a program under the Obama administration that gave qualifying families small subsidies to pay for internet services, but that program is no longer in place, she said.

“We don’t want a small solution. We don’t want to patch it up or use a Band-Aid for this big problem,” she said. “We wanted to look at something that is bigger, a solution that covers everybody and a solution that doesn’t continue to be a problem every time the administration changes.”

And in order to do that, the nonprofit is going to need to get a lot of people on board, specifically county judges, state representatives and local congressmen, Sanchez said.

“We know it’s going to require a lot of people to address this issue, and we just wanted to make sure that everybody is aware of how these problems affect our families in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “That’s why we’re pushing the Census. So we can bring more money and we want some of that money to be invested in (finding solutions for this).”

Hidalgo County commissioners are already studying the issue. They’ve recently allocated $20 million to the Internet Connectivity Committee, which will look at expanding Wi-Fi services in rural areas. Those funds are part of the $151 million the county received in CARES Act funding earlier this year.