STC students step up to tackle parking issues and midterm elections
Updated: Nov 6, 2018
By Jonathan Salinas
Únete 956 first came together in November of 2017 and officially launched in March of 2018.
The intention set by RGV community organizers and writers who created Únete was to bring together leftist movements from across the Valley, and across college and university campuses, in order to form a platform of discussion over the future of our region and how progressive politics could influence it. The hope was to arrive at a unified, field-theory of social change.
This fall semester at the South Texas College Pecan Campus, without any prior coordination, a group of talented and passionate students came together to form an organization called United 956. The group, composed of ten students—7 Democrats, 3 Republicans, united with the intention of addressing campus, and ultimately community-wide issues that affect everybody—such as parking and electoral politics.
Martha Tellez and Rafael Acosta, both political science majors, spoke with Únete in October.
Vice President Martha Tellez and President Rafael Acosta of United 956 photographed with Congressman Beto O'Rourke backstage at the Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg.
Acosta, President of United 956, and Tellez, his Vice President, had discussed forming a student organization in semesters past. But, as Tellez recalled, “we never took initiative.”
That changed this fall.
Acosta said he just wanted to see a positive difference in issues affecting his community. “I got tired of sitting in the back and just letting stuff pass by," said the sophomore. Urgent, global issues, such as climate change, motivate the President and Vice President of United 956 to action in their communities where they can make a direct impact, they said. Campus recycling is one of the many issues they plan to take up this school year.
United 956’s members live in cities across the Valley. One member, who resides in San Juan, raised the issue of unpaved roads in their neighborhood, which they discussed as a group. The students intend also to participate in community service at immigrant shelters this school year. “There’s a lot of necessity,” said Acosta.
The group had their first fundraiser on campus earlier in the semester where they sold packaged snacks. They participated at the school’s fall festival at the end of October, and a couple days later they volunteered at a Beto for US Senate town hall in Brownsville. Also in their first semester in existence, United 956 received a verbal commitment from US Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15) to speak at their campus. It came after a CNN town hall in McAllen last month. Their initiative has quickly translated into action.
Dealing with campus life, Tellez and Acosta became personally involved in electoral politics this US midterm cycle. United 956 even hosted a voter registration tabling on their campus last month; they registered 42 voters. According to the students, STC announced the breaking of its all-time early voting record by day two, in mid-October.
Tellez and Acosta feel that these US midterm elections are consequential for many reasons, immigration policy primarily among them. Acosta mentioned his Honduran classmate and recipient of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). He says he thinks about and empathizes with 'DACA-mented' youth. The Mission native is convinced that Beto will protect DREAMers and help end the practice of family separation on the Southern US border.
However, the congressman from El Paso has taken back promises made to DREAMers in the past and voted for border wall funding, as recently as March. O’Rourke reiterated his support for "the thousands of men and women of the US Border Patrol" recently at a CNN town hall in McAllen, which the students attended. There, Beto confirmed that “I am not for open borders.”
Asked about the seemingly contradictory stances, the students were undeterred. “It’s about improving Border Patrol,” Acosta told Únete. “He would lose votes if he said he was against them. Now that Beto has seen stuff in the Valley,” Acosta continued, “he understands the realities of people living in the RGV.”
Tellez and Acosta understand that the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley reliably vote Democrat. They believe Beto understands this, too. Because the Senate hopeful has visited the Valley often, and has met with Valley residents to hear their concerns, the executive leadership of United 956 argues, his views are molding closer to those of RGV residents who support immigrants.
“Why else would he come down to the Valley,” Acosta returned the question, “other than getting the experience of the Valley to actually listen to people?”
And listen was what Beto did. On October 18, the US Senate hopeful was featured in a CNN town hall at the McAllen Performing Arts Center. The event was originally meant to be the second of two debates between Incumbent US Senator Ted Cruz and O’Rourke.
After the town hall, the students met US Congressman Vicente Gonzalez outside the new Performing Arts Center in Palms Crossing. They told the Democratic congressman about the work they were doing on campus and that they really hoped to meet Beto. Gonzalez promised to give them a shout-out at a concert that was scheduled for after the town hall at the Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg that night. He also promised to do what he could to introduce the eager students to Beto, I witnessed.
At the concert, the group members approached a security guard to ask if they could get back-stage, at which point Congressman Gonzalez signaled them through and let them in. O’Rourke was addressing the packed auditorium where Los Tigres and Little Joe y La Familia performed that evening in support of the congressman from El Paso. The students waited backstage with Gonzalez as O’Rourke spoke. After completing his remarks, Beto walked back stage and met with United 956.
Video courtesy of United 956
“There were a lot of mixed emotions,” Tellez said. “We were excited!"
Well-justified for excitement, Beto agreed to record a shoutout to United 956 in a 16-second video impelling STC and United 956 to go out and early vote Monday, October 22—the first day of early voting. “You’re going to decide the future of this country in this senate election,” O’Rourke addressed the two year college and the up and coming student organization.
O'Rourke will be up for election in a much-anticipated race between incumbent US Senator Ted Cruz this Tuesday, November 5. For a list of polling locations in Hidalgo County, click here.
United not divided
Although Tellez and Acosta were heavily invested as student fellows for the campaign, the student group—whose membership includes conservatives—are nonetheless united on the issues that affect the them as students. Tellez had a head start on some of these campus issues.
The political science major took part in a letter-writing campaign this summer, directed at college administrators on the issue of parking on campus. It was part of an extra-credit, civic engagement project for her History II class. The campaign, taken up by students affected by parking issues on campus, centered around parking permit fees and citations. These letters earned Tellez and several of her classmates a meeting with Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Anahid Petrosian in July.
During their meeting with Vice President Petrosian, the students said, administration argued that there are sufficient parking spaces in an STC parking lot next to the Sonic Drive-In, off Pecan Street near Ware Road. The McAllen STC campus is located on the corner of Pecan and 29th Street, about four blocks down. At the start of the fall, STC administrators allowed for one, distant parking lot to be used by STC students without a parking permit. This was done in attempt to appease concerns raised by Tellez and her classmates, as well as campaigns from previous semesters.
United 956 sees the move by administration as condescending and alienating. “Why do they have to label us,” Tellez inquired of the stigmatization that results from utilizing the “poor kids” parking lot. In a KVEO report aired in September, reporting on the free parking lot, STC officials portrayed students as complainers who cannot afford the permit. Joanna Guzman, who reported on the situation, interviewed no students. Thus, this article may also serve to air this unreported perspective excluded from the mainstream, corporate media.
Tellez and Acosta are not satisfied with what they see as a half-measure. They say that only 1 shuttle bus serves the area and drops students off at a single location in front of the campus’ administrative buildings on the West end. “But what if we have class in another building,” Acosta inquires of college administrators.
Tellez also takes issue with faculty and administrative parking spaces unavailable to students when vacant. On a fundraising day, Tellez recalled that the group was delayed by 30 minutes. The Edinburg resident could not find parking, though other designated parking spaces unavailable to her were unused.
“If there are empty spaces, why not let us park there when students are the ones paying,” Tellez asks of the college. She added, of VIP parking spaces reserved for STC administration, that everybody who attends the college should be treated equally, regardless of economic circumstances or job title.
Accessibility to parking spaces—a relatable issue to every college student—is not the only problem. Paying $25 yearly for a parking permit can be difficult for students living in the most impoverished region of the country. Tellez and Acosta believe that parking permits should be included in their college tuition, as they are at other comparable two-year colleges throughout The State of Texas, as Únete reported back in April.
But such comparable measures to other colleges is not the measure employed by college officials. According to Tellez, STC administrators justified the $25 charge by drawing attention to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s $100 annual charge for parking permits, which have recently been criticized and protested by UTRGV students, many of whom may have once been STC students. STC administration deflected attention to UTRGV, yet again, in the KVEO report.
Similarly enough, the UTRGV adopted STC’s strategy—or was it the other way around?—of pointing to other institutions with higher parking permit costs, like UT-Austin. The students said Petrosian iterated this view during the meeting. It is economic difficulties created by parking permit fees, and the economic punishments such as parking tickets (for those guilty of the crime of poverty), which raises suspicion within students towards STC administrators who promote affordability as a reason to attend the Hispanic serving institution.
“Meeting with them is not going anywhere,” said Tellez.
She and Acosta are prepared to launch campus-wide petitions in order to make college officials listen to the will of the studentry who believes it to be unethical and immoral to profiteer off of low-income college students with parking citations, while also purporting to be an institution that serves their interests. “Whatever it takes,” said Tellez.
“It’s not the administration who pays for tuition; we do,” Tellez passionately argued. “They should be making it easier for us. If they have the authority,” she asked, “why don’t they help us? What’s preventing them, or holding them back? Why do they need to label us,” she inquired of the parking lot reserved for those who “can’t afford” a permit.
The pre-law student wrested her case with two closing questions for the STC Administration:
“Why can’t we share the same parking spaces? What makes you any different from us?”
Jonathan Salinas is co-founder of Únete 956. His articles have appeared in RGV publications such as The Monitor, The Brownsville Herald, Neta and others.