On Tuesday, the Broad Foundation awarded the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education to the Brownsville, Texas School District. skoolboy has a soft spot in his heart for Brownsville: skoolboy’s spouse (who has made it clear that he is a dead man if he refers to her as Mrs. skoolboy here) is a product of the Brownsville schools, and she briefly taught English as a Second Language at the middle-school level there a long time ago. I don’t know enough about the Broad Foundation process or what the administrators and teachers in Brownsville have done to warrant this recognition to comment. But I imagine that very few readers here know much about Brownsville, so I wanted to tell you a little bit about the city on the border by the sea.
Brownsville is at the southernmost tip of Texas, separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande River, and most demographers would probably define the metropolitan area as Brownsville-Matamoros, the larger city on the Mexican side. Historically this has been a porous border, with foot traffic across the International Bridge, and thousands of vehicles traveling in both directions daily. In the 2000 Census, more than 90% of Brownsville residents described themselves as Hispanic or Latino, 31% were foreign-born, and 88% of adults aged 18 to 64 reported speaking Spanish at home.
In 1980, only 43% of adults 25 or older in Brownsville had completed high school, and 11% had completed four or more years of college. By the year 2000, about 52% of adults 25 or older were high school graduates, and 13% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. This significant progress in educational attainment, however, was not matched by improvements in the economic standing of Brownsville’s residents. In 1980, 44% of those under 18 years of age lived below the federal poverty line, and in 2000 the figure was 45%. It’s difficult to judge why adult education levels increased, but child poverty held steady; but whatever the explanation, this kind of concentrated poverty is found in few places in the U.S. The most striking figure I’ve seen is that 10% of Brownsville residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher live below the poverty line. (The figure is about 3.5% for the nation as a whole.) It’s hard not to see the local economy as the culprit when so many college graduates are living in poverty.
The best representation of Brownsville I’ve seen is in the writings of Oscar Casares, a Brownsville native who teaches writing at the University of Texas-Austin. Casares’ short-story collection Brownsville: Stories captures the culture expertly. His first novel, Amigoland, which will be published next year by Little, Brown, is also set in Brownsville. “Amigoland” may seem like a contrived title for a book, but it’s actually the name of a now-defunct shopping mall in Brownsville. When I first visited Brownsville two decades ago, there were two malls, Amigoland and Sunrise, and I was struck by the fact that neither one had the kind of retail bookstore—e.g., a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Bookseller—that I thought were staples in such malls. How could a town’s major mall have a Chia pet kiosk but no bookstore, I wondered. But that was the reality of Brownsville just 20 years ago.
Amigoland was in the news recently, but not in its original guise. When the mall folded, it was bought by the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, a unique institution merging a two-year community college with a new regional branch of the University of Texas, founded in 1991 when a Texas district court jury was persuaded that the state’s failure to fund a public four-year institution to serve the residents of the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas was kind of a problem. UTB/TSC sits close to the Mexican border, and Amigoland, which is now a vocational-technical center for the school, is even closer. Over the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has been rolling out a plan for an 18-foot high fence along the Mexican border to deter illegal border-crossing. To the amazement of many, the DHS plan had the fence running through the UTB/TSC campus, with the former Amigoland facility on the Mexican side of the fence—even though it’s entirely on U.S. soil. In July, the university reached an agreement that scaled back the DHS plans, and ground was broken last week on fencing, reaching eight to 10 feet in places, that will supplement the existing fences. skoolboy sides with Doug Massey and many other immigration experts in arguing that, if the problem is the flow of Mexican migrants to the U.S., a fence is not a very thoughtful policy solution.