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Economic upturn

July 17th, 2014

This June marked five years since the U.S. economy ended its longest recession since World War II and local people have taken note. According to an analysis by personal finance information website NerdWallet, two of the top 10 most improved cities in the country are in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Great Recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research which determines the beginning and end of U.S. recessions.

Using data from NBER, as well as figures from the labor and housing markets, NerdWallet compared changes in unemployment, household income and home values among 510 U.S. cities. The study determined that the most improved city in the nation was McAllen. Edinburg came in ninth.

The median household income from 2009 to 2012 in McAllen increased by 31.69 percent, the second highest rate of any city in the country. According to NerdWallet, McAllen tops the list because of that growth in income – in addition to a nearly 16 percent increase in median home value.

James Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at the University, said he thinks the ranking is a reflection of the positive things that are happening in the Valley and credits the rankings to its residents.

“People generate economic activity and the Valley has seen its population grow quite a bit over the last decade,” said Boudreau, who has been at UTPA for five years. “I’m not sure of the exact ranking, but the McAllen metro area ranks quite highly in terms of population growth as compared to other places in the U.S. It also helps that the Valley’s population is on average quite young and young people tend to do more spending than older folks.”

McAllen had an unemployment rate of 4.35 percent along with a 31.69 percent increase in median household income. The national unemployment rate in April was 6.3 percent. There was also a 15.61 percent change in median home value. “Median house household income” refers to the income level earned by a given household. The national unemployment rate is 6.1 as of June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Many places in the U.S. are experiencing negative growth, so in comparison this is obviously very good news,” Boudreau said. “The Valley is young, vibrant and growing… People sometimes disparage the Valley unfairly, as if it’s a small town or somehow inconsequential. To the contrary, I believe it’s one of the more up-and-coming places in the U.S.”

Eight of the top 10 cities on the list are in Texas, including Midland, San Angelo, Bryan, College Station, Odessa and Amarillo.

Edinburg’s most important factor was median household income. With a nearly 20 percent increase in the three-year period, median home value also grew by 6.50 percent.

Carlos Ramos, a business finance major, said that having Edinburg and McAllen beside larger cities like Washington, D.C. -which was the most improved largest city among the 50 analyzed – has the potential to spark interest in more individuals.

“As you drive around you can see various business and plazas opening up or being constructed and there is definitely growth,” the 20-year-old said. “I know it will take time but I’m sure Edinburg and McAllen will continue to grow to become big cities.”

According to NerdWallet, since the end of the recession in 2009, Edinburg has seen improvements in its workforce and housing market. The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation reported that since 2008 most local jobs are in education and health services, with the city’s school district and regional medical center as the top employers.

“It does bring a sense of pride seeing your city’s name on that list,” Ramos said. “It feels like the small town I grew up with is starting to become something bigger. 

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas added more than 56,000 jobs in May. In addition, unemployment in Texas dropped to 5.1 percent. In a press release published June 20 Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that Texas continues to be the epicenter of job creation in the U.S. He also said Texas is the best place in the country to find a job.

Boudreau, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in spring 2009 stated that continuing positive demographic trends, along with the boost the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley will provide, should mean things will keep improving in the Valley. The new university will have a large impact to the region’s economic growth and job market and is expected to add thousands of jobs to the region, according to a Project South Texas report.

“It may sound cliché, but the Valley has a young, dynamic population and that’s why it’s growing,” Boudreau said. “I would say it’s a very good thing both in terms of what it says about current population and what it means for the population’s future.”

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March 27th, 2014

In an effort to inform residents about the hazardous contaminated plume found under approximately 33 acres of McAllen by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), several UTPA students and faculty have begun reaching out to the community about the issue.

A groundwater plume, based on the definition provided by the Environmental Engineering Dictionary, is a volume of contaminated groundwater that extends downward and outward from a specific source.

The students held their first community gathering, the Plume Round Table, March 22 to inform residents about the situation.

The meeting was organized by Sarah Chavez, a senior history and anthropology major. She has also organized other events, including canvassing the area of the plume every Friday to inform residents  and holding campus meetings to raise awareness among UTPA students.

Chavez planned the round table meeting with the help of other fellow students, including Sam Denny, Alexis Bay and Anna Hernandez.

According to Chavez, they first learned about the issue in professor Lynn Vincentnathan’s Anthropological Method and Theory course in fall 2013.

“It started out as a class project to restore the historical case and trial documents that were getting destroyed for the UTPA Border Studies Archives,” said Chavez, a member of Battleground Texas and the Environmental Awareness Club. “But the more I found out and read about the issue, especially about the suffering of the people, the more I felt something had to be done to clean up the mess.”

The acres of groundwater plume pollution is one of the largest areas of contamination in the U.S., according to an investigation conducted by KRGV Channel 5 News in 2011, as well as a court case first opened in 1992. The affected zone lies below 23rd Street and Business 83.

Although state agencies had known about the plume for at least 16 years,  based on KRGV’s report, the first lawsuit was filed in 1992 by attorney and UTPA alum Scott McLain.

“I was hired by a client who could not obtain a permit to open an adult day care facility for a building over the plume because of concern that vapors could enter the building and affect the health of the elderly folks at the facility,” McLain said.

When researching the case further, McLain discovered the plume. But, according to the attorney, the TCEQ had knowledge of the problem several years before.

“The TCEQ had known about the contamination in the neighborhood since approximately 1990,” he said. “They first learned of it because of the failure of tank tightness tests at several gas stations in the area.”

According to McLain, while the TCEQ believed only one small plume emanated from a gas station next to his client’s property,  research showed otherwise.

“Our testing revealed that there were in fact two plumes, the relatively small plume caused by a gas station next door to my original client’s property, and another much larger plume to the north,” McLain said. “The northern plume was over 10 times larger than the southern plume.”


Subsequent testing revealed not only the existence of multiple plumes, but also the presence of benzene, a well-known cancer-causing pollutant, in the groundwater.

“There was an abundant presence of benzene,” McLain said. “After extensive fingerprinting of the product by the geochemists we hired, we came to the conclusion that the bulk of the product in the plume is natural gas condensate, not refined gasoline.”

As a result, McLain believes the benzene contamination came from natural gas activity.

“We believe (benzene) came from natural gas wells and pipelines,” he said. “So we sued all of the companies that had ever owned or operated the wells and associated pipelines in the area.”

According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is a colorless flammable liquid that evaporates and is a part of crude oil and gasoline. Studies conducted on lab animals and humans show that the link between benzene and cancer has been linked to leukemia and cancers of other blood cells.

Based on information provided by the American Cancer Society, people are most often exposed to benzene by breathing contaminated air from gasoline fumes, automobile exhaust, emissions from factories and water waste from industries.

People residing in the contaminated area in McAllen, an estimated 200 families, developed cancers and died, according to the attorney.

“We had one client who grew up living over the plume (and) developed leukemia as a college student,” McLain said. “Another client had a child who grew up living over the plume who sadly died of leukemia.”

For the residents of McAllen, however, the flammability of the contaminant could pose a serious threat.

Similar to the McAllen plume, one in the downtown district of Analco in Guadalajara, Mexico, caused numerous explosions in 1992 that was traced to the sewer systems, which contained benzene. The explosions killed 252, injured 500 and left 15,000 residents homeless.

With such a flammable contaminant lurking beneath, UTPA organizer Chavez cannot help but fear the worse.

“There are a lot of kids that go out and play with matches,” Chavez said. “It’s an immediate danger, but even if it doesn’t go off, the fumes are still killing people.”

Bay, a senior political science major and McAllen resident, said the issue is all too real.

“The plume is huge. It moves. It’s toxic. I want every person living here to be safe because all families have a right to live without worry,” she said.


Although people believe cleanup efforts were decided when the case closed in 2011, according to McLain, such actions did not occur  and to this day, little work has been started.

“After the Channel 5 news story ran in 2011, the TCEQ started doing some work…I don’t think much was done,” the attorney said. “The TCEQ promised to keep me in the loop on the work that was done, but I haven’t heard from them in several years.”

As a result, the group of students hope to restart the cleanup that never happened in the coming weeks through various community and campus meetings, as well as this initial Plume Round Table.

“For the people of South McAllen, nothing should be more relevant than getting (the plume) cleaned up,” Chavez said.

Regarding the delay of action by TCEQ, Bay believes work should have been undertaken sooner.

“This is something the government should have taken care of a long time ago,” she said.

According to Chavez, the danger faced by residents currently living in the exposed area is one of the reasons she wants to inform the public and get the TCEQ to finish cleaning up the contaminated area.

Despite the fact that Chavez does not live near the 33 acres of contamination under 23rd Street and Business 83, she feels people deserve to know about it.

“I am an outsider in the community affected, but I am concerned,” Chavez said. “I want people in the neighborhood to know what lies beneath their homes.”

As far as getting the community involved, and ultimately the TCEQ to take charge, Chavez admits it is necessary but it won’t be easy.

“It’s not going to be the most popular thing to share,” she said. “But if there are any elders or children, they need to know. They are the first ones affected. The way I see it, every mother deserves to know.”

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Galax Z Fair III

March 19th, 2014

Austin has South by Southwest (SXSW), South Padre Island has the Ultimate Music Experience, and McAllen has Galax Z Fair.

The music festival was held for the third year, on non-consecutive days in McAllen March 10 and 13. The first day, which ran from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., saw 23 bands, including local band Zorah and N.Y.-based indie band Miniature Tigers, play across four different venues on 17th Street. These locations included Cine El Rey, Bruja Luna, The Flying Walrus and Suerte Bar & Grill. Suerte included an “artist corner” where local artists, such as Travis Trapp and Gwyn F. Della Croce, showcased their artwork throughout the day.

The second day had Cine El Rey as the sole venue, hosting Michigan-based rock group Cheap Girls, New York-based singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson, and Floridian punk rock band Against Me!

Nearly 1,000 tickets were sold for the latest Galax Z Fair, according to founder Patrick Garcia. Public relations major June Cavazos was among the attendees, making for the Mission native’s first music festival.

“When I heard that Tops and Miniature Tigers were playing, I just had to go,” the 19-year-old said. “Their music gives off a sense of empowerment that makes your emotions go away, and makes you want to dance. It’s also great that the festival is local, so I’m running into a lot of friends and people I haven’t seen in a long time. It feels like a family.”

The sense of camaraderie was also shared by local band Pinky Swear, which is composed of four UTPA students. Lead singer Sarah Walker described the experience of performing at Galax Z Fair as “nerve-wracking.”

“Galax Z Fair is more intimate,” the TV/film major said. “You can see a lot of friends supporting you and it feels comforting. I’d imagine that South By Southwest would provide a sense of detachment since you’re playing at a new place, but the experience would be worth it.”

Galax Z Fair founder Garcia said the decision to spread out so many bands across multiple venues was made to create a more “engaging” experience for attendees by having them visit different locations and decide which bands to stay and watch.

Noise-punk band Perfect Pussy also performed on the first day of the festival. Meredith Graves, the lead singer of the Syracuse-based group, compared the music scene of the Rio Grande Valley to that of New York.

“I love it. Galax Z Fair captures the true spirit of a community that’s built by the hands of the people who support each other,” the 26-year-old said. “New York also has a do-it-yourself mindset when it comes to independent artists, but it’s vicious. It’s every man for himself and no one supports each other, it’s so different here though. You can tell that everyone loves each other and are fans of each other.”

According to Garcia, a UTPA alum, many of the visiting bands were contacted by mass email to artists scheduled to perform at the SXSW Music Festival; they were asked if they’d be interested in participating in Galax Z Fair.

“These are all bands I like and I would definitely go watch if they were visiting,” the 28-year-old Brownsville native said. “This is about establishing a culture where people with an alienated taste in music can get together and get excited about music.”

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First comes love, then comes the wedding planner

March 6th, 2014

Canon’s “Wedding March” plays throughout the church and UTPA students watch from a distance as the crowd stands to welcome the bride.

Fifteen students helped plan a dream wedding last fall for Cassandra and Nick Reyes. They got experience on the job and completed UTPA’s Certificate in Wedding and Event Planning Course offered by the Office of Continuing Education. The class is instructed by Leticia Guerra-Cantu, an event planner of 20 years.

The course is scheduled to have its second incoming class every Saturday from March 22 to May 31 at UTPA’s McAllen Teaching Site, with a registration fee of $1,300 per student. The program is taught through readings, online studies and hands-on activities provided by Guerra-Cantu.

The curriculum for the class is offered by Preston Bailey’s Signature Wedding and Event Design Course, which is supported by the Lovegevity Wedding Planning Institute in Roseville, Calif.

The class allows students to practice actual business objectives in seeing the average workday of an event planner, and students learn such things as how to interview clients, according to the UTPA Continuing Education website. The certificate not only allows students to plan weddings, but also other types of events such as private parties.

Bailey’s design curriculum is currently available in similar classes at 2,000 colleges across the country including UTPA, according to The Wedding Planning Institute website. Others include the University of Texas at Arlington, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the City College of San Francisco.

Despite the fact that Bailey owns the curriculum, each university that offers the program is responsible for providing its own title for the class, hence UTPA’s Certificate in Wedding and Event Planning Course.

Guerra-Cantu believes the course is a great way to professionalize the industry in the local area.

“The event planning business is big in the Valley. (The Valley) does things big and does beautiful weddings,” Guerra-Cantu said. “With this course, I have students out there excited to know that they can do this and have the possibility of doing this because they love it.”



Guerra-Cantu, 54, has been around fashion her whole life, starting in the early ‘60s when she, her sisters and cousins would sit around her dining room table late into the night watching her mother and aunt sew everything from dresses to swimsuits. Guerra-Cantu picked up the needle at the age of 10 and started designing in high school.

“I took home economics every year in high school and perfected my sewing skills,” the California native said. “I just didn’t know any other field to get into but (fashion). I love it.”

She is also the owner and director of The Valley Wedding Pages, a McAllen company that does an annual planning guide, a social event quarterly magazine and an online website. She also owns Poise-N-Ivy Designs and her newest boutique, Vintage On Main, both located in McAllen.

Guerra-Cantu’s passion for the industry is shared by the first class of graduates as well.

UTPA alumna Mariella Gorena grew up watching her mother volunteer through community service and fundraising. As Gorena reached adulthood, she found herself involved with organizations such as McAllen’s International Museum of Art in Science and the Museum of South Texas History.

As a volunteer for McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan, the 64-year-old discovered the planning class as she helped organize The Valley Wedding Pages’ 10-year anniversary Birds of Paradise gala.

Gorena explained that the course offered her a way to polish her skills and enhance her work as a volunteer. She said that the class finished in December, and she was certified as an event planner Feb. 17, 2014.

“Right now, I’d like to do an internship to learn more,” the McAllen native said. “But one of these days, I would like to drive into a little (event planning) business…I just love the people and believe that life is a party.”

Gorena’s classmate, Debbie Jimenez, explained that she was no stranger to event planning prior to taking the class. As a pastor’s wife, she has done weddings, quinceañeras and even planned her own wedding.

“It was always a dream of mine to go to school and get certified as an event planner,” the Mission native said. “When I heard about UTPA offering the course, I knew it was going to be my opportunity to have one of my dreams come true.”

The 46-year-old was first inspired to become an event planner at the age of 14 after staying up until 2 a.m. to watch Princess Diana’s wedding July 29, 1981.

“Since then, the desire for wedding planning began to be my heart’s desire,” she said. “By watching (Princess Diana’s) wedding, it made me realize that I could help many young girls make their wedding (day) one of a kind.”

According to Sound Vision, a non-profit organization, 2.3 million couples wed every year in the U.S., which breaks down to about 6,200 weddings a day. Their research suggests that nearly $72 billion is spent on weddings annually.



Now that the first class of 15 event planners have graduated from the course, they continue to do what they love and will help Guerra-Cantu organize their first event as certified event planners, to be  held March 6.

Guerra-Cantu explained that The Valley Wedding Pages will host the Diamonds in the Sky wedding showcase in McAllen, with many first-year graduates to help her organize. She hopes the course will continue to grow and one day become a replacement for jobs for future students.

Guerra-Cantu believes that by teaching students the ropes of event planning, she has allowed them to gain confidence when it comes to organizing events.

“From starting my design business to (teaching), it’s because…I know that there’s a lot of young students out there who are truly interested,” she said. “I tell my children ‘Do what you love, because you have to. Love what you do and make it happen.’”

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Location for new medical school in discussion

January 17th, 2014

One month ago, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and City Commissioner Mike Perez started discussing the possibility of purchasing the 35.14-acre lot, with a price tag of $4.7 million, on the corner of Dove Street and Jackson Road. The land may be given to the new University, University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley, and used as a possible location for the new medical school, according to The Monitor.

This vision became more of a reality after the McAllen City Commission voted Jan. 14 to continue with the purchase of the land.

According to The Monitor, the close proximity to Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance makes the land more attractive as the University of Texas medical school has plans to partner with the hospital for their medical residency program, the on-site training earned by medical school graduates.

Across the street from Pharr’s strip club, Tex Mex, the location also sits on the border of McAllen, Pharr and Edinburg, making it a centralized locale. In addition, its close proximity to Expressway 281 makes it accessible to students.

While this decision is not set in stone, the University of Texas System will make the final decision as to where the location of the new medical school will be. When the UT system will make this decision is still unknown.

“I think ultimately, at the end of the day, UT will decide where everything will go,” businessman Alonzo Cantu told The Monitor. “Not McAllen or anyone else.”


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Economy on the rise

December 5th, 2013

The McAllen metropolitan area, which includes the cities of Edinburg and Mission, ranked number one on a list of the nation’s poorest areas, according to an article published in November by USA Today. With nearly 35 percent of the population living below the poverty line, the McAllen metro area ranked just below Brownsville, the second poorest area, according to the same article.

The Border Economic Development and Entrepreneurship Symposium (BEDES) hosted a conference Nov. 22 to discuss the current border economic situation and the role Hispanics in the area play in its improvement. Speaking at the event were economists from The Federal Bank of Dallas and economics professors from UTPA.

Roberto Coronado, assistant vice president and senior economist for the El Paso branch of The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, discussed the difference between job growth and income per capita, the average income per person in a specific area, in the Rio Grande Valley.

“McAllen has about 5 percent job (growth) per year, Texas is about 2 (percent) and the U.S. is at about 1 (percent). When you look at the Valley from that angle, the Valley is a very vibrant, very dynamic and a very strong growth area,” Coronado told The Pan American. “Now, when you look at the Valley from an income perspective and per capita income, then the Valley does not look, unfortunately, very good. In fact, the Valley has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation.”

Coronado went on to explain that the Valley’s rapid population growth is the reason behind the juxtaposition of job growth and income per capita. According to the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area was named the 10th fastest growing area between 2000 and 2006.

According to an article by 24/7 Wall St., the Brownsville and McAllen metropolitan areas have median household incomes ranging from $30,000 to $33,000, respectively. With an unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent, Brownsville’s median household income falls nearly $60,000 under the median household income in San Jose, Calif., the richest city in the U.S.

Coronado also discussed the effects that the upcoming University merger will have on the Valley’s economy. He said an increase in service industry jobs, like finance management and medical services, will help close the gap between job growth and income per capita.

The merger will be the union of UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville and the creation of a medical school that was put in place by Texas Senate Bill 24 signed June 2013.

“(The merger) will help the RGV move in the right direction. It will help solidify the fact that more service-side jobs will be created,” Coronado told The Pan American.

Coronado also pointed out the challenges that will come along with the merger. He said that the new medical school will create hundreds of service jobs with high salaries rather than thousands of low-paying jobs in the manufacturing field. While the income per capita will increase, the number of jobs will decrease.

The assistant vice president went on to explain that this transitional period from manufacturing-type jobs to service-type jobs is a difficult and painful one for the region to go through, but it is the reality and current economic state of the RGV. He added that the University merger will also provide resources that will help the Valley move into an economic state with higher incomes per capita.

Fabiola Urgel, a sophomore economics major and mediator at the BEDES event, spoke candidly about the relationship between Mexico’s economy and the economy in the Valley. She said the two countries have strong ties and the standing of one economy affects the other.

“It is really important to see that a lot of things depend on how the peso dollar exchange (in Mexico) is looking, how many people from Mexico are crossing the border and doing some shopping here,” the 20-year-old said. “That is why BEDES was created; to show the members of our community the importance (of) the partnership that we implicitly have between Mexico and the U.S.”

An exchange rate is defined as the amount one country will pay for another country’s currency. Currently, one Mexican peso is roughly worth eight U.S. cents. This exchange rate is constantly changing.

A report by Saber Research Institute published April 2013 states that the Valley’s economy is directly impacted by the Mexican national traffic that flows through local malls and shops. The report shows nearly 10,000 jobs are supported by this cross-border activity and just below $250 million of income is generated for Valley workers annually.

While the subject of the Valley’s relationship with Mexico was an important topic at the symposium, both Coronado and Urgel put an emphasis on what Valley students can do to improve the current state of the economy.

“The number one advice (to students) will be to stay in school and improve their skills as much as they can,” Coronado said. “Clearly by going to the University they are improving their technical skills and academic credentials.”

While both Urgel and Coronado acknowledged that two major Valley cities are the poorest in the nation, they spoke with optimism about the future of the region and what is already being done to turn the poor economic situation around.

“We have excellent students (and) we have excellent opportunities. Our location is privileged,” Urgel said. “That is something we have to look up to. We have the perfect combination between the Mexican culture and the American culture. Trust in the Valley.”

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Metro Connects the Valley

September 12th, 2013

Metro Connect service opens Sept. 13 with four buses funded by a federal grant    budgeted to run for one year. It will implement a new express intercity bus system to connect parts of the Rio Grande Valley.

According to congressmen Rubén Hinojosa (D-Mercedes), Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville) and Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), the new system is intended to provide transportation for   professionals and students. This will improve the Valley’s quality of life and is a step forward in regionalizing the area, they added.

Under the Federal Transit Administration’s Section 5311 Non-urbanized Area Formula Grant Program, Brownsville received $1.4 million May 13 to connect and expand transportation between Brownsville and the cities of McAllen and South Padre Island. It will also work in cooperation with the Valley Transit Company in Harlingen.

“The purpose of the grant is to increase connectivity to the Valley,” said Mario Delgado, the assistant transit director of Metro McAllen. “We plan to make it efficient for students and citizens in the Valley to move around, so we are still working on the best routes.”

Each bus will seat 31 passengers, including additional space for 15 standing, and will offer space for two wheelchairs and a bike rack. The price to ride will be 50 cents for students and passengers 60-years-old or older, and $1 for everyone else.

For Edinburg native Robert Mendoza, a 24-year-old graphic design major at the University, it will be a new way of getting to his job at Classy Baby Inc., located on 1418 Beech Ave. in McAllen. He said it will be more convenient than taking Valley Metro.

“I don’t think students really know as much about the Valley Metro,” Mendoza said. “It is so convenient, and has made life a whole lot easier since I don’t own a car. I wish the schedule extended past 7 p.m. though.”

The new lines will run all week from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and their routes will include: the red line to connect  McAllen to Brownsville, the blue line to connect Brownsville to SPI, and the green line to connect McAllen to UTPA. The green-line route will provide three fewer stops than Valley Metro’s Route 10, which has six.

“When I’m taking the bus somewhere and plan to return by a certain time, time is always a factor,” Mendoza said. “If I can reduce that time, I’d be all for it.”

The new Metro McAllen bus routes were unveiled Aug. 21 at the La Plaza bus terminal in Brownsville with politician Vela present.

“It will get people (to their destination) faster,” said Sandra Gama, Metro McAllen’s business manager. “This will be a huge impact for students and people to get across the Valley.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration, carbon dioxide makes up 95 percent of all               transportation-related greenhouse gases. Though the Metro Connect buses will run on diesel fuel, the impact of this bus system can help reduce the average carbon dioxide a person uses from .96 pounds per mile to .32 pounds per mile, a 67 percent decrease.

“Hopefully more students will be using public transportation,” said Monica Raygada, program coordinator at the Office for Sustainability. “It also allows us to utilize our time to read, study. I cannot see how this cannot benefit the individual and the city.”

By looking at the Transit Saving Calculator provided by Metro McAllen, a person like Mendoza can save around $6,000 a year if he takes the green line (20 miles) to and from work, if the cost of gas stays at an average of $3.25.

Things to also consider when using a car versus a bus are additional expenses the car incurs, such as insurance, car cost, maintenance, repair and parking fees.

“Saving any amount of    money is always welcome,” Mendoza said. “I think it’s great and gives me funds for everything else in my life.”

While saving money, Mendoza also saves the amount of carbon dioxide released into Earth’s atmosphere by riding the bus.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average yearly amount of carbon dioxide produced by a passenger car is 5.1 metric tons (11,243 pounds) if it travels 12,000 miles a year at 21 miles per gallon. Transportation in the United States accounts for 31 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

According to Raygada’s calculations, if Mendoza took the bus five days out of the week for nine months to McAllen Central Station from UTPA and back, his carbon footprint will only be .16 metric tons (352 pounds). If Mendoza drove a used 1997 Ford getting 20 miles to the gallon, his carbon footprint would be .47 metric tons (1,036 pounds), Rayagada said. This is a 66 percent decrease.

Because the average in the Valley is one person per vehicle and 70 percent of the population uses cars, Raygada also concludes that riding the bus can remove 32 cars from traffic if  passengers owned one car each.

“Well that is definitely a great thing. Not something I was completely aware of,” Mendoza said. “Knowing this now just helps me value the bus system a lot more.”

Through another grant by the Federal Transit Administration, Metro McAllen expects to switch from diesel-fueled buses to electric. The $1.9 million grant signed in November 2011 will introduce wireless inductive charging technology, better known as the online electric vehicle, to the public transportation bus system.

As part of the deal, McAllen was to work with Online Electric Vehicle Technologies Inc. from Boston. But in  October 2012 the startup  company revealed it could not invest $277,000 in a performance bond nor invest $278,000 in a third-party trust, as requested by the City of McAllen to uphold operating costs.

Metro McAllen and OLEV Technologies Inc. planned to unveil the new buses earlier this year, and even though the deal fell through, McAllen wishes to continue the project and is currently taking proposals from other companies. The deal would include the retrofitting of two buses on Route 4, which runs near La Plaza Mall and in southeast McAllen.

The technology is new to the public and recently made its debut in Gumi, South Korea where it was developed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Buses would run totally on electric power and be charged wirelessly with the use of electromagnetic fields at bus stops and terminals.

“Sustainability is the ability to guarantee that future generations will have the same quality of life and the amount of resources we have today,” Raygada said. “The bottom line of sustainability is balancing the environmental, economical and social aspects which will make humanity able to live in the long term.”

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Festival of International Books and Arts promotes literacy and college readiness

March 21st, 2013

A Texas Book Festival was held Tuesday and Wednesday to promote literacy to students. The festival brought The Jumping Tree author Rene Saldaña Jr., to six Valley elementary schools where authors presented their works to students.

Saldaña was among seven authors that presented their works to schools in McAllen, Mercedes Mission, and Peñitas. Each student walked away with an autographed copy of their book. This was one of the many events held during the Festival of International Books and Arts, a weeklong celebration by the College of the Arts and Humanities that started March 18 and aims to promote culture through literacy.

Dean of College of Art and Humanities Dahlia Guerra said she believes that such presentations give students a rare opportunity to read.

Guerra explained that this year’s theme, Literacy: Inspiring Healthy Minds and Healthy Bodies, reflects the main theme of FESTIBA.

“The skill of reading is forever going to impact someone,” she said. “It leads to writing and critical thinking which will prepare for a new generation of students who will be college ready.”

Aside from pushing literacy among children, FESTIBA also promotes the College and the University as a whole. FESTIBA bring in guest speakers who range from authors, poets and scholars.

“We try to mirror who the students are,” Guerra said as she explained why so many speakers are Mexican-American. “Most people are inspired by people who come from the same environment that they’re from, aspired for greater things and succeeded.”

Guests for the week of FESTIBA range from musicians such as acclaimed conductor Alondra de la Perra, NFL star Roberto Garza of the Chicago Bears, and Women’s Water Polo Olympic gold medalist Brenda Villa.

Guerra notes that several FESTIBA events, such as an art exhibit that will be held in the UTPA Visitors Center all week, are examples of America and Mexico working together.

“The exhibit is sponsored by the Mexican Consulate,” Guerra explained. “It’s two countries working together to bring two cultures together in the name of education.”


When it started in 2006, it was only a music festival named FESTIBA Musical. Guerra was serving as the chair of music then but became dean the following year. She decided to include the arts and humanities college in the next FESTIBA to model HESTEC, a weeklong event held in the fall.

“I felt that it was the next logical step, to include the actual art and academic presentations of the University to represent UTPA, similar to how HESTEC represents the STEM fields,” she said.

Music is still an integral part of FESTIBA, evidenced by a free mariachi competition and concert that will be held at the UTPA Field House Saturday, March 23.

The last event March 25 is a string concert featuring UTPA music professors Daniel Andai and Joel Pagan with guest artists Carmelo de los Santos of the University of New Mexico and Penn State music professor Timothy Deighton. It will be held at the Student Union Theater at 8 p.m.

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College Fashionistas at UTPA

March 7th, 2013

Senior Tere Cortes said her style is edgy by day and sexy by night. The 22-year-old marketing major mixes jean vests with flowy dresses and has been a Style Guru with website College Fashionista since fall 2012.

The fashion site was launched August 2009, featuring students’ style from universities around the world. Students from those universities intern as bloggers or Style Gurus for the site.

“We use the students on campus as an example. We talk about what they’re wearing for each article depending on the category,” Cortes, a Rio Bravo native, explained. “I think it’s awesome because you get to participate with the whole country. It’s special how in each campus they have their own style.”

Cortes found out about the site through Twitter, and used the internship for credit hours. After interning for a semester, she was able to recommend her own UTPA Style Gurus who signed up on the website and started their unpaid internships at the start of the spring 2013 semester.

The UTPA interns can be seen on campus, taking photos of students between classes or on posters they created throughout the buildings.

Four 22-year-old girls sat in a half circle, talking of fashion and finishing each other’s sentences in a blend of Spanish and English.
Sara Castillo, a Reynosa native, said she plays the role of girly chic, donning embellished garments such as voluminous skirts and sleeves. Castillo explained she has had a love for styling since she was a little girl.

“Over the years you start seeing things differently and I think this is like my first chance to talk about how my perspective of fashion is,” said the senior public relations and advertising major. “Fashion is about personality and uniqueness.”
Amelia Holt has “off-duty model” style, according to the other three Gurus. The senior Rio Bravo native dresses for simplicity and comfort with Doc Marten boots as an everyday piece and usually only a pair of earrings to accessorize.

As an artist and aspiring model, Holt saw art and fashion as one and the same.

“It takes a lot of skill to make a whole (clothing) collection and inspiration,” Holt said. “The art concept is the same because it’s all based on inspiration and creativity.”

Deborah Dueñas, a public relations major, is referred to as “glamorous” by her fellow UTPA fashionistas. The Reynosa native specializes in accessories and gravitates toward bold pieces such as full-sized bows and ornate jewelry.
Although she admitted she only discovered fashion recently, she said it has become a part of her.

“I haven’t looked at fashion as much as Sara has, but with this internship, now I love it,” she said. “I think fashion is a way of expressing ourselves.”

As interns for the site, each of the girls are required to produce a blog every week, with a specific day and fashion category assigned to each of them such as Accessories Report and Style Advice of the Week.

They find students on campus and write about their style while relating to trends in the worldly fashion industry such as designer’s seasonal collections.

The interns work as a team, taking on the responsibility of representing UTPA’s style. This is something that Cortes’ peers once thought to be an unlikely task.

“When I started, my friends were like, ‘Oh good luck about that, trying to get fashion students from campus. You’re probably going to get slippers and pants, flip-flops and caps,’” Cortes recalled as the other girls laughed. “But I think it’s also an opportunity to get to know us because UTPA is not very known in the United States…so it’s a good way to get exposure for students, like how the style is here.”

The girls explained that UTPA student style is based off the nearly year-around warm weather, and added that most of the students have a “subtle” fashion sense.

“Students here are not that outrageous…but it’s interesting to see every once and a while someone that dares to wear a statement piece,” the girly chic Castillo said. “It’s interesting to meet people because we have unique personalities in this university. That’s the interesting part of doing this, to get to know everybody.”

The interns have worked to gain familiarity in the UTPA community, sharing their articles through multiple social media outlets to spread the word about College Fashionista.

“By getting us known, we’re encouraging students to be more fashionable, trendier,” Holt said. “This is a time you can wear anything and it’s OK. Once you’re out in the real world working, you can’t really express too much, but in college, that’s your gateway. Like ‘Let me try this and if I fail, it’s okay. I can dress another way tomorrow.’”

While trying to promote “fashion in a student budget,” according to Cortes, the girls attempt to mix magazine trends given a reasonable financial limit. The fashionistas shop at places such as Shop 112 in McAllen, T.J. Maxx and online stores such as Lulu’s.

“We’re not high-class in fashion,” Dueñas said. “We can talk about what the students are wearing. Fashion doesn’t always have to be expensive and luxurious. We can find stuff like that, but around campus.”

Although they are only interns now, they have the chance to move up the College Fashionista ladder, depending on how well they do with the blogs. They participate in online seminars and have opportunities to communicate with fashion industry executives for meccas like Vogue and American Eagle Outfitters.

“It’s not paid but definitely you get experience because you get to get (your work) published,” Cortes said. “Because you’re on the College Fashionista internship, it gets you more attention so you can start creating your networks and start building your relationship in the fashion industry.”

The four said they understood that fashion is a tough industry to get into, but are hoping the experience with College Fashionista is going to help give them the experience they need.

Each week, they take their own photos and fine-tune writing skills to produce a blog they hope to be helpful to the UTPA community.

“It’s one thing when your friends are reading, but with other people that you don’t expect, that’s when you’re satisfied with what you’re doing,” Castillo said. “Seeing that you’re doing something good that is not only for your personal benefit, but it’s actually benefiting other people, that’s the best part.”

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Digital attraction

February 14th, 2013

Nursing major Sarah Christensen’s death brought her and boyfriend Luis Escalante together. Had he not resurrected her, they might have never met.

Four years ago, while attempting to complete quests as a character for the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game Fiesta, Christensen found she was out of her element.

“It was my first MMO and I sucked really, really bad,” the 22-year-old recalled with a laugh. “I died so I needed someone to come resurrect me. So he came by, resurrected me and then he left.”

An MMO allows people from all over the world to play the same game and interact with each other in real time. While Christensen was gaming from Morgan Hill, Calif., Escalante was in Hidalgo.

Over the next couple of days, the two met up within the game and began to talk to each other via typed chat.

“From there, basically there’s only been a span of about three days that we didn’t talk in the beginning because he was busy,” the sophomore said. “But other than that, for four years now, not even a single day has gone by that we haven’t talked.”

After about two years of communicating through phone, video chat and spending a total of three weeks together in person, Christensen moved to the Valley the summer of 2010 to be with Escalante. Since then she has been a resident of Hidalgo, living with 23-year-old Escalante, and his mother.

“I can’t imagine anything without him. My entire future is planned with him,” Christensen said of her junior biology major boyfriend. “We’ve gone through a lot of stuff together. Living with him has made us closer.”



With this generation’s popularity of social media and online gaming, human interaction has extended throughout different mediums. Online dating is a means of meeting people when the girl next door has been whisked away or the eligible bachelors at the club have lost their luster.

More than twice as many couples that married in 2009 met through online dating services than at a club or social event, according to a 2010 article in The Washington Post.

“It’s something different and a whole new experience,” said Alamo native and senior Randy Garcia, who had a two-year relationship with a girl he met online. “I wanted to see what the fuss was about and gain the knowledge of something that I thought I would never do…curiosity got the best of me.”

The 25-year-old used websites such as Myspace, Plenty of Fish and Facebook. Although a relationship blossomed from his online endeavors, he knows caution must be taken.

“There are always downfalls to things like that,” Garcia said. “Sometimes you have to be aware about people who are catfish and that’s creepy.”

The term “catfish,” a person who creates a false online identity, was coined in 2010 when a documentary by the same name came out. It followed a relationship between a man and a woman who met online, but after investigation the man found the woman had fabricated her identity.

While Garcia’s relationship ended, he admits he would give online dating another shot, unlike 20-year-old McAllen native Doris Valdez, who flatly said never again.

“I met a few people, but it’s not the same as real-life dating. In meeting face to face, you had to have a social connection first,” said the senior art education major who signed up with site OKcupid. “(With) online dating, these people are presented to you without context. You’re meeting a total stranger with no social connection and that’s not a good way to meet someone.”

Biology and theater performance major Karen Rice has a vastly different opinion than Valdez.

Rice is a 29-year-old Springfield, Ohio native who found a relationship through the MMORPG World of Warcraft in 2008. Like Christensen, Rice began a relationship by chance with someone out of state through the gaming world.

After about four months of flirtation, Rice and her now former boyfriend made their relationship official and were together for two years. Though the couple could only initially interact through technological outlets, Rice believes it was an experience that person-to-person interaction couldn’t grant.

“I think it’s better to not meet someone face to face at first because then you’re going off of somebody’s personality and not what they look like,” she said. “If you don’t know what someone looks like then I think you get to know them a little better because you’re not wrapped up in the looks of someone. You actually get to know their personality.”

As far as what it’s like when finally meeting up with the person who has been primarily composed of pixels on a screen, Christensen went through her own battles with Escalante.

No longer able to hide reactions, facial expressions and mannerisms, she was taken aback after first moving in with Escalante and his mother, but found a better outcome.

“You have to kind of get to know them all over again because the way you are online is a little more selective,” she said. “It’s like your perfect vision of that person is not there, but the reward is that you get to actually know the person that you’re with for who they truly are.”

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