Organizer Ruby Fuentes grew up in the Upper Rio Grande Valley. Raised Catholic, she was always involved with her church, St. John the Baptist in San Juan, which she says in part laid the foundation for her work in public service.
“It’s interesting, because in religious sectors, you don’t really think about radical change. With the Catholic Church, there’s a lot of rigidness and hierarchy. Yet, even within that institution, there’s still a possibility of trying to follow that example, because it gives you the framework to do so,” she said.
Fuentes said she didn’t how that environment prepared her to serve in the community, crediting her faith as one of the two roots of her organizing background.
The other, she added, was obtaining a degree in Mexican-American Studies from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“I felt like it mirrored a whole religious experience. It was very enlightening and made me recognize all of the inequality and inequities that we face as minorities, even here in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said.
Fuentes worked as the immigration organizer for La Union del Pueblo Entero until COVID-19’s economic toll forced local businesses and organizations to downsize and restructure. She now works with Promote Care & Prevent Harm to assist the Valley’s low-income, under-insured Latino community navigate the crisis.
The organization is calling on the Valley’s high school students to visit its website and learn how to be a volunteer. Students who want training in leadership and organizing will have opportunities in mentorship with local leaders like Fuentes.
In college, as the organizer began to explore her faith, an opportunity appeared for her to lead fellow students in asking how it could be applied to help others.
“I was taken aback and thought, ‘I don’t want to lead anybody. I am not equipped to lead anyone,’” she recalled.
Upon stepping up, however, she realized even the most timid voices can create change. Fuentes explained how she applies this as an instructor at her parish, where she teaches middle schoolers and encourages discussion on creating change.
“People on both the conservative and progressive sides, religious and non-religious, often question themselves when an occasion arises and you have to decide to act. And yet, something guides you to choose to say yes to that and will help you develop in time,” she explained.
“I feel fortunate and blessed to say that my faith has allowed me to clothe the naked, feed the poor, give drinks to the thirsty. Those are simple things in being a decent person. That’s the common ground for many people — serving the community.”
As LUPE’s immigration organizer, Fuentes was involved in assisting aid groups like Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV, Team Brownsville, Good Neighbor Settlement House, and the RGV Equal Voice Network, among others.
“That’s definitely the Mexican-American studies kicking in — a whole other activist side coming out and being unafraid of my voice,” she said.
Fuentes expressed surprise upon seeing a photograph of herself speaking powerfully, megaphone in hand, at a January rally in Brownsville.
“It’s crazy how resilient we’ve become,” she noted, explaining how the Valley’s grappling with national political issues has divided communities. “Serving one another is our bridge, ironically, living in the Rio Grande Valley where we’re separated from the rest of the U.S. There are so many external factors dividing us and we don’t even recognize that systemic oppression — all of the hardships, all of the urgencies — because everything is urgent here. We’re trying to survive.”
In some ways, Fuentes said the pandemic has broken down those barriers.
“People are saying this is the great equalizer. It is and it isn’t, because of where we are in the region. People are coming together making masks. This is grassroots organizing. Even though we’re isolated, we’re actually isolated together,” she said. “I hope and pray that once this is over, we will be better than what we were before, because this is making us realize that much of the time, we weren’t as good as we thought we were. This gives us an opportunity to be better.”