Michelle Vallejo knows the struggles South Texans face. She witnessed it as a kid working at her family’s flea market near the border.
“The connection that I have through the pulga (flea market) is one that I value very much because it keeps me close to the reality of so many other people that have had to overcome many challenges,” Vallejo, 31, told Latino Rebels. “One thing that comes to mind is just how apparent it is for me that folks in our community have to work until the day they die, and that is something that I know I want to change. I want my community to have an opportunity to work with dignity, live with dignity, and retire with dignity.”
Born in McAllen and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Vallejo is focused on defending Texas’ 15th congressional district from being flipped by Republicans. Her Republican opponent, Monica De La Cruz, is a businesswoman endorsed by Donald Trump.
De La Cruz raised and spent over $2 million dollars, according to the Federal Election Commission. Such an influx of money for a Republican candidate in a Rio Grande Valley district would’ve been unheard of in previous elections where the seat has stayed blue for decades.
But with President Joe Biden’s underperformance across the area in 2020, Republicans have been channeling their focus on making the Rio Grande Valley a new battleground.
Especially in the GOP’s sights is Hidalgo County, which lies within the 15th district and is one of the four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley. In 2016, Hidalgo voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by an almost 40-point margin. That gap dropped to 17 points when President Biden beat Trump in 2020.
“No matter how much money is getting poured into South Texas, from outside interests to influence this election in favor of the Republicans, that doesn’t scare us one bit because I’m so confident that the work that we are doing is the most valuable. And we’re going to continue doing that, not just through this campaign but also once I’m in Congress,” Vallejo said.
For almost 23 years, Vallejo and her family have managed Pulga Los Portales, an outdoor flea market near the border that serves thousands of people weekly. She watched vendors arrive at la pulga as early as 4 or 5 a.m. to set up their booths and offload all of the supplies they had either loaded up the night before or earlier that morning.
“I like to think sometimes that it’s even a little bit of Mexico, right here in our home on this side of the border,” said Vallejo.
She practically grew up at the flea market from the late ‘90s to early 2000s and noticed the culture toward the pulgas transform. She says people looked down on the flea markets as a place “where you just get things that you don’t need or are of no value.”
“People were just pushed aside sometimes, but now it’s a sense of pride,” Vallejo said. “It’s a marker in our culture that represents our resiliency, and our ability to just keep going no matter what is up against us.”
The pulgas are a lifeline for many in South Texas who rely on daily income to make ends meet. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the family’s business was shut down like many others.
“That was pretty alarming because when our business shuts down, that means another 200 businesses get shut down at the same time, if not more. And so that was a really loud, urgent call for me,” Vallejo said.
“At the pulga, people live day by day. They have to show up and sell their produce or sell whatever item they have because that money that’s coming in. They’re not waiting every Friday. It’s every day that they’re depending on that little bit of income coming up,” Vallejo explained.
Pulga Los Portales opened up again six weeks later and transitioned into a drive-thru market so that people could have more protective measures in place when interacting and selling their products.
While COVID-19 restrictions have since eased, people are still turning to the pulgas to stretch their dollar.
“They‘re turning to our produce vendors who are buying the produce in mass at the border,” said Vallejo. “But it’s like an exchange and they buy in bulk, so they could sell a little bag of tomatoes for a dollar that has like five or six tomatoes in it. Whereas, compared to other stores, you’re getting your tomato at two for a dollar or even for a dollar.”
Produce isn’t the only product South Texans are going to Mexico for.
“People have been having to go to Mexico —and don’t see any other option— as a way to get medical attention, or even to get their medications, and this is something that really needs to be talked about,” Vallejo explained. “We are living in a time of crisis here in South Texas.”
Securing health care for all is one of Vallejo’s top priorities, along with raising the minimum wage to $15 and defending reproductive rights.
“Every woman, every family deserves to be making those decisions in that same way and with their physicians, and not with the intervention of government making that choice for them,” she said. “For me, it’s just a very sensible idea to understand that access to abortion is healthcare, and there’s there’s no question past that. Every woman and every family should be respected to make those decisions privately and with their physicians.”
As the midterm election approaches this fall, Vallejo is sticking to on the ground, person-to-person approach.
“I’m a proud Democrat, and I’m also a proud progressive Democrat, and for me, what that means is working with everyone in South Texas, in the district, to work together in order to drive things forward. I’m looking to solve problems and bring change, not to get caught up in the national rhetoric of Democrat versus Republican,” she said.
Chantal Vaca is a summer correspondent for Futuro Media based in New York City and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. Twitter: @VacaChantal