Village in the Valley hosts Juneteenth events amid national discourse

ViVa: ‘You’re in my community, we’re all one’

When Village in the Valley held its first meet and greet to introduce themselves in November 2019, an event they expected would be a small gathering, ViVa Chair and physical therapist Dr. Theresa Gatling noted it proved how the Rio Grande Valley needed this organization.

Instead of a small gathering, the event drew more than 60 attendees, Gatling, a Rio Grande Valley resident for more than 20 years, said she was surprised by the turnout, and also noted 90% of the attendees were black residents she had never met before.

“It has grown so much that at least half the people in the room I was meeting for the first time,” Gatling highlighted. “We said to ourselves, ‘OK yup, this is needed.’”

About a year ago, ViVa was founded by Gatling, 54, her husband Pastor Alphonzo Gatling, registered nurse Marsha Terry and her husband Dr. Onuwa Terry, a physical therapist.

“Our initial concept was that we really wanted to connect African Americans across the Valley,” Gatling said as she noted how large the community is across the region’s four counties.

According to the most recent U.S. Census population estimates, 4.8%, or more than 66,000 of the total population, listed black or African-American alone as their race across the Valley, which includes Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties. “That’s quite a lot of people, but we’re all over the place,” she said.

Then, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stopped being active in the Valley in the early 2000s, Gatling said they lost the connections they used to have.

Although the local NAACP’s chapter fell apart, according to Gatling, not all was lost; instead, they were inspired by the chapter to modify their organization concept by adding to it.

In addition to the initial concept, Gatling said ViVa’s primary mission is to learn and connect with the other local diverse cultures, while teaching and bringing more awareness of past and present black history, sometimes nationally, but mostly specific to the Valley.

“From the 1800s to the 1900s, black people have been in the Valley,” Gatling said. “It’s not a new concept and a lot of people don’t know that history — I don’t even know that history — we’re learning it, though. We’re learning how it intertwined so much with the Mexicans who were here back in the early 1900s and even the late 1800s.”

ViVa’s name is derived from an African adage “It takes a village to raise a child,” and Gatling added the adage is about raising a child and keeping them safe; additionally, Gatling said it was their take as a village in the Valley.

“We thought, ‘You know what, that is exactly what we want to do,’” Gatling said. “It does take a village. It takes more people than just the parent to raise a child with cultural awareness, with a sense of respect and responsibility, not only to themselves but to others.”

According to Gatling, ViVa was founded on four pillars they stand on, aimed to connect the black community to the Rio Grande Valley, and vice versa: education, community, personal growth and economic development.

Due to recent events such as the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Gatling said ViVa has been focusing on education and spreading awareness.

“We’re still reaching out to other minority groups here in the Valley and trying to connect with them in some manner, so we can start that collaborative effort to learn more about each other,” Gatling said as she expressed how ViVa should be a part of other minority events. “Not just hear about it or read it in the news, as if it doesn’t pertain to me. You’re in my community, we’re all one and we need to learn more.”

Staying true to its name, Gatling promotes inclusivity; stating anyone who wants to join ViVa, can find information on their website www.villageinthevalley.org or their Facebook page, Village in the Valley.

On what they call First Fridays, ViVa holds its monthly membership meetings on the first Friday of every month. Due to the pandemic, the organization adapted by holding virtual meetings, in addition to adding future workshops where members will speak about the organization’s pillars and discuss the need for help in their planning committees.

ViVa has two membership tiers: individual and business.

The individual tier, whose fees vary, are for people who would like to be connected with ViVa but do not have a business, while the business tier are for business owners.

Previously, ViVa only had an individual membership tier, because they didn’t consider business until business owners began asking how to be involved, according to Gatling.

Although it’s still being developed, Gatling said ViVa wants to highlight and support the businesses who support the organization by sending out a monthly newsletter to build a directory of black-owned businesses or businesses that support ViVa.

“As people joined, that was a big question,” Gatling said as she noted a surge of people who have joined in the last two weeks. “‘So now what do we do?’”

As she described incoming projects, Gatling spoke of those set in stone: their political action committee, which is working with voter registration and a future “meet the candidate” event. Additionally, the group will be involved in a scholarship gala at the end of the year.

Now, ViVa is working with various mayors from the cities of McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr and Mission to sit down with members of the community and “really have a conversation about change that might be possible or what can we do to help the police understand… to see us differently as we see them differently,” Gatling said.

Earlier in the week, festivities for Juneteenth, a state holiday for the black community, kicked off in the Valley to spread awareness of a crucial moment in time. With events also being held nationally, Juneteenth’s theme for this year is unity.

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Texas to spread the word of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s Proclamation, which was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, didn’t reach Texas more than two years later.

“That is what Juneteenth is all about,” Gatling said. “When all of the slaves were finally free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Despite planning since January, the pandemic forced ViVa to hold everything virtually; additionally, other events happening for Juneteenth can be found at www.juneteenthrgv.com.

This Friday, at 10 a.m., ViVa, along with McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, will be holding a “CARavan” open to the public.

It will consist of a two and a half mile drive — dedicated to the years it took for the news to reach Texas — beginning at Faith Fellowship Church, a black church, and traveling to the historic Bethel Garden; a garden that originally was the site of the first African-American church in the Valley and is across the street where Booker T. Washington High School, the only black high school in McAllen, used to be located.

From Bethel Garden, the “CARavan” will travel to McAllen City Hall, where Darling is scheduled to give a proclamation, according to Gatling.

“We’re super excited that the mayor has decided to participate,” Gatling said. In addition to participating, Gatling also said Darling is working to improve Bethel Garden.

Since Bethel Garden isn’t fenced and only has the historical marker, Gatling spoke of how people use the historic land as a dumpsite for mattresses and tires among other trash.

“He’s committed to helping us get [Bethel Garden] looking more like something we should admire as a historical landmark,” Gatling said.

Later on Friday, at 7 p.m., ViVa will stream live a video they put together through their Facebook page.

“Had you been able to meet in person, this is what we would’ve done in person,” Gatling said as she explained the video will consist of video recordings of the prayer, sermon, dances, gospel singing and a poem reading, to name a few.

Gatling underscores the fact this year’s Juneteenth celebration is taking place during a time where the national conversation is centered on black lives.

“We are better than we were and we still have work to do.” Gatling said. “We’re happy about where we were and we’re not going to forget about [Juneteenth].”