If you haven’t been to the Rio Grande Valley recently, you won’t believe how much it has changed. Until I went there early this week, I hadn’t been there for eight years. The last time I drove U.S. 83 from Harlingen to McAllen, orchards and row crops bordered the highway. Now they are all but gone. The fields are growing affluence now now — subdivision after subdivision of BIG houses. The homes come right up to the edge of the furrowed rows. I saw only two orchards along the way.

As you drive through McAllen, you could be anywhere in America. The access roads are lined with the same national big box stores you see everywhere. Large hospitals loom above the strip shopping areas. All the national hotel chains are here, from Hampton Inn to Embassy Suites to Holiday Inn. The last time I was here, the top of the line was Best Western.

What has brought about the change? NAFTA certainly is part of it. Almost every city of size has enterprise zones and trade zones. Another aspect is education. UT-Pan American is no longer a sleepy college; it has 19,000 students. The community college is almost as big. The overall educational statistics are still bleak; the high school graduation rate still hovers around 50%, I was told. Top of the line health care is available; McAllen has two new hospitals and four in all. One office park is almost entirely occupied by medical practitioners, including specialists. Some readers may not want to hear this, but the medical boom, and in particular the influx of specialists, would not have been possible without tort reform.

The unemployment rate is still high here, compared to the rest of the state, but the days of double-digit unemployment are over. Poverty persists here, but it is not immediately visible. I found it mostly outside the city, on rural farm roads. West of McAllen, the impression of affluence recedes, and the towns look pretty much unchanged.

As I drove around, one of the things I noticed was that few of the businesses had signs in Spanish. Attorneys are attorneys, not abogados. Banks are not bancos. In the restaurants, older people still conversed in Spanish, but younger folks did not. A professor I interviewed from the university told me that most of his students are monolingual–in English.

One of the big changes in the Valley is that Hidalgo County has far surpassed Cameron County in population. Yet, because Cameron developed earlier than Hidalgo did, most of the regional offices for state government are in Cameron. Needless to say, Hidalgo politicians want them to move where the people are. But there is little political activity in Hidalgo this year; there is only one contested judicial race in the Democratic primary, plus two legislative races (the districts represented by Aaron Pena and Kino Flores). You see very few signs. Cameron County is different. Here many races are contested, and every unoccupied patch of ground has a forest of signs. The most important races, for many people, are for constable, JP, and sheriff, because these are the officials that poor families are most likely to interface with.

One afternoon I drove into Starr County. I hadn’t been here in twenty years. On my previous trip, the two towns on the highway, Roma and Rio Grande City, had looked like they were stuck in the thirties and forties. Today, while clearly poorer than their neighbors in Hidalgo County, they do have Wal-Marts and Lacks and HEBs and fast food and affluent subdivisions, though in far fewer numbers than you see in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. One of the towns, I think it was Roma, has a gated subdivision with huge houses. I couldn’t help thinking, “Cocaine Acres.” The high schools are new and have large campuses. But if you drive north, off the highway, you can find neighborhoods with water standing in the streets and tiny corner grocery stores. Not colonias, but not far removed.

The one thing that I kept hearing was concern about the border fence, and whether it will depress the regional economy. “Go to Wal-Mart on a Saturday,” I was told, “and all of the license plates will be from Mexico.” It has taken the Valley a long time to pull itself out of economic stagnation. There is real money here now, and a sense of optimism. Everyone is afraid of a recession imposed by their own government. Let’s hope we can get a sensible policy out of the next Congress. Texas needs a prosperous Rio Grande Valley.