Former UTRGV student president exemplifies giving power to the people

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Growing up in an immigrant community, Denisce Palacios learned to always give a helping hand and she now carries that same love and passion through her journeys.

A native of La Feria, Palacios has an abundance of organizing and activism experience from working in the U.S. and Texas House to being a language interpreter for refugees seeking asylum to volunteering for the ACLU of Texas to assisting in the campaign to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio.

She credits her different experiences on the love she has for her community, family and friends.

The UTRGV graduate’s first experiences in the community was helping at an immigrant shelter in San Benito where Palacios would teach and tutor English to migrants.

“That’s where I really learned about how immigrants and refugees are being treated by our government and they’re being treated along the border as if they were criminals when all they were doing is seeking a better life,” she said.

Even before she could cast a vote, Palacios also served as an election clerk in Cameron County.

“Seeing not a lot of people coming to vote was really frustrating,” she said. “I was like ‘I wish I could have’ because I’ve seen the way that immigration policies are affecting our community but the people who have the ability to vote don’t even do it.”

UTRGV is where she got into organizing and activism spaces such as student government, the Texas Freedom Network and LUPE.

Some of the impacts she left at UTRGV as student president in 2018 was working toward initiatives to get more students to vote and to be active on campus.

After receiving a grant, she helped start the Office of Civic Engagement with the purpose to register students and educate them on the voting process. Another was working toward the UTRGV Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Getting involved

Activist Denisce Palacios poses at Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

A pivotal moment for her was the 2016 presidential election where former President Donald Trump was elected. This launched her to be active in campaign organizing. Her first experience was working on Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in 2018.

Getting more involved, Palacios would write and call her local congressman at the time, Filemon Vela Jr., every week to ask about why certain legislation was not moving.

Meeting Vela at the 2018 Texas Tribune festival, she asked him this personally and Vela seeing the passion she had offered her an interning position in his office.

Palacios would soon take her experiences and be an organizer for Jessica Cisneros’ first congressional challenge against Democrat incumbent Henry Cuellar.

Sharing the same values and similar backgrounds, Palacios knew it would be an uphill battle and was knocking on doors every day for hours on end for the campaign.

“It was really incredible to be able to train other young people to get them involved in the political process and then to help them branch out into other organizations,” she said. “And not everybody that I ended up mentoring went into, like, political spaces, but they brought those same values and the same skills with them into different fields.”

Her most recent experience was working as an Energy Policy Fellow and Energy & Climate Caucus staffer with Texas House Rep. Erin Zwiener in Austin. Focused on environmental and water policy during her time there, Palacios said she learned firsthand how challenging it was due to varied interests of the oil and gas industry.

“I was finally able to bring my organizing background and my passion for climate justice and environmental justice to the Texas House through policy and like work with Republican and conservative members and see that they also cared about conservation, about water policy and that they also wanted to see a reliable (energy) grid that focused on renewable energy,” she said.

Activist Denisce Palacios pose at Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Being a force

Palacios, always embarking on different avenues to help her community, had an emotional experience with the fight to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio.

Lucio is the first Hispanic woman to be sentenced to death in Texas. She was convicted of capital murder for the death of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez in 2008.

From organizing community vigils in Brownsville to speaking to legislators to protesting at the Governor’s office, Palacios and others did all they could to stop the execution.

“This innocent woman was set to die in like a matter of days and it was just heartbreaking to see all of these people come together and to know that she was innocent and to see that there were elected officials who had the ability to just simply call off the execution … and they had the power to do that but they didn’t,” Palacios said.

With local efforts like Palacios’, public outcry and letters from various officials such as the 83 members of the Texas House of Representatives to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Governor Greg Abbott, on April 25, 2022 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution and ordered the 138th state District Court of Cameron County to consider new evidence in Lucio’s case.

Being a force in anything she puts her mind and efforts into, Palacios said nothing that she has accomplished was done without a community of people.

“Any kind of progress that has ever been made … It’s been done by a community of people. Nothing changes if it’s not a group of people working together to advance together,” she said.

Looking back at her career, her advice to young people and anyone who wants to make a change in their community is that it is not about winning and losing.

“It’s about, you know, continuously informing people and educating people and help them realize their power,” Palacios said. “Don’t be afraid to speak up, like there’s always going to be people who are going to tell you that you’re too young, that you’re too inexperienced, that you don’t have enough knowledge to get involved and that’s simply not true.”

Another piece of advice she has for young organizers is to find commonalities with people that might not see eye to eye on everything, especially at a time where there’s so much divisiveness.

“When you make the decision that you want to build a better future, it’s not just for a set group of people,” she said. “You want to build a better future for everyone around you and that means people who you don’t see eye to eye with, like illogically. Because, regardless of the way that they think, they deserve to have a good life and they deserve to live with dignity.”

This story is the next in a series of stories observing National Hispanic Heritage Month.


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