In America

Stories of struggle—and improbable success—from the colonias of South Texas.

The sketches included in the Sketchbook by Steve Brodner are not available online. Only caption titles are included here.

Along the Texas border running between El Paso and Brownsville there are some 1,500 colonias: rural, unincorporated, and often poverty-stricken communities where immigrants have bought inexpensive lots and settled in for their first taste of the American dream. This winter I traveled to a handful of these communities, a few of which have existed now for more than four decades, to compile a portfolio of drawings that would tell some of the stories that make up the colonias experience. While I encountered many families living in deplorable conditions, I also witnessed countless acts of near-miraculous transformation. With the help of unions and churches, many of the residents I visited were wielding their political power for the first time and slowly creating a better existence—sometimes brick by brick—for their families.

The Lopez Family

Mariano and Marta Lopez, of Colonia Lago, are trying to construct a permanent home, a common goal throughout the colonias. The family lives in a small blue trailer while Mariano builds their new house next door. “It’s difficult,” says Marta. “Whatever we save, we spend it on the house. My husband works all week, sometimes Saturday and Sunday. He started building here in December. My thirteen-year-old son is a very good helper.” The design of the house was Mariano’s idea: “I learned building in Mexico with my parents during the Mexico City earthquake, in 1985. Now I’m hoping to start my own construction company. I have four workers. I registered my company under my name.”

U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Changes really started happening in the colonias when the politicians began to pay attention. Elizabeth Valdez, the lead organizer for Valley Interfaith, a network of more than forty churches and schools that helps organize residents along the border, showed me a picture of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s visit in 1994. “This is her at a colonia in Mercedes. It was raining that day. She slipped in the drainage ditch but didn’t go all the way down. The roads weren’t paved, and it was slush, mud, and water.”

Carmen Anaya

Ernesto Cortes, the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, has been supervising the IAF’s organizing in the colonias for the past three decades: “Valley Interfaith started working with residents in Las Milpas [outside of Pharr]. We saw that the real leader there was a lady named Carmen Anaya. One day she pointed out to a political figure that kids couldn’t go to school because of a lack of drainage in the area. [The politician] would not walk in the area where the children had to walk every day to go to school because he didn’t want to get his boots muddy. Carmen was furious. She came to a new realization: ‘I used to work for candidates until I understood that they had to work for us.’ She saw the power that was created because of the organizing Valley Interfaith was doing.”

Pedro Rangel

Some colonias residents, such as Pedro Rangel, who has lived in Cameron Park since 1965, have experienced the strength of political action firsthand: “Back in the sixties, there was no water, no sewers, and no streets. If it rained, you were not getting out, unless there were six people pushing your car. Things started to change about seven years ago. Before, nobody knew what voting was all about. People said, ‘What for? Nothing will change.’ We learned how much power we had. Politicians said, ‘Well, there are nine hundred people voting in Cameron Park. Let’s hear what they’ve got to say.’ As soon as we started voting, we got the paved streets, water, and sewers that we had been denied. They listen to us now.”

St. Joseph the Worker Church

Many residents organize through their church to get their message out. Father Alfonso Guevara is a pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Church, in McAllen: “We take government officials down to the colonias, and we educate them on who they’re supposed to be representing. We say, ‘Congressman. Senator. Walk with us.’ They can see the conditions at their worst. There’s a level of respect that a politician has in dealing with members of a congregation. Because it’s a church community, the organization has staying power. This kind of organizing is very important in campaigns for getting out the vote. In the last election, one of our precincts had the second-highest turnout in the city of McAllen. This parish organized the people and, with other churches, changed the city. Valley Interfaith has a phrase: ‘We make private pain public.’ That is the source of our energy.”

La Union del Pueblo Entero

One day I went to a meeting of the nonprofit group La Union del Pueblo Entero (the Union of All the People), which helps connect colonias residents with social services. Residents met with an attorney who helped with tax questions and a representative of Wells Fargo bank, who outlined a program that offers low- interest credit cards for those with a LUPE membership. “I grew up in a colonia without water,” says Juanita Valdez-Cox, LUPE’s director. “In a colonia, I see people that have a one-room house and they have, say, a dirt floor. But that same family is already thinking about how to have a house with a real floor. I remember my father saying, ‘I want you to have a better life than the one we had.’ It was poverty, but it wasn’t the kind of poverty that completely engulfed you and made you give up and say, ‘Okay, this is the way I’m going to be forever.’ There’s a lot the government can and should do. But all programs here depend on self-help.”

Sister Maria Sanchez

Some activists have come up with creative ways to provide access to health care. “We began to hear about people who were suffering without medical attention,” says Sister Maria Sanchez, of Valley Interfaith. “We kept going

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