When Steve Brodner draws illustrations, he hopes to tell stories with the images. And he did just that in this month’s feature story “In America,” in which he illustrated life as he saw it in the colonias of South Texas. Here he talks about how he got interested in the colonias and what he learned from the people living there.
texasmonthly.com: How did you first get interested in the colonias and the people who live there?
Steve Brodner: In ’98 I did a story in Texas for Esquire on George W. Bush and was told that I had to visit the colonias—that it was an unbelievable scene and that it couldn’t be ignored as part of the Bush story. Little did I know of the changes that had taken place in the interim. The story as it is now is far more complex and inspiring.
texasmonthly.com: What were the colonias like? Describe them with your five senses.
SB: To me they are a place of rebirth and regeneration. It is one thing to have extreme poverty with the deck stacked against you. It is another to see a better day and live your life as if that goal were right there, very tangibly in front of you at all times. That is the overwhelming lesson that the people of the colonias taught me. Napoleon said, “Imagination rules the world.” These people show that not only are we ruled by it but we can also take charge of creative energies and push the limits of human achievement. It is also important to remember that these people did this with each other’s help. The community is a powerful engine, perhaps something we need to be reminded of.
texasmonthly.com: Were the people in the colonias receptive? Were they willing to answer all of your questions?
SB: One hundred percent in every case. Among the warmest people I’ve met in my life.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend in the colonias?
SB: One week.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the biggest struggle facing these people?
SB: These communities still need improvements like street lights, public parks, and hospitals. I have no doubt that they will have these things in time. The children in the colonias have an especially hard time. They are your typical MTV American kids in every way: dress, speech, outlook. But they are not given resident status and are held back in education and employment. If they were returned to Mexico now, they would be as lost there as any Anglo kid. This is something that needs immediate attention.
texasmonthly.com: How did this project end up in the pages of Texas Monthly?
SB: I was invited to do a story by the magazine, and this was the one I chose.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have more sketches than those that appear in the magazine? If so, how did you decide what to include in Texas Monthly?
SB: There were two that were bumped for editorial reasons beyond my control. That is a very good ratio. I must say I have never gotten so much of my original story into a final edit as I have in this one. My great debt of gratitude to Evan Smith, Scott Dadich, Chris Keyes, T.J. Tucker, and everyone who has helped on this.
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, what is the best way to convey the world of the colonias to readers?
SB: As an illustrator I try to communicate best I can with pictures. So, here they are, and I hope the stories they tell connect with readers.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the government is doing enough to help the people living in colonias? Why or why not?
SB: I don’t think the government is responding to the needs of these people fast enough. Their needs are like the needs of the rest of us: better education, health care, decent wages. The people of the colonias are now like all other Texans—living in towns, voting, paying taxes, sending their sons and daughters off to war. My feeling is that as time goes on, by virtue of their ability to dream, stay on goal, and educate themselves, they will be leaders of Texas and help themselves as well as everyone in the state.