Hope in Hell

Cameron Park, Texas, is the poorest town in the U.S.A. But its residents say life has never been better.

A hot, dusty Rio Grande Valley day gives way to twilight as people sit in their yards, shaded by wilted mesquite trees. Smoke from outdoor grills hangs in the air, children choose sides for street games and laughing toddlers dance under the spray of a garden hose. A couple of young women retrieve the day's wash from a makeshift clothesline while several elderly men sit on plastic lawn chairs, bend over their guitars and fill the neighborhood with music.

On evenings in Cameron Park, the oldest and most populated colonia in South Texas, there is always music. It is the one constant in this square-mile border town, a place known for its crushing poverty, a place whose songs were forged in despair. Surprisingly, though, the people of Cameron Park sing these songs because they see hope--they see, in fact, a place where life is better than ever before.

A few blocks over, Gloria Moreno stands in the parking lot of the new community center, the Centro Cultural de Educacion y Asistencia, watching a noisy group of teen-agers playing soccer. Her soft voice competes with the happy barking of wandering neighborhood dogs as she remembers those times when the nights were not so pleasant, when there was little laughter to be heard.

A mother washes her toddler in an ice chest in front of her Cameron Park home. The colonia is Texas' biggest.
Mark Graham
A mother washes her toddler in an ice chest in front of her Cameron Park home. The colonia is Texas' biggest.
Blackie, one of several dogs owned by the Castillo and Macias families, which share a house trailer, and Samantha Macias, 13
Mark Graham
Blackie, one of several dogs owned by the Castillo and Macias families, which share a house trailer, and Samantha Macias, 13

Like many who came to this Brownsville suburb in pursuit of the American Dream, buying small lots for as little as $300 (paid out in monthly installments of $7), the 56-year-old community activist with an unexplainable reservoir of optimism remembers much harder times: when the streets were unpaved caliche that turned into sticky muck when rains came; the drug smugglers and dealers who were once their neighbors; gunshots every night; an absence of electricity, indoor plumbing and sewage systems; the unanswered pleas for medical assistance or help from law enforcement. Cameron Park was once overrun with disease-bearing rats that came to feed on garbage piled in vacant lots and infested by mosquitoes that bred in stagnant pools of water. It was a town where day-to-day survival was a challenge, blocked by illiteracy and illness, poverty and language.

Today, Moreno and her neighbors insist, things are so much better. What measure does she assign the advancements in Cameron Park in the past 25 years? "Muy grande," she says. "Muy grande."

With that observation, a thundering irony emerges. Cameron Park, an unincorporated enclave of almost 7,000 residents on the northern edge of Brownsville, is, according to the most recent U.S. Census, the poorest community in the United States. The per capita income of the predominately Hispanic residents, many of them undocumented aliens, is a paltry $4,103 annually. Though their streets are now paved, there is water and electricity for most, and county, state and federal grants promise additional improvements in the near future, the living conditions remain far closer to Third World than American Dream.

The job market for those with no trained skills continues to shrink, the illiteracy rate is disturbingly high and the next-door Brownsville city fathers show no interest in annexing an area that would be nothing but an unwelcome financial drain. Social workers who visit the colonia point to a recent increase in alcoholism and heroin addiction, by-products, they say, of the constant stress and frustration that haunt residents here. Recent studies conducted by the Texas Department of Health indicate that diseases such as hepatitis A, cholera, dysentery, salmonellosis and tuberculosis occur in the colonias at twice the normal rate. Volunteer dental students, donating their time, compare what they see to backward nations they've visited. And, statistics show, 38 percent of the struggling residents have no health insurance.

There are still homes where children bathe with a garden hose because there is no indoor plumbing, or they go to school smelling of the mesquite smoke from fire barrels that heat their homes. Air conditioners, even fans, are summer luxuries enjoyed by few. As recently as five years ago, a county analysis determined that 80 percent of the dwellings were categorized as substandard or dilapidated. These homes share the same block with recently built and well-kept homes. On one street a resident is watering a small green lawn behind a chain-link fence that separates his property from the junked cars and discarded refrigerators that sit in waist-high weeds next door.

Construction is apparent all over town, though. Cinder-block walls are in place, awaiting roofs, doors and windows. Piles of used lumber are stacked in driveways leading to small trailers, the first sign that a better and roomier dwelling is in the planning. But it is rare when a building is constructed by trained labor. In Cameron Park, men become self-taught carpenters, plumbers and electricians out of necessity.

Yes, it is no longer necessary for mothers to wrap plastic bags over their children's shoes so they can make their way along the muddy streets to the bus stop. Filling front yards with pots and pans to catch rainwater for washing clothes and dishes is but a distant memory for most. But for all its recent improvement and the optimism of people like Moreno, it is not a pretty place. That it one day will be is the long-held dream of those to whom Cameron Park is home, their heartland.

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