By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It is the children, the next generation, Moreno says, who will eventually see the colonia become what she has envisioned. Today, despite lingering economic and social problems, they are receiving educations through the Brownsville public schools that many of their parents didn't. The children are increasingly bilingual--and the world outside is finally extending a helping hand.
"That," Moreno says, "is why it is better. Now, there is hope."
As she makes her rounds to provide transportation for those in the community, Lora Lee Marquez, the local manager of NINOS (Neighbors in Need of Services), points to an aging home that has seen numerous poorly constructed additions over the years. "There are seven families living in that one house," she says, shaking her head.
In many instances, absentee landlords, some as far away as El Salvador, will rent the same house to three or four families. "Basically, all they're getting is a room," Marquez says. "Strangers are sleeping side by side, all sharing one bathroom--if they're lucky." It is not unusual for migrant workers, gone to harvest crops throughout the Midwest during the summers, to return and find that another family has moved into their rented home.
It is, in most cases, the dwellings judged substandard by county inspection officials that remain without plumbing or electricity, swallowed up in the catch-22 of governmental bureaucracy. There is grant financing available for the services, but it will only be released to those applicants who bring their dwellings up to code. For many, it will take a long time and money they don't have.
Jorge Delgado, 50, recalls that it took him nearly 15 years to complete his family's home after arriving in Cameron Park from Matamoras. "I did it the same way most here do," he says. "When I could afford some more materials I would work on it little by little." Finally, a few years ago, it passed muster with inspectors. Today he no longer has to haul water from seven blocks away, his wife cooks on a secondhand stove instead of a makeshift gas furnace and they don't have to snake an extension cord to a neighbor's house to borrow electricity. Gone are the times when, at the first hint of rain, he would drive his weathered old pickup to a nearby highway and park it. In those days, it was the only way he could be assured he could make his way to work from the oft-flooded neighborhood he's now called home for 22 years.
Cameron Park is one of the almost 1,500 colonias--unincorporated subdivisions developed without attention to any building codes or basic services--that grew up along the 1,248-mile Texas-Mexico border, from El Paso to Brownsville, in the late '60s and early '70s. Fast-buck landowners sold small lots to poor Mexican immigrants, giving them names like Goodvalley Ranch and Tierra Linda, Buena Vista and Sunny Skies. But for the estimated half-million Texas residents who now call them home, the property on which they built their makeshift dwellings, pitched Army surplus tents or parked their old trailer houses is lyrical in name only. Developers were unconcerned that the land they were selling was located on a floodplain without any infrastructure or access to public services.
For the first 30 years of its existence, Cameron Park, like most Texas colonias, went virtually unchanged, just another residential eyesore hidden away in the wealthiest country in the world. Still, the people came, signing unrecorded rent-to-own agreements that allowed the land sellers to retain outright ownership of the property until full payment was made.
Not until Valley Interfaith, a nonprofit organization working to help colonia residents, came to Cameron Park in the mid-'80s did the first signal of change appear. Gloria Moreno saw the organization--aggressive, often abrasive, but also effective--as her neighborhood's savior. She joined in its marches on Cameron County offices and made long bus rides to Austin to help lobby her community's plight to legislators. "There were many times," she says, "when we would get on a bus at two or three in the morning to make the drive, then return late the same day."
Finally, their message was heard. In 1989, the Texas Legislature voted to make $100 million in state bonds available to provide assistance to the border-county colonias. Soon, other county, state and federal funding followed. To date, more than $8 million has been spent improving conditions in Cameron Park alone. It's now illegal to sell unimproved land for housing. The roads have been paved, the modern community center has been built and funding for a medical clinic and sheriff's department sub-station has been made available. Several Brownsville banks have agreed to participate in a joint loan venture that will help residents with home improvements. Last November a state constitutional amendment was passed, authorizing up to $175 million in additional bond money to continue improvement of roadways and drainage systems in the colonias of 19 Texas counties. Cameron Park has also been awarded a $7 million grant from the Texas Transportation Commission that will eventually fund curbing, guttering and street lights. Services like Head Start and Neighbors in Need of Services offer everything from health aid and classroom instruction to free transportation and tax advice.