Hope in Hell

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

Watching the advancement of Cameron Park has been Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa. "There was a time," he says, "when many of the people living there had no real hope that they would ever be able to better themselves and their living conditions. The barriers of education, language and lack of money offered a struggle that was simply too difficult to fight. The first order of business, then, was to create an environment where there could be pride in the community."

That, he says, came only after those outside the colonia communities acknowledged the squalid living conditions. "Leaders in Austin and Washington had to be made aware that people here should be given the opportunity to live by American standards, not those of a Third World country."

It has, he laments, taken a long time for many to realize what he's known for years: "The people of Cameron Park want the same things those living in Brownsville or Dallas want: a home they can call their own, a decent job, a safe environment and a good education for their children."

Community leaders are hopeful that the children of Cameron Park will forge a better life. Kids are educated in nearby Brownsville schools. They're increasingly bilingual and are finding better-paying jobs than their parents did. Here, Elvira Martinez dyes her cousin Martin Martinez's hair while Salena Martinez, 7, mugs for the camera.
Mark Graham
Community leaders are hopeful that the children of Cameron Park will forge a better life. Kids are educated in nearby Brownsville schools. They're increasingly bilingual and are finding better-paying jobs than their parents did. Here, Elvira Martinez dyes her cousin Martin Martinez's hair while Salena Martinez, 7, mugs for the camera.
Top photo: Four children, from top to bottom, are Marylou, 12; Prudencio, 8; Salena, 7; and Pablo Martinez, 3. Bottom, puppy love: Joanna Castillo, 8, with dog Blackie outside her trailer home.
Mark Graham
Top photo: Four children, from top to bottom, are Marylou, 12; Prudencio, 8; Salena, 7; and Pablo Martinez, 3. Bottom, puppy love: Joanna Castillo, 8, with dog Blackie outside her trailer home.

Those dreams, he says, are now slowly becoming a reality. "A significant portion of the Cameron Park population has managed to get beyond the poverty level. Their kids are going to school, graduating and finding good jobs." The problems, however, are still great. "There are new immigrants arriving every day," he says, "many of them illegal and with severely limited resources. They don't qualify for work programs or any kind of financial assistance." They are the ones, he notes, still living in trailer houses, campers and ramshackle houses, subsisting on menial jobs if they can find them, having fled one trapped-in life south of the Rio Grande for another that is not that much better.

Still, earning even a minimal living remains a challenge, particularly for undocumented residents. "Since those people are not eligible for any social services," Hinojosa explains, "there is little available to them except for construction day labor, janitorial or yard work. For the women, there are maid jobs and little else--if their employers will agree to let them bring their children along."

"When you consider that," Lora Marquez says, "it becomes easy to understand why some families can't afford the $700 to $800 required to connect their homes to the water and electrical lines that are available to them."


Cameron County Sheriff Coronado Cantu knew little about Cameron Park until an early morning seven years ago when a hysterical young mother knocked on the office door of his used-car dealership, pleading for help. She was a resident of the nearby colonia, and her severely ill 9-month-old had died in the night. She explained that her husband, a migrant worker, was helping harvest crops up north and, having just moved to the United States, she knew no one.

It fell to Cantu, a total stranger, to assist the grieving mother through the agonizing process of reporting her child's death. "I called the hospital and the coroner and then took her to the office of county constable Arturo Gonzalez, who was assigned to the precinct in which she lived," he remembers. "We walked in, and this guy was sitting with his feet up on his desk, reading the morning paper. When I tried to explain what had happened, he just shrugged his shoulders--never looked up from his paper--and showed no interest at all." Cantu glared and responded with a question of his own: "How did you get this job?"

Gonzalez explained that he had been elected.

That evening, after telling his wife about the disturbing encounter, Cantu, despite no experience in law enforcement, vowed to oppose the constable in the next election. In 1996, he won the job. A year and a half ago, voters elected him to the position he now holds.

Since his first days as a constable he has made the downtrodden colonia one of his priorities. "It's not that I'm doing any special favors," he explains. "We just can't overlook a community that is the fourth largest in the entire county." Only the cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito, he notes, have populations larger than Cameron Park.

Earning the trust of the isolated and wary colonia residents, he says, was not easy. When he first began driving the dirt roads that wound through the area, it was not uncommon to hear gunshots or have rocks thrown at his car. Several of his deputies said they feared patrolling the area after dark.

"It was clear that these people needed our help," he remembers, "and also pretty obvious they didn't want us there. The truth is, I just forced myself on Cameron Park."

He walked the neighborhoods, block by block, knocking on doors in an effort to win over his constituents--few of whom had voted for him. It took, he says, almost a year. In that time he had become aware of myriad problems of the community--family violence, assaults, truancy, robberies and drugs.

"The sheriff is a good man," says mother-of-three Patricia Cantillo, who watches as her fifth-grade daughter plays on the lone computer available to young students at the neighborhood Head Start assembly room. "People here--adults and the children--respect him. They know he cares." Moving to Cameron Park from Florida to be near her sisters, Cantillo admits that she was initially concerned for the safety of her three children before seeing patrol cars regularly pass her small home. After three years, she is convinced she has found a good place to live.

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