Hope in Hell

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

"Eventually, people began coming to me, reporting crimes and asking for help," the 46-year-old Cantu says. "What I learned as I got to know them was that the residents of Cameron Park weren't that different from those you find in any community. The vast majority of the people living there are hard-working and law-abiding, good people struggling to get by. It was that 10 percent who dealt drugs, stole from their neighbors, slapped their wives and kids around that were making everyone look bad."

To resolve the problems he encountered, Cantu realized, would take more than traditional police work. While the high-visibility approach adopted by the constable and his deputies caused most of the drug dealers to desert the colonia, real progress would be made only when social issues were addressed. He called community meetings, helped establish a neighborhood crime watch and promised hefty fines for illegal garbage dumping. He warned that he would contact Child Protective Services if he found children on the streets when they were supposed to be in school.

Cantu began organizing fund-raisers to help with the cleaning away of junk and trash. "What we were talking about," he says, "were quality-of-life issues. It just seemed to me that the better people felt about where they lived, the better everything would be."

Mayra Mendez sweeps the doorway of her neighbor's home. There is a sense of community in Cameron Park that didn't exist even 10 years ago.
Mark Graham
Mayra Mendez sweeps the doorway of her neighbor's home. There is a sense of community in Cameron Park that didn't exist even 10 years ago.
Top, Maricela Sanchez hangs laundry with her son Irving, 6.  Bottom, Margarita Olivares gets help with the wash from her granddaughter, Crystal Estrada, 10.
Mark Graham
Top, Maricela Sanchez hangs laundry with her son Irving, 6. Bottom, Margarita Olivares gets help with the wash from her granddaughter, Crystal Estrada, 10.

Like the residents, though, Cantu's wish list remains lengthy. "Progress is being made," the sheriff says, "but there is still a lot of work to be done."


If Moreno and the sheriff are looked on by locals as noble warriors for their cause, Catholic priest Michael Seifert--called Father Mike by his parishioners at San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church--is, quite literally, viewed as a godsend. Arriving at Cameron Park in 1996, the Birmingham, Alabama, native does far more than live among them in a small colonia home he rents from a Salvadoran immigrant. He welcomes an average of 500 worshipers into each of the three Masses he conducts on Sundays and spends long hours seeking solutions to their problems.

In an unorthodox world, the 47-year-old priest admits, inventive methods become necessary. His church has among its Rules of Baptism that there can be no firearm of any kind in the home of any person involved in the ceremony. "Several years ago," he explains, "a man who was the godfather of a young girl I was in the process of baptizing came into the church, drunk, and shot at the child's father." Fortunately, he says, no one was injured and then-constable Cantu came and quickly whisked the gunman away.

When a member of his church, an illegal immigrant with four children, became seriously ill and in need of medical attention that could only be provided by a hospital in Galveston, she came to Father Mike for help. There was, she pointed out, a border patrol check-station that she would have to pass through if she attempted such a trip. "She was convinced that she would be stopped and deported," the priest says, "and since her husband had passed away several years earlier, she was concerned over who would care for her children."

To solve the problem, Father Mike urged the women of the church to organize a tamale sale that raised $600, which was then paid to a "coyote"--a man who smuggles illegal aliens across the nearby Mexican border--who promised to get the ill mother through the checkpoint.

On any day, those arriving in his tiny office bring with them the frustrations and miseries of the colonia: the day worker who complains that the man who hired him has refused to pay him, the wife seeking refuge for herself and her children from her physically abusive husband, the family needing money to pay a utility bill lest their service be cut off. At the church's food bank, business is always brisk.

The problems that come through his doors are both large and small. As he talks, a youngster who has been amusing himself with a worn soccer ball peeks his head into his office, smiles broadly and hands the ball to the priest. Father Mike nods, places it on a nearby shelf and promises to see the youngster tomorrow. "Some time ago," he says, "a friend who runs a soccer league in Houston sent me a large box of old balls. I gave them to the children. Everyone took them home, but that little guy asked if he could leave his here. When I asked him why, he explained that he didn't know several of the people living in his home and was afraid someone might steal it."

Which is to say performing baptisms, weddings and celebrating the Eucharist are but a part of the task Father Mike has undertaken. "When I came here," he says, "I quickly saw that my role was to try and serve as a catalyst for improvements that would make life in Cameron Park better. I just wasn't sure, at first, how to do it."

Soon, however, he recognized that the self-imposed isolation adopted by the residents was a major barrier to any progress. "The people needed to speak out, to have a voice," he says. "I knew that there was money that had been set aside to help colonias, but it was just sitting there. No one was speaking out, asking that it be used."

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