Hope in Hell

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

The residents needed to involve themselves in the political process. Going door to door, he began urging those who were U.S. citizens to register to vote and attend county commissioners meetings. "We simply needed to let people holding the purse strings know we were here," he says.

"When I first took office in 1995," Judge Hinojosa says, "there were less than 50 votes that came out of Cameron Park. In the last county election, 900 of its 1,400 registered voters went to the polls." Those numbers, he says, are proof there is a new awareness and determination in the colonia.


As darkness approaches, the temperature still hovers near the 100-degree mark when a smiling young woman named Virginia arrives to visit her parents after completing her shift as a cafeteria cashier. Raised in the colonia, the 22-year-old has moved away to share an apartment with friends in Brownsville, yet she returns regularly to share with her family the good fortune she has encountered since graduating from high school. "This," she says, waving an arm toward the busy neighborhood, "will always be my home."
At top, Patricia Castillo brushes the hair of her daughter, Lissette, 10, while Lissette holds her 9-month-old sister, Andre. Notice the window fan; many homes lack air conditioning. Above, Castillo expertly mixes bean-mashing and child-rearing.
Mark Graham
At top, Patricia Castillo brushes the hair of her daughter, Lissette, 10, while Lissette holds her 9-month-old sister, Andre. Notice the window fan; many homes lack air conditioning. Above, Castillo expertly mixes bean-mashing and child-rearing.
Community service initiatives have greatly improved the quality of life in Cameron Park. At top, Gloria Moreno, standing, talks with Maria Socorro Mendoza as her kids eat during the free lunch program at the local community center. Above, Lora Lee Marquez reads to the kids in the Head Start program, which helps prepare low-income children for school.
Mark Graham
Community service initiatives have greatly improved the quality of life in Cameron Park. At top, Gloria Moreno, standing, talks with Maria Socorro Mendoza as her kids eat during the free lunch program at the local community center. Above, Lora Lee Marquez reads to the kids in the Head Start program, which helps prepare low-income children for school.
The Muruato family recently moved from Mexico to Cameron Park, adding to its 7,000 residents. Maricela Muruato, 8, holds her baby sister, Karen, 11 months. Their mother, Rosie, in the background, is pregnant. Immigrants flock to the area for cheap housing.
Mark Graham
The Muruato family recently moved from Mexico to Cameron Park, adding to its 7,000 residents. Maricela Muruato, 8, holds her baby sister, Karen, 11 months. Their mother, Rosie, in the background, is pregnant. Immigrants flock to the area for cheap housing.

A few blocks away, 17-year-old Erica is on her way home, an ever-present book under her arm. An excellent student, the personable young woman aspires to one day continue her education at the college level. But the barriers of the colonia stand in her way. She, like her mother and sister, are in the United States illegally. They live in a two-room camper, subsisting on the $100 per week that her mother earns as a maid and cook for a Brownsville family.

Erica, for all her promise, is a non-person in the country where she has resided since she was 7 years old. She has no Social Security number, no paper that says she is an American citizen, no birthright to seek scholarship help. And because of that it is all too likely that she has nowhere to go. The two young women tell the story of Cameron Park, its dilemma and its hope.

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