A mother washes her toddler in an ice chest in front of her Cameron Park home. The colonia is Texas' biggest.
A mother washes her toddler in an ice chest in front of her Cameron Park home. The colonia is Texas' biggest.
Mark Graham

Hope in Hell

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.

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.

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."

Nevertheless, visiting strangers have to look hard to see the brighter days that Moreno believes are coming. There are signals along virtually every street that even modest prosperity remains far away.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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."

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."

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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