Shantytowns Transform Themselves

Shantytowns Transform Themselves

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 11, 2007; 3:18 PM

LAS MILPAS, Texas — Sixty-six-year-old Zulema Hernandez's small home is brightly painted, with a side door opening up to a patio fragrant with potted herbs and flowers. Neighbors wave as they drive by over smooth, paved streets.

At a community center in another corner of the county, a volunteer physician assistant counsels an epileptic woman during the free weekly health clinic. The center also serves as a day camp and a place to explore the Internet in a room full of new computers.

It is hard to imagine that as little as a decade ago, Las Milpas and Pueblo de Palmas _ colonias, or immigrant shantytowns a few miles from the Mexican border _ were Calcutta on the Rio Grande, poverty-stricken places that became filthy, stinking, disease-ridden expanses awash in mud and sewage whenever it rained heavily.

“It was very ugly,” said Hernandez, who entered the country illegally in 1974 and became a U.S. citizen in the mid-1980s. “But we fought strongly together. … Now it is beautiful. I never want to leave.”

Las Milpas' transformation into a proud, largely well-tended community of more than 17,000 is an immigrant success story. As the many illegal immigrants of Las Milpas became U.S. citizens, they used the power of the ballot box to prod the state and federal governments to relieve their misery.

Pueblo de Palmas, one of a cluster of smaller and newer colonias, is following suit. The flatland of run-down trailers and shacks may look desperate, but water and electrical lines run to each plot, and progress is marked with each second-hand air conditioner sticking out of a plywood-sealed window. And looming over it all is the crown jewel _ what, when finished, will be the new middle and elementary school.

Over the past 20 years, a flurry of laws, grants and bond issues has brought running water, sanitation and other improvements to Las Milpas and other Texas colonias along the border.

And instead of selling and moving to nicer neighborhoods as they made their way up the socio-economic ladder, the residents followed the Latin American model of slowly improving their homes.

“People organized, and they themselves helped transform their lives,” said Elizabeth Valdez, chief organizer for the church-based network Valley Interfaith.

Colonias, which is Spanish for neighborhoods, started appearing in Texas in the 1950s, when developers found they could sell agriculturally useless land to poor immigrants eager for something to call their own. At their height, an estimated 340,000 people _ or 20 percent of population in the Texas border area _ lived in colonias.

Many families were migrant farm workers, who went north each year to work the fields and returned in the winter to improve their homes, often by adding on to the trailer they first set up on the plot.

The colonias were usually outside city limits, where there were no building codes. The plots were sold without water lines, sewers, paved roads, trash collection, or police or fire protection.

When Hernandez began living in Las Milpas 20 years ago, water had to be carried in for drinking, bathing and cooking.

When it rained, the dirt streets became quagmires, and parents had to carry their children to the edge of the colonia on school mornings because the bus driver wouldn't chance the mud.

Older children took to wrapping their feet in plastic bags after schools turned away colonia dwellers for tracking dirt. Outhouses overflowed and stank. Children suffered rashes and intestinal ailments.

The Rev. Mike Seifert was assigned in 1996 to another colonia, Cameron Park, outside Brownsville. He found himself in a lawless, drug- and disease-ridden place traversed by 13 miles of unpaved roads.

When he and another clergyman headed out for their first Mass there, it had just rained and they couldn't get in.

“They had to take us in one of those huge, open-sided jeeps,” he said. “What we found was something that you would see in a Third World country, not in Texas.

They invited people to witness the conditions, such as a group of epidemiologists from the University of Texas.

“I was giving them a walking tour,” he recalled. “One of the women stopped me at one point and said, `Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Are we in the United States or are we in Mexico?' and I said, `No, this is Texas.' … And she said, `Well, it reminds me of my hometown _ Calcutta, India.'”

“The Border Patrol itself wouldn't go out there without a sheriff escort,” he said. “It became kind of a Wild West. People talk about folks driving around, shooting each other. There were dope stashes. There were arms.”

The squalid conditions drew national attention in the late 1990s and were used to attack then-Gov. George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.

By the 1990s, however, colonias had second- and third-generation families. Three-fourths of the residents were U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization. Many gained citizenship after a 1986 federal law offered them amnesty.

Around that time, the state Legislature set up a program to help poor areas build water and sewer systems. Also, Valley Interfaith organized what has since become a powerful voting bloc in South Texas.

Buses full of people would leave at 3 a.m. for daylong lobbying trips at the state Capitol in Austin or at political conventions. Community leaders testified about the filth and disorder.

New state laws led developers to install water lines, sewers or septic systems, build roads and provide utilities.

State voters have approved bond issues totaling $250 million to improve colonias. Some $650 million in federal money has also gone to ease conditions.

Cameron Park, with a population of 7,000 to 8,000, and Las Milpas now look largely like pleasant, working-class neighborhoods. The infrastructure has attracted stores, restaurants and gas stations, which in turn have meant jobs.

But Cameron Park and Las Milpas had geographic luck. Colonias more than 150 miles from the border, or in relatively prosperous regions, do not qualify for the state money.

A colonia near Corpus Christi is one of the unlucky ones, said longtime colonia activist Lionel Lopez. There, about 2,000 families until very recently lived amid outhouses or open waste pits, and health officials have found high levels of E. coli in the floodwaters people wade through to get to the paved roads. There is no police or fire protection.

Lopez stopped by after a fire and found a young man in a wheelchair who had been abandoned without food for days.

“We got missed,” he said. “We're so far behind what you see in the Valley, and everyone's turning a deaf ear.”