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East Texas 'Colonia' Provides Community Support for Immigrants - 2003-08-11

The towns that make up the border of the United States with Mexico - such as El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona - have characteristics unique to any other region of the country. Part American/part Mexican in culture, these towns might serve as a way station for immigrants moving to points north, or become their final destination.

Since the 1950s, a limited supply of affordable housing along the nation's borders has forced many immigrant families to buy inexpensive plots of land in remote areas known as colonias. These colonias are often without any housing structure and many lack paved roads, electricity and water. How do people live under such conditions?

In spite of the difficulties, at a colonia near El Paso, Texas, some people are satisfied to remain in the homes they have built themselves in a community where everyone pulls together in order to survive.

Driving down a road in Horizon City, Texas, about 30 kilometers north of El Paso, most of the radio stations broadcast in Spanish. The landscape is flat and brown and dusty with hardly a tree in sight, but plenty of brush and cactus. The noonday sun is brutal over 37 degrees Celsius and it has been recommended to keep plenty of drinking water in the car at all times - which makes it all the more ironic to be in a community with such limited water resources.

Gloria Morales lives in a colonia called College Park near Horizon City. Originally from Juarez, Mexico, just over the El Paso border, Ms. Morales works as a "promotora" - a community heath care worker - for La Clinca Guadaloupana, a Catholic charities and health facility.

"I was living in Los Angeles, California, with my family, my husband was without a job, we only had unemployment money. We packed whatever we could in the car, started driving, we were coming to El Paso and we ended up in a colonia," she said. "We saw a mobile home for sale. The man said if you have $2,000 right now, you can stay in the mobile home and pay me the rest in payments. We gave that $2,000 on the same day and that night we spent the night in the mobile home."

"The colonia is a Spanish word that really means 'neighborhood.' So if you go into Mexico, colonia doesn't have the same connotation that it does in the southwest," said Virginia Kemendo, vice president of the El Paso Community Foundation, an outreach organization for immigrant families in the region. She says a typical colonia is anything a family creates for themselves - ranging from a tent to a double-wide trailer to a house made of bricks. But in years past, she says, many colonias were sold by unscrupulous land owners who would accept low down payments for parcels of remote, uninhabitable properties, often deep in the desert.

"... and where the property wasn't theirs until they paid for the entire thing," said Ms. Kemendo. "And so if they missed a month, they could lose their entire investment. However I think in the last 10 years, the state has done a lot to mitigate that."

Colonia resident Gloria Morales admits she and her family were lucky. They live in what is called a "developed colonia," meaning one with basic services including electricity, and water from an on-sight tank purchased privately that is re-filled by a distributor. But she recalls visiting a colonia that was so desolate that the government intervened and made the landowner pay to move the residents to another place. Ms. Morales refers to the barren land in the desert called East Clint, as the "mother of all colonias."

"Twenty-six families used to live here. But the government decided that this place was not appropriate for families to live because it's very much in the middle of the desert," she said. "So the owner had to relocate 25 of these families to another colonia. They took the walls and the windows and the doors and took them over to the other colonia. As you can see, it's an 8 x 10 foundation."

There was one hold-out, however, says Gloria Morales, her friend Concha, who chose to remain in her remote desert home.

"So this lady, she decided to stay. She said, 'I am very proud of my house. We put a lot of effort into having this home. So I'm not leaving.' And that's Concha," she said. "And I'm very proud of Concha because she said, 'My children can run free, and scream and yell, they don't bother the neighbors, I can play the radio loud and I have the biggest back yard in El Paso.' Her backyard goes all the way to Carlsbad! She even has a swimming pool. Her husband made a kind of cement box and she puts water in and she has a swimming pool, so for me she is an example."

While Gloria Morales says she could never raise her own family alone in the middle of the desert, she says she likes to tell Concha's story when she makes her home visits for La Clinica Guadaloupana. As a certified promotora, much of Gloria Morales' work centers on visiting families to check on their health, offer advice and provide any needed referrals. She says she marvels at some people's coping skills.

"People are ingenious. They make up ways to live with the absence of water," she said. "For instance one lady puts a bucket under the sink, she does the dishes and she uses the bucket for when somebody uses the toilet. She's very smart. So if I go to another house and I don't see that bucket under the sink, I tell them, 'put a bucket under the sink and it will save you a lot of water!'"

Gloria Morales, who was a homemaker before she started volunteering for the nuns at La Clinca Guadaloupana, says she wants to pass on the training and support she has received from the clinic to women throughout the colonia communities.

"I live in a colonia myself. I was without any money, very low income and I managed to go on with my life to make a better person of myself," she said. "Now we have a beautiful house, not even in my dreams would I dream of having that house. I drive, I have a job, my husband has changed, he supports me in everything I do, he's my number one fan. I can say to these people, these women, you can be in these four walls, but there's nobody that makes you do that. You are free, each of us has gifts we can develop. Some of the ladies say, 'I don't speak English, I didn't go to school, I am ignorant.' You see it in other places, too, it doesn't have to be a colonia. You can be in a luxury place and inside. Even if it's a wonderful house, it's still four walls."

Gloria Morales, wife, mother, promotora and community activist says she is very happy where she is and would never consider leaving her colonia in southeast Texas. Even without much money, water or even trees, she says it is the people that make a colonia a good place to live.