The Colonias of the Rio Grande Valley
Revolutionary Worker #1063, July 23, 2000
This account was written by a youth from Houston, Texas, who travelled to the Rio Grande Valley to investigate the conditions of Mexican immigrants - as part of the process of writing a new Programme of the RCP. The story has been slightly edited for publication.
Upon entering the Rio Grande Valley, fields of crops line the scenic view. We noticed six men backpacking along the railroad tracks, about ten miles from the first Border Patrol checkpoint. While driving down a main road in Harlingen, the economic level seemed close to my barrio back in Houston. There were many used-car lots, taquerias, washaterias, bars and run-down or closed-down small businesses, the only difference being La Migra situated around every corner you turn- in vans, marked and unmarked patrol cars -creating an occupied territory atmosphere. The tension of their presence is very intense as soon as you enter this area.
We continued driving past several colonias, all of which had very rundown (mainly dirt) roads, if any at all. There were plenty of northern "snowbirds" migrating from Michigan, Quebec, Pennsylvania, New York, Idaho, and Wisconsin. The clean, fenced-in RV parks where these people stay are located next to the colonias, where sewage is backed up or they lack clean running water.
Our investigation - through a series of interview-type discussions - had definitive characteristics. People felt that the biggest problems are intense Border Patrol repression, housing, health care, unemployment, education and the lack of rights and services for those without papers.
The first conversation we had was with a religious sister of the Catholic Church. I note this because the experience I have had with the church always has this "we abide by the law" bullshit. I truly did not think she was going to even let us in the door if she knew what we were doing. We were very up front about our reasons for being there. We introduced the Party Programme, and she apologized for being late in her years and wished she could be more help to us. It turns out that these sisters have even taken part in an underground railroad system for immigrants in their earlier years.
She was very open in sharing information that might be helpful in our investigation. She shared stories and gave a lot of credit to the Mexicanos when it came to their methods of survival in the Rio Grande Valley. She said people share housing, food, clothes, sell tamales, whatever's necessary, but they pull together in their communities and their people are not broken. She said even "legal" people help out by writing out fake rental receipts to help people obtain their papers. Sometimes people call out the Migra on each other if they are fighting with their neighbors, but that's just the way it goes around there.
She advised us to go into the colonia across the street only with someone the people know or trust or they will think we are undercover Migra. The Migra now harasses people whenever and wherever they want. A few weeks prior, county health officials went through one of the colonias, knocking on doors and issuing tickets to people for septic tank violations. (Faulty septic tanks are often installed by landlords or plumbers who take advantage of the immigrants, most of whom find an indoor toilet to be a luxury.) Behind the health officials, as people remained outside and with their front doors still open, came the Border Patrol pigs, asking for people's papers. She said people constantly live in fear and have found it is better not to run. She also said, "It may be clever the way people fix their papers around here; it may even be against the law; but the law is against us."
LIVING IN THE COLONIA
The next conversation was with a family living in the colonia where we stayed that evening. By the looks of it, this colonia was a little better than some others in the area. This one had paved roads, running water, and mail service that took several years of community organizing to obtain. The houses were arranged closely like housing projects in the hood.
This conversation started off by the woman stating how proud they are to be Mexicanos, proud of their roots and their heroes, like Zapata, but they are afraid to even say they are Mexican for fear of being deported. When asked to summarize some of the problems, she saw inadequate health care as the first injustice. She said it is not fair that legally born children of immigrants are denied WIC or other basic healthcare needs. She mentioned the lack of opportunities to find work since the freeze of 1983.
She mentioned that overall life in the colonias was very difficult and that everything is bad. Building your home takes years of hard work and there are no community outreach programs for children or the elderly. There are not any parks or clinics and it makes it very difficult to survive. A trip to see the doctor will get you nothing more than a four- to eight-hour wait as they don't care and the medicine is too expensive anyway. People must choose to buy medicine or to buy food.
We ate Sunday breakfast tacos from the local church. Everyone goes to church- this is a way people reach out to each other, almost a last hope for those who have nothing. Families take turns making breakfast each Sunday to help each other out.
This woman in particular practices "empachos"-an ancient indigenous ritual to rid a child's system of ailments-in the community center office where she works. She also tells women where they can go for free pregnancy and cancer tests. She mentioned she had heard of children being born without legs or brains because of pesticides being sprayed by airplanes onto the crops which drift over into the colonias. Also, she spoke of several children who have lead poisoning in their blood. A lot of people suffer from headaches and bronchitis. One area was in danger because a truck carrying pesticides wrecked and burned. Little children were riding their bicycles through the area. The government denies all these problems, but this is all true.
She spoke of people having to work long hours and receive less than minimum wage pay, sometimes $2 to $4 an hour working in the fields. Some people work "on-call," chopping vegetables for a local fast food chain, Whataburger, whenever they call them in, usually late hours throughout the night. Other professionals from Mexico, like two of her friends, an architect and an engineer, are forced to be waiters on this side of the border. Many people cannot work even cleaning the schools because they do not speak English. Many people can't get their GED, because there are no classes in Spanish. A lot of the industrial jobs require a GED or HS diploma. Her husband has a good job, she says, stable, working 6 days a week, 10 to 12 hour shifts. Together, they make $24,000 a year, but that is with stable positions, long hours and having to pay to clothe, feed and house their four-member family. Most people make between $2,000 and $5,000 a year, $10,000 maximum in her colonia, this one being a little better than others.
YOUTH WITH NO FUTURE
About this point in the conversation, I went inside to use the restroom and invited her son to come be a part of our conversation. I inquired about the graffiti tag I saw around his house because I am also a Graf artist. He spoke English very well and I welcomed him into giving his say in our Party's Programme. I mentioned the RCYB and why we had come there all the way from Houston. He hesitantly came into the conversation circle but did not sit down or even speak.
When NDP (National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Oppression and the Criminalization of a Generation) was mentioned I told him to listen because it had to do with us as youth. We asked him if he ever got harassed by the police or migra and he said no but he had heard about this. Later I began talking to him, separate from the rest of the conversation, about graffiti. To my surprise, he opened up a lot to me. I talked to him as if he was one of my homeboys back home. He mentioned about being in a gang, and how he was about to get kicked out of his high school for fighting too much.
He recently gained his obligation to initiate new members starting at the age of 12. He pressures kids outside the gang to "hang out" and then questions and pressures them when they do not come. He says he fights so much because the guys in his gang talk a lot but don't back it up and it makes the gang look weak.
He did not see any kind of hope for a future once he graduates so he does not even care about school. I asked if he feels trapped, and he hesitantly said, "yes." He even understands that these guys would sell him out in a heartbeat but he stays because of the power the gang gives him in numbers. The only way to survive is to join or be a hermit all your teenage years. He said if he tried to get out the guys in his gang would kick his ass for leaving every time they saw him and guys from other gangs around Harlingen would kick his ass and not believe he was all the way out anyway. He is at least trying to keep his little brother out of the situation, but he said he does not know how long that will last.
He agreed with me when I told him how the system wants us to fight our own and join gangs so we don't recognize they are the real enemy. He agreed but said a lot of people don't think that way around there, but he wished they did. I could see he had no hope for any kind of future for himself and it pissed me off. He said it really didn't matter how well he did in school because he'd probably end up pushing carts at the grocery store anyway. He's 16 and has absolutely no hope for a future because this fucked-up system has nothing to offer him except harassment and loopholes.
He had a drawing waiting for me the next morning before we left. The potential I saw in him as an artist was incredible. I believe we were equally inspired by each other. He realized there is hope for his situation and I realized there is mad potential for young soldiers in the Rio Grande Valley. I asked him if he was down with me to tear down their border and he said, "Hell yeah!" These youth are lost in the bullshit, and it is time someone goes to reach out, help, protect, educate and train them. I suggested possibly starting a RCYB and getting people involved in fighting for a real cause and breaking these chains that bind us all.
His mother was speaking to how if people unite in organizations, things will be better for their children. She said with struggle there will be change and how the people must demonstrate that they want changes. Without struggle, nothing changes. They want to see more jobs, better housing, clinics, better pay, help for abused women. This group mentioned that they participated in the Dia de los Muertos demonstrations last year when people planted 300 crosses representing those who have lost their lives on the border. These were part of national actions. On March 31 they will be having a demo demanding that the Department of Public Safety not ask people for their papers when they apply for a license, amnesty for the undocumented and a $6.15 minimum wage. She was very interested in NDP and gratefully accepted an issue of the Obrero Revolucionario at the end of our conversation.
The final conversation of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley basically summarized what we had heard before but offered the "city" version of common complaints, situations and loopholes people fall into when they arrive in Amerikkka. At every turn people feel that obstacles and barriers are thrown up by the system when people try to improve their conditions: not speaking English, not having a high school diploma or a GED, not having papers, housing codes. There is the fear of being denied benefits and services because they do not have papers or are not citizens. They don't see any way to actually improve their conditions.
One grassroots organizer told us, "Doors are closed to people progressing." She continued saying that people lack the proper education of their constitutional rights. The police and government are making it very difficult for people to move ahead. There are more children enrolled in school now than there have ever been before, but classes in Spanish need to be offered for adults needing their GED, in order to receive minimum wage pay. A lot of people cross the border but don't have the required GED to work in the main industrial companies. Other major industries in the Rio Grande Valley are HEB (which is expanding even more this year), "Titan" (a tire company located near the detention center), "AMFLS," an oil company and the all-day labor offered by construction companies building expensive homes in the area. People there work more as mechanics and store clerks; it is different in the city than in the colonias because there are more businesses and tourists.
There still remains a high unemployment rate. Family household incomes average $10,000 per year max. $14,000 can be made a year by an individual working 60 to 80 hour work weeks. Their group gave an example of a woman who receives a government check for $92 a month and she has a family to support. Undocumented workers are paid less than minimum wage in construction, $2 to $3 an hour in the fields, and professional people like engineers and architects that cross are forced to work as waiters and bus boys.
Some people working in the fields have to steal cabbage, or whatever food they were picking at the time. People face all kinds of problems to be able to work, and unemployment is high. That people survive is incredible. People survive on food stamps (if they are citizens or have worked long enough and can prove it or if they are Permanent Residents), by sharing between households and selling tamales and other items. Families earning $5,000 per year share food stamps, take turns selling foods, shop at thrift stores and share housing. The paralegal of the group mentioned that her mother lives in Mexico and works in a maquiladora assembling electronics. She works six days a week, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and receives $30 to $60 per week. A lot of people are crossing daily to work in the U.S., the majority of them have special visas allowing them to work here but they must live in Mexico.
They explained that the effects of NAFTA aren't working for the poor, only the rich. More material is purchased from Mexico such as concrete. Many people must go to purchase materials from Mexico in order to afford expanding their homes here. Then there are companies such as Wal-Mart and Sam's making cheaper products in Mexico and bringing them on this side of the border to sell. People mainly live in colonias, but little by little are moving up to the barrios. Once they own a home, good ol' Uncle Sam gives them the opportunity to pay higher taxes than the rest of the U.S.
The Chicanos and Mexicanos are united against the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley because everyone hates their tremendous presence. River sensors set off alarms and the Border Patrol arrives with dogs. Helicopters are an everyday part of life and so are pigs on bikes.
People have been taken away with their dinner still on the table, mothers have had to leave their children with their neighbors they don't even know while they are deported by the INS. People don't want to talk or complain about the brutality of La Migra. The police, migra and court systems are well connected. Judges ask for people's papers in court before hearing cases.
There were well-publicized cases of a Chicano county judge and a Chicano federal judge being stopped and questioned, in separate incidents, and one of them was detained for a while. In the last year there was a parade in Brownsville for some holiday in which the Border Patrol had a contingent. People watching the parade were screaming and cursing at them as they passed and hollering, "Viva Mexico!" In another incident, the Border Patrol gave away Thanksgiving turkeys to brighten their image, but almost no one showed up to accept the turkeys.
Police and migra ride in patrol cars together. People joked that if someone is robbed it is easier and faster to get the Border Patrol to the scene. They described all these agencies and efforts to fight drugs as a pretext to abuse people's rights and to kill people. One person said, "I have papers and I get scared when I see them." Another person said that they were living "in a military zone in a free country." This group described how ten border patrol vehicles showed up at their center one day, saying they had a report that "illegal aliens" were there. They were not allowed to enter and no one was arrested. They had no warrant. The people in the group thought the Border Patrol was called by the Brownsville police. The police have their own community center in the same colonia but fewer people go there. They thought the police called the Border Patrol because they were upset that so many people went to our friend's center. We counted about 25 Border Patrol vans, trucks and cars in a 24-hour period.
Overall this is the best work I have done with the Party. I am very honored to work with the person I was sent out with. He has been a tremendous inspiration and advisor to me. His dedication to the Party helps me find out what this is all about. This trip made us both even more angry and made us realize the tremendous potential for revolution in this fucked-up country. Everyone we spoke with agreed that the Mexicanos are an exploited people of Amerikkka and they were living in a police state. One woman said with struggle there will be change and how people must demonstrate they want change. They all agreed that this land is no one's territory, not the U.S., not Mexico's and that everyone wants things to change, and change only comes with struggle.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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