Hub Telegram: Seven miles east of McAllen’s palm-studded city streets, the interstate off ramp slides past the sprawling branch of a popular Texas supermarket – HEB (Here Everything’s Better) – and a drive-in bank. Swinging under the highway and heading north on Alamo Road, the shopping malls and car showrooms recede at the first traces of the colonias – the ramshackle but largely unseen towns that are home to hundreds of thousands of Latinos across the Rio Grande valley of southern Texas.
A mechanic’s sign declares “credit no problem”. Vibrant green fields of coriander or cilantro, a staple of Mexican cooking, accentuate the dilapidation of the road. A small square building with a corrugated iron awning marks the corner with East Trenton Street. A wooden, hand-painted sign is nailed to one of its walls: “Trenton’s Second Hand Store”. Doors, sinks, windows and mosquito screens are propped in a jumble on the grass in front. Buyers stop by to pick up the parts for colonia houses, constructed piecemeal as their owners find the money.
East Trenton Street leads to only one place, Colonia Muñiz, the poorest Latino community in the country and among the lowest-income towns in the US. It is home to a little more than 1,100 people who live on a rectangle grid of six streets surrounded by fields. None of the houses are large. Some are simple wooden structures; others were made with cement. The limits of their territory are marked out by chain-link fences, except for a handful evidently owned by more prosperous families, which include one property with Roman-style columns guarding the front door and a decorative wall around the garden.
It is in Colonia Muñiz that Theresa Azuara, 64, landed 22 years ago after dragging her seven young children from Mexico and across the Rio Grande river, 15 miles to the south. Among them was Maria, who made the journey at just seven years old and still recalls it with horror. “It was very bad crossing the river. It was raining. I was saying ‘I don’t want to go, Mom.’ The mud was up to my chest. Big mosquitoes. I was really scared. I was crying ‘ I don’t want to walk, Mom.’ And so she carried me,” said Maria, now 29 says, Hub Telegram.
The family settled into the colonia that became a haven and a trap. “The US has been good to me,” said Azuara. “It has been good for my children. It has not been as good as if we were American, but better for them than Mexico. That’s why I came. For my children. We are poor, but it is better to be poor here than in Mexico. But it is not better to be Mexican here.”
Colonia Muñiz is the third stop for a series of Guardian dispatches about the lives of people trying to make a life in places that seem the most remote from the American Dream. According to one measure, the US Census Bureau’s American community survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people – the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – the median household income was just $11,711 a year, putting it among the four lowest income towns in the country, and has since fallen to $11,111. Nationally it was $53,915 in 2012.
In Colonia Muñiz, more than 60% of households fall below the poverty line, including all of those headed by single mothers with children at home. About a third of the workforce is unemployed, although even for those with jobs their work is often seasonal and fails to provide a steady income.
The town is in Hidalgo County which, according to Texas official statistics, has a poverty rate six times the state average. Hidalgo also has a high number of children living without health insurance and failing to complete a high-school education. The town is not very different from the hundreds of other coloniaswhere about one in four of the 1.3 million residents of the Rio Grande valley live in what one civic rights group described as “third-world conditions”. But it is distinguished from America’s other lowest income communities by a good proportion of its residents lacking the legal right to live in the US.
This lack of papers has left one generation after another unable to take a shot at that American Dream, because it is almost impossible for those without legal residency to find anything but low-paid and insecure work. That was until Barack Obama changed the future for Azuara’s children in an instant three years ago, with a presidential order that is transforming lives throughout the colonias.
The colonias – the name derives from the Mexican Spanish for the residential area of a town – are a creation of mid-20th century developers who bought up cheap land of little use for agriculture, sometimes because it was sitting on a flood plain, and carved out plots for housing. The great bulk are in Texas where more than 2,000 colonias, home to about 400,000 people, are stretched along the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Almost half of those are to be found in Hidalgo County. But the scale of their population has not prevented their marginalisation to the point of near invisibility.
Because few in authority wanted responsibility for coloniaspopulated mostly by poor Latinos, many without the right to vote, they largely went unregulated. The Texas state government took little interest as the plots were sold off without access to clean water or electricity, with no paved roads or sewerage systems. Mostly they were sold to Mexican migrants working as crop pickers. The buyers were in no position to complain. Too poor to be of interest to the banks, their only sources of financing were the developers themselves. Lenders operated a system of selling land and sometimes rudimentary housing at interest rates of up to 25%, but with a twist. The buyers had no title to the property until years later, when all payments had been made. If they missed a payment they could, and often did, lose everything: the land, the house and the money already paid.