In Their Own Hands: Colonias Organize

“Complex but doable,” as one organizer put it, is an apt description of the job facing activists in the colonias, poverty-ridden communities along the Texas-Mexico border. The next questions are how is it doable and by whom. Colonias organizers are answering these questions as they work to redress what many have called “third world conditions.”

Two priorities for colonia activists are housing and water. Houses are often self-built, piece by piece when money allows. One colonias group, Proyecto Azteca, estimates that three-quarters of these houses do not meet family needs. For example, 30 to 40 percent of colonia houses lack adequate heating and cooling systems. Lack of running water is another defining characteristic of a colonia. Residents must get water from relatives, buy it in the cities, or pump it from shallow, contaminated wells. Cesspools or septic tanks provide the only waste treatment, and they often flood or leak. Water-borne diseases, such as hepatitis A, cholera, and skin rashes are epidemic.

Though the growth of the colonias has resulted in organizing that mirrors the diversity of organizing strategies everywhere, certain elements unify colonias groups. While the Texas legislature focuses on measures that will stop the further spread of colonias, local leaders focus on improving existing ones. Groups in this article share a belief that the people of the colonias are their own greatest resource. Residents who have been written off as unsophisticated and powerless merely because of poverty and language barriers are showing that, in the practical and political arenas, they are not powerless and they will be heard.

A Hammer and a Nail

Proyecto Azteca’s self-help housing program in Rio Grande Valley exemplifies one way to combat powerlessness. Azteca, an acronym in Spanish, translates to Assembly of Zones of Workers Working in Friendship for Equality in Housing. Observing that housing issues were missing from local organizations’ agendas, the United Farmworkers, Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA), and Low Income Housing Information Service founded Proyecto Azteca (Project Aztec) in July 1992. The group chose to focus on self-help housing, says staff member Jesús Limón, because colonias residents build their own homes anyway, very ingeniously, only lacking technical assistance, such as specialized skills, tools, building plans, and financial assistance. In its first year, Proyecto Azteca raised a million dollars from state and federal agencies, including Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and HOME, and hired its first construction trainers.

Applicants to the program are reviewed by Proyecto Azteca’s 13-member board of farmworkers and colonias residents. Participants in the project must be families living in substandard conditions, owning property in a colonia, and making between $4500-$13,500 per year. Crews of three people, each person from a different family, receive construction training and work for three and a half months to build standardized three bedroom houses on Proyecto Azteca’s site, which are then relocated to their lots.

Proyecto Azteca finances the cost of the $14,000 homes for 20 years, at no interest to the families. Monthly payments are usually not much different from what a family was paying before, but the conditions are immensely better. Financing is a crucial part of Proyecto Azteca’s mission “to improve living conditions for low-income people in the colonias of Hidalgo County,” because it breaks the exploitative system of contracts for deed [see article in print version]. Participants often stay involved with the group. Proyecto Azteca has begun hiring past participants as construction trainers, and many participants have gone on to become board members as well.

Now a model for others, Proyecto Azteca originally took inspiration from the Lower Valley Housing Corporation (LVHC) in the town of Fabens. While LVHC functions like a traditional CDC, building actual subdivisions with full infrastructure development, self-help is an essential part of its mission to provide safe, adequate, and affordable housing for people in El Paso County. Although the houses participants build are appraised at $60,000, the work they contribute on weekends and evenings brings construction costs down to $39,000-$41,000. With financing this makes the houses available to LVHC’s participants. Participating families make $8,000 to $22,000 a year; 75 percent make under $13,750. LVHC funded its first projects with Farmer’s Home Administration loans, but the group now receives loans from TDHCA and Bank of the West. Combining the zero-interest public funds with additional private funding allows LVHC to provide loans large enough to build houses with air conditioning, landscaping, water and sewer lines, and paved roads, and yet keep the monthly payments affordable.

Executive director Nancy Hanson says the lesson of LVHC is that starting a successful nonprofit is “a very slow process.” LVHC got its charter in 1986, but didn’t begin construction until 1988. Still, by 1995, they had completed 100 self-help houses, 15 rehabbed houses, and a 48-unit apartment complex for low-income people. Seventy-two houses are also in the works.

Self-help housing is now expanding to include smaller programs under the auspices of broader groups. The need remains glaring; Proyecto Azteca’s waiting list currently stands at 600-800 people, and they build only 20-30 homes a year.

“Real” Politics

Faced with politicians who make empty promises to fight for decent services to the colonias while often catering to unscrupulous developers, groups like EPISO have moved beyond technical self-help housing programs to organize and establish a political voice. EPISO, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, began in 1980 when church leaders who wanted to build a broad-based anti-poverty organization invited the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to help them organize. The group initially met with protest from some churches, pastors, and church contributors who disliked the radical associations of Saul Alinsky, IAF’s founder. However, members persisted and are now credited in local papers as a driving citizen force on many political issues. A 1991 El Paso Times editorial called EPISO “the one player that never left the field” in the fight to get water to the colonias.

EPISO employs three paid organizers who work to convince people they have power and give them the tools to act. Maribeth Larkin, the lead organizer, says her job includes identifying leadership, developing strategies, and assisting research. She sees her main function as helping people develop a clear picture of “real” politics, meaning both how things are supposed to work and how they actually work. “In a sense, organizers are teachers,” Larkin says.

EPISO is supported monetarily by 30 El Paso congregations, but its organizing focus is neighborhoods. During frequent house meetings, issues surface for EPISO’s agenda and residents keep updated on EPISO’s work. Besides holding house meetings, members elect nine co-chairs who meet weekly to plan actions. Larkin points out, however, that meetings are flexible; they never meet just to meet, but if an issue is pressing, they are willing to get together as often as needed.

The purpose of all this meeting is, of course, action. Action usually means meeting with, and trying to influence, public officials. Some meetings are called research actions, during which a team of 12 visits officials in their offices to discuss possible solutions. Then there are larger actions to create public pressure. It is common for 100 to 300 members to attend these meetings, and attendance has reached 2000-3000. “In a public forum,” says Larkin, “there’s a lot of consequences to [an official’s] refusal to cooperate. In the public arena, people respond.”

EPISO has also brought people ranging from Texas Water Board officials to Henry Cisneros on tours of the troubled areas in order to elicit promises and public commitments to change. Visits from higher-ups are also a useful tool for leverage on the local level. When local officials originally didn’t want to deal with EPISO, members invited the Texas Lt. Governor to town, compelling local officials to attend EPISO’s 3500-person event.

In 1993, EPISO celebrated the groundbreaking for a water line to the colonia called Sparks, and they have many similar projects on the way. EPISO explains its success by summarizing IAF strategy. EPISO’s (and IAF’s) iron rule is to never do for others what they can do for themselves. “All organizing is reorganizing,” Larkin adds, explaining that as people’s interests change, a group constantly has to reevaluate its mission. Lastly, in the political world, she says, repeating the IAF mantra, there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent allies. “In every case you have a different set of hurdles,” she says.

True Participatory Democracy

Some local groups have sprung up without help from paid organizers. In the summer of 1994, Amelia Rendon, an activist and resident of one of the ten colonias along highway 359 outside of Laredo, and Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA) organized a public meeting regarding local governments’ reluctance to extend water service to Laredo’s colonias. The meeting drew about 250 people, and resulted in the birth of Union de Colonias Olvidadas. Israel Reyna, of TRLA, was excited by what he saw there, saying the process by which the group was formed was “an incredible manifestation of participatory democracy.” Residents from each colonia met and elected two representatives to a board. They chose the name Union de Colonias Olvidadas, meaning Union of Forgotten Colonias, because it represented how they felt about continual broken promises that water was forthcoming.

One of the first actions of the Union de Colonias Olvidadas was to ask TRLA to represent it in claims that Webb County was sitting on colonias development funds, making no effort past an engineering study.

Political organizing efforts from Union de Colonias Olvidadas brought weight to the legal proceedings. Among the group’s actions have been press conferences, rallies and a car caravan into Laredo to make a public statement about its determination. Board members have also made trips to Austin and San Antonio to meet with key officials. So far they have gained a stipulation that a certain percentage of the Texas Water Board grant Laredo is applying for must go to colonias water extension.

The difficult work is yet to come, says the group’s lawyer, Amy Johnson. “We lawyers tend to think we can just litigate and everything will be fixed, [but] that’s not true here.”

Trying to lay water lines in communities that have developed over years or even decades with no regulations on house spacing, boundary lines, or street widths can be quite complicated. Water districts must be created for colonias outside existing ones. Some residents may have to give up some property for rights-of-way or street widening, which many are understandably reluctant to do. Where developers created illegal subdivisions the platting must be reapproved, or one house may get water service while its neighbor does not.

Although it may still take years before members will be able to turn on a tap, Union de Colonias Olvidadas is trying to build on its successes and expand its agenda beyond water. As the group expands, says Rendon, each board member will probably be asked to assume more responsibilities, possibly specializing so that each member knows exactly where one issue stands. Still, the focus will not move away from general community involvement. After all, says Rendon, the group’s greatest organizing success is simply that the people are indeed organized. “Everything has been done by the push of all the people,” she says. “It’s a people’s thing.”

Reversing Disempowerment

While many groups plan actions and seek media coverage themselves, Iniciativa Frontera (Border Initiative) takes a different approach. You never hear of Iniciativa Frontera, says staff member David Arizmendi. That’s just fine with him; if Iniciativa Frontera was in the news then it wouldn’t be working properly, for its mission is to help communities help themselves, from the background as much as possible.

Iniciativa Frontera was formed in December 1993, when Center for Community Change, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, TRLA, and two local colonias-based groups formed a coalition to address their shared problems. These groups saw a crucial need for colonias residents to be organized so they could access services themselves, rather than waiting for larger groups to arrive sporadically to conduct limited organizing.

Iniciativa Frontera believes colonias residents don’t lack will or ability to organize themselves, only information about how things work and awareness of, or connection to, useful resources. Therefore, the group provides technical help and leadership training. Its board is composed of members of the founding organizations and of colonias residents from communities working with Iniciativa Frontera.

The decision to work with a community means three to five years of intensive involvement for Iniciativa Frontera, which begins only after the community decides it wants the help. First, community elected board members and some other highly involved residents receive leadership training. “Leaders naturally surface,” says Arizmendi. “We try to teach leadership through a process of activities, rather than giving them a binder full of stuff. Leadership training is basically taking natural instincts and teaching strategy, how the power structure functions, and how it can be affected.”

Other than training, Iniciativa Frontera mostly fields questions and helps groups find their way through bureaucracies. For example, it might attend the first few meetings a local group holds with public officials or provide a contact at the Immigration and Naturalization Service for citizenship classes. In all cases, however, Iniciativa Frontera will stay on the sidelines, careful to be only a resource. “Iniciativa Frontera does not speak for people,” says Arizmendi. Eventually, the local group becomes independent.

Blanca Juarez, the president of Colonias Unidas (Colonias United) in Las Lomas and a colonia resident, says that in the spring of 1994 before Iniciativa Frontera got involved, her eight year old resident-initiated organization wasn’t doing so well. Then Juarez called a meeting with TRLA regarding a feedlot that was being built with no public participation in the permitting process. Arizmendi came along to the meeting to offer the help of Iniciativa Frontera. Colonias Unidas accepted, and although the feedlot question is still pending, Colonias Unidas is growing in strength and direction.

Colonias Unidas now has 600 to 800 families as members. Membership fees and bingo games provide funds for its programs. The group distributes meeting agendas to residents’ homes, and meetings are held in a local community center. The community center is also the location of Colonias Unidas’ literacy project and citizenship classes, which have become a model for dozens of communities. Other activities include a new self-help housing program.

Colonias Unidas’ work on the political front centers on the issue that first brought the group together, the lack of running water in Las Lomas. Like Union de Colonias Olvidadas and EPISO, Colonias Unidas’s approach has involved meeting with government officials and pressuring Starr County to make their colonias part of a water district. The group sent a 12-member delegation to Austin to protest the continued lack of commitment to providing water in the colonias. Although Juarez sees the Austin trip as one of the groups’ most successful political actions, she still describes the attitude of many in Austin as one of its biggest challenges. “Politicians treat us like we are ignorant,” she says, and adds that newspapers’ yearly announcements on blocks of state money set aside for colonias lead to the misconception that colonias actually receive substantial assistance. In reality, she says, developments often don’t qualify for the funding due to technicalities.

Power of Organizing

Whatever their specific programs, activists in the colonias are turning to themselves for strength and to the government for accountability. The work is hard, but the conditions they fight are harder. Whether their work involves securing home-building funds or meeting with public officials, it shows what individuals can accomplish knowing they have a whole organization behind them. Juarez summarizes the power of organized groups with her goal: “That everybody works together to be united in the colonias.”

Organizations in this article:

El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO)
7134 Alameda Ave.
El Paso, TX 79903
915-778-3200
EPISO@aol.com

Iniciativa Frontera
6109 Cynthia Court
McAllen, TX 78504

Proyecto Azteca
PO Box 8112
Alamo, TX 78516
956-782-5963

Texas Low Income Housing Information Services

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