Where the Sidewalk Ends | Sojourners

Where the Sidewalk Ends

When it comes to assessing the needs of communities in the Rio Grande Valley, some groups have adopted a radical approach: Ask the people who live there.
courtesy of ARSE and LUPE
courtesy of ARSE and LUPE

SIRI CANNOT TAKE you to the South Tower Estates in the southernmost Texas border community of Little Mexico. Among the more than 1,200 recognized colonias in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Tower is one of the more established: Streets are paved and lots have curbs, if not sidewalks—amenities that were required for colonias only after the adoption of model subdivision rules in 1989. A few solar-powered light fixtures even dot the streets at night.

But the neighborhood still is without city council representation. All residents are connected to the main thoroughfare between their homes and jobs by a single intersection. A dead dog in the middle of the road bakes in the hot summer sun.

Colonias began around the 1950s as semi-permanent camps in southwestern border states—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—developed by private landowners to house the farm workers they employed. Once the land was paid off, an owner was relieved of any responsibility to further maintain, much less improve, their property; many landowners didn’t fix or change a thing for decades. Today, amenities in colonias vary dramatically from one to the next, and many lack wastewater management, trash collection, and street lights.

Eva Carranza lives in South Tower Estates with her 15-year-old daughter. Like many families in their neighborhood, they have mixed documentation status. Eva’s daughter is starting to think about college, but it’s tough to get information about different schools’ standardized test and GPA requirements, applications and deadlines, or available scholarships and loans. Though some families in their neighborhood have cell phone and internet access, few have a computer. Libraries offer web access—but there aren’t any libraries in the colonias.

So Carranza turned to ARISE (“A Resource in Serving Equality”), a grassroots organization that helps youth and women who live in colonias through leadership development and education programs. Inspired by Luke 4:18—“God has chosen me to bring good news to the poor”—Catholic Sister of Mercy Gerrie Naughton founded ARISE in 1987. Since then, ARISE, which is co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, has supported preschool education and summer reading programs for children in colonias. ARISE has also organized parent-teacher associations that give parents confidence to engage with their children’s teachers and help area students matriculate and graduate.

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