Haven’t heard of Texas’ colonias? Neither had I before a mission trip showed me a Third-World American enclave

Flying back from South Texas yesterday, I found myself vacillating between anger and contentment. Contentment came from service work that my 28:1 men’s group brothers and I had done alongside a men’s group from Park Cities Baptist Church. Anger rose from the poverty, inequality, and squalor we saw in our own state.

Odds are, you’ve never heard of the colonias before. I hadn’t until we lined up this trip. In an informal social media survey last night, once I filtered out friends who grew up on the border, it looked like less than a third of Texans I know are aware of them.

The colonias are unincorporated subdivisions in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas side of the Mexican border. More than 500,000 people live in these colonias, making up roughly one-third of the region’s population. 42% are below the poverty line and receive some form of government assistance. Less than half graduate high school. Diabetes runs rampant due to lack of access to healthy foods and medical services.

73% of the colonia residents are legal American citizens.

These families — large families — live on plots of land they have been “sold” at usurious interest rates with draconian default clauses. At 18% interest and no room for error, few if any notes ever reach maturity. Perhaps because of that risk, homes are ramshackle and makeshift, usually built around a trailer or finished piecemeal over years.

Until then-governor George W. Bush intervened, these subdivisions lacked paved roads, water, or electricity. Water and electric are still dicey, reaching a division, but not necessarily and individual home. Exposed extension cords and outdoor-only water are common.

We have been to rural Guatemala and Nicaragua to serve folks in need several times over the last five years. To mine eye, the standard of living there is 5x better than what we saw in the colonias this week. Food is scarce. Work is hard. Beds are luxury items.

There are some positive things happening. A new high school closer to the colonias brings hope, as does South Texas College, which now serves nearly 30,000 area students. But the colonias continue to grow.

How we got there

In recent years 28:1, the men’s group / bible study in which I participate, has gone on mission trips to Nicaragua. Last fall, as the political situation worsened there, our local contacts deemed it too dangerous for us to visit.

At about the same time, news broke of the increase in juvenile detention and family separation at the border. I suggested to the group that we see if there was something we could do down there, especially given that we had discussions, sometimes heated, about immigration policy. Regardless of politics we could agree on helping people in need — and it would give us an opportunity to check things out firsthand.

I asked a friend who grew up in McAllen and she referred me to a local financial advisor who had been going to the colonias for years with Park Cities Baptist Church (PCBC). In short order we met the leadership of the missions program and had an agreement for us to join them on their upcoming Men’s trip.

PCBC has been going to the colonias since 2002, working with local churches. Our trip would be fairly typical — a mix of construction work on churches and homes; some painting and odd jobs; with the centerpiece being the building and delivery of beds to families who heretofore slept on floors or many people to a bed.

The trip

We flew into McAllen on Wednesday afternoon and met with the PCBC team that evening. There were about 35 of us, split into five teams working on different projects. I wound up on the painting team with three other men, tasked with painting two houses in two days.

The first house, home to the six-member Martinez family was ramshackle but solid. A pile of onions sat beside a junked van. All water-using appliances were outside. Garbage was strewn across the property, something we’d see throughout our visits. It seems that when day-to-day survival is so difficult, cleanup is a luxury. Still, Diana, the matriarch of the house managed to serve us some solid homemade gorditas as an afternoon snack.

The second house, home to the eight-member Montoya family (plus a painfully adorable litter of puppies living underneath) was in worse shape. Parts were unpaintable because of rotten wood. Six year-old Jesús was eager to help us and joined our crew, making a mess but keeping our spirits up in the heat.

One dichotomy that I found interesting was that there were some on the teams who strongly supported the building of the border wall and avowed to be in line with the current administration’s immigration policies. The fact that they were so willing to serve — and work extremely hard — struck me as an even greater act of charity than had they been of a more liberal mindset going in.

“I don’t care what side you’re on, these people are being used as a political football,” said one of the volunteers. “But they are human beings and deserve our love and help.”

The high point of the trip was the delivery of the beds on the third day. We would bring the prefab materials, mattresses, pillows and linens to a home and ideally assemble the beds inside. In some cases, junk needed to be cleared, so we did the work outside. In all cases, we were still leaving fewer beds than people, because of the size of the homes. We would then pray a blessing over the families before moving on to the next.

A day later, I’m still tired. I still smile when thinking of the people we met and the Christ-like giving from the team of volunteers. But then my American and Texas pride kicks in. We can’t let the story of the colonias remain unknown and untold.

We’ll be going back, sooner than later. And while I’ll serve in whatever way I’m asked, I’m a lousy construction worker and a passable painter at best. We should keep applying band-aids while we can. But tonight I’m praying for solutions that will lift these families out of third-world poverty.

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Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.