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Land of its Own Between Two ‘Walls’

New America Media, News Feature, Video, Written by Elena Shore// Photos: Joseph Rodriguez// Video: Cliff Parker Posted: Feb 19, 2008

Traducción al español

Editor’s Note: The heated debate about securing the border does not account for the fact that for many people in places like South Texas the border is almost irrelevant. NAM editor Elena Shore monitors Spanish language media. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation, sponsor of the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign. This is the second part of a multimedia series from the Texas border.

MCALLEN, Texas – Martha Sanchez lives in the United States but she still doesn’t drink the water. “No one drinks the water here,” says Sanchez as we drive through the hot, dry flatlands where groves of orange trees have been cut down to make way for expanding shantytowns. Driving down 107, also known as “colonia alley,” we see neighborhoods of dilapidated trailers and homes made of cardboard, aluminum, plywood and cinderblock. We pass three dead dogs lying on the side of the road.Martha SanchezMartha Sanchez of La Unión del Pueblo Entero
stands at the Rio Grande River in Mission, Texas
that separates the United States from Mexico.

It has all of the markings of a third world country.

But we are in South Texas.

This is one of the poorest regions in the United States, with nearly 37 percent of the county population living below the poverty level, according to the 2006 U.S. Census.

“When I first moved here from Atlanta, you could smell the orange blossoms at night,” says Ann Cass, director of Proyecto Azteca, an offshoot of the United Farm Workers that aims to organize the colonias just as Cesar Chavez organized the farm workers, and a member of the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign. “All this was agriculture,” says Cass, waving her hand across the colonias. Now shantytowns line the streets and manufacturing plants line the highways.

About 400,000 Texans live in more than 2,294 colonias along the state's 1,248-mile border with Mexico, reports the Texas Secretary of State.

In Hidalgo County alone, there are nearly 1,000 colonias – neighborhoods that lie on unincorporated land outside the city limits. They have no access to city services like parks, buses, garbage men, sewage systems or, until recently, electricity. The land has been bought up by sometimes-unscrupulous private investors who sell plots of land to poor, mostly undocumented immigrant families, and according to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, charge interest rates as high as 21 percent.

Martha Sanchez came here when she was 16 as an undocumented immigrant as well, cleaning a house for $30 a week. Now the Rio Grande Valley is home. Sanchez, who is now a U.S. citizen and works as an organizer with La Union del Pueblo Entero, a national non-profit organization founded by Cesar E. Chavez, says the border region has its own unique culture.

Video: Martha Sanchez describes the colonias of Alton, Texas. [ Quicktime 6 or later ]

“South Texas has a small town feeling. People are more trustful and warm,” Sanchez says. “There is poverty but there is also a sense of community that is family oriented. That’s one of the things people lose when they go further north.”

The unique culture of the region is preserved by its geographical isolation. Although it is part of the United States, the area lies between two borders: the U.S.-Mexico border to the south – that is traversed so frequently that it has become almost irrelevant – and a Border Patrol checkpoint 70 miles to the north that is, in some ways, the real barrier, known by locals as the “second border.”

Shoppers, businessmen, students and workers cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley as if it did not exist. “Our economy depends on Mexico; people go back and forth to buy groceries everyday,” says Sanchez.

Border fenceA white picket fence along the Rio Grande
separates the United States from Mexico.

The Rio Grande Valley’s proximity to Mexico has made it the fastest-growing region in Texas, where new developments of large houses are cropping up as immigrants from the South and the North take advantage of the cheap property rates and the trade opportunities.

Mexican shoppers cross the border everyday to shop at La Plaza Mall, one of the highest-grossing malls in the nation. “All of the big money people come from Mexico,” says Hidalgo County Commissioner Marcus Barrera.

“The people in North Texas always felt like the (Rio Grande) valley was the redheaded stepchild of the state, achin’ to be part of Mexico,” says Barrera.

But this isolation has allowed the region to develop its own culture and its own economy.

“Over time, the proximity of the border has turned out to be serendipitous for us,” Barrera explains. “We are the cross-border trade gauntlet between the United States and Mexico. In the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll be as large as a Houston or a San Antonio.”

One undocumented immigrant who was deported to Mexico last year said it took him just two days to cross the border back into the United States. But he will not venture beyond the second border.

The Second BorderThe Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias apprehends more
undocumented immigrants than any other checkpoint in the country.

That’s the imaginary line that connects a string of Border Patrol checkpoints on interstates like Texas Highway 4, U.S. 77 and Highway 281 (soon to be part of the Pan American Route 69, the highway that will stretch from Mexico to Canada). These act as a second barrier, with multiple cameras to inspect the vehicles passing through on the main roads that lead north.

Oscar Saldaña, Supervisory Patrol Agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in Edinburg, says the Falfurrias station, located on Highway 281, is the Border Patrol checkpoint with the highest seizure rate in the country for both drugs and undocumented immigrants. The checkpoint, one of nine stations in the region, apprehended 20,000 undocumented immigrants in 2006, or nearly one fifth of the total number apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley.

That effectively keeps undocumented workers in this region between two barriers, where the two cultures mix seamlessly, nearly everyone is bilingual, and 80 percent of the population is Hispanic.

“There is a culture of two,” says Sanchez, “of the United States and Mexico. We don’t really separate it that much. The government has more regulations now, but how we feel about each other hasn’t changed.”

Photos © Joseph Rodriguez/New America Media

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