So Help Us God

I was invited to come forward and so I walked through a high-vaulted room filled with attorneys. Three black robed judges looked down at me from their seats high above us all . The judge in charge, a stately looking woman, smiled and welcomed me. Another woman came up and made me promise to tell the truth.  The Whole Truth, at that.  I did so promise, and I took my seat.

I was in Washington DC this past week, having been asked to be a witness at the hearings being held before the Third District Court in the matter of the State of Texas’ efforts to redraw election districts in the states. Texas’ new maps were  supposed to take into account the extraordinary growth in Latino constituents, so that these communities would be  fairly represented in the affairs of Texas and the nation.

My region, the Rio Grande Valley, by any standard of fairness that I could appreciate, was being cheated out of this representation. The extraordinary growth in population, meant that we should have had additional districts drawn for us, creating more legislators to represent our interests. The new maps that the State had created offered us even poorer representation than we had had before.
I had been asked to speak about my region, to give the judges a sense of what it means, in practical terms, to be under represented.

The attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education fund asked me my name, asked me what I did for a living, and asked me about the colonias, those 2,000 shanty towns where more than 300,000 Texans make their homes.

Colonias are communities that are not guaranteed the usual amenities that Americans take for granted: piped in water and sewer, street lights, safe housing, paved streets.

I had lived in colonias for more than fourteen years

The attorney asked me, “What is it like not to have a paved street?”

And so I told the court that not having a paved street often meant a loss of critical services—no regular police patrols, no reliable mail service, no school buses. I told the court that sometimes it meant more than inconvenience, that it could also be a matter of life and death.

I told them about the Good Friday morning when a neighbor’s trailer had caught fire, and how, after a while, the propane gas tank had exploded and had destroyed the home and how the family then asked me, their priest, to anoint the body of their  eight year old son who had been trapped by the fire. I told the court that the anointing had been impossible, as there was no place on his little body that was not charred black.

The court was quiet, then.  I had a hard time speaking.

After a bit, I told the judges that a fire truck had in fact arrived at the home, but it was late. Maybe, with better roads, they would have been there in time to save this child’s life.

I did not need to mention that the roads were the way they were because the state of Texas had opted to invest in other things—domed football stadiums, extra lanes in Dallas to relieve the evening traffic, a shopping mall some place.

The one million residents of this border region, in the meantime, made do with third world housing conditions, under-funded schools, and next to no health care services.

They made do with the charred body of a little boy who died on his eighth birthday.

That was the truth, and the whole truth.

So help me God.