There are more than 1,200 shanty towns along the border in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. These neighborhoods are known as colonias. They typically feature what happens when poor peoples’ dreams run smack up against the implacable, tight-fisted politics of the second richest state in the union. In the case of colonias, 300,000 people ended up living in patched-together housing in a series of “friendly to business” developments that are short on amenities (street lighting and storm drainage, to mention a few) and long on profit margin.

 Jocelin and her husband Omar live in one of these communities. The couple has four children and eight years of happiness, although their joy is tinged by the sweat and weariness of too many years of working as field hands for nearby produce plantations.

Most of those eight years the family has spent piled up on top of each other in a small “travel trailer”—the sort of thing people used to pull behind a small truck. The trailer had a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen area, a tinier bathroom, a small-sized sitting area with just enough room for a table, and a little couch that lined the back wall of the trailer.

You get the picture—a cramped living space painfully carved out of the Great State of Texas by a family that spends its days cleaning the cucumbers and tomatoes that sooner or later end up decorating my Subway sandwich.

The family adapted to the space. Jocelin and Omar slept in the bedroom area, and two of the kids on the couch, and the other two arranged themselves along the hallway. Some times there was hot water and sometimes not. But, as Jocelin notes, there was always laughter.

Most recently, the family became the beneficiaries of an experimental “emergency recovery” housing program. A local organization of good people won a contract to experiment with possibilities for emergency housing after a natural disaster (in our case, a hurricane). The idea was to figure out how quickly a home could be put up after a calamity, and, to test to see if this new home would work better than the infamous trailers of post-Katrina fame.

A couple of weeks ago Jocelin and Omar moved into one of the homes that was part of the pilot project. Suddenly, they had more living space than they had ever known before in their life. While the house came with a refrigerator, an oven, and a microwave (all greatly appreciated), there was no furniture in the living room area and only a small dresser and a bed on one of the bedrooms. There were no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floors. When told that the place looked nice; she responded with confusion. “I think that it is a better place for my family, but I think that we went from being poor to being miserable. We feel sad here, and I don’t know why.”

But then a neighbor came by with a potted plant, which Jocelin carefully placed beside her other flowers and herbs. She walked the neighbor to the street, and thanked her. Jocelin looked up the street toward the school bus which was stopping and starting, leaving off children in front of their homes. She crossed her arms and waited. Soon her children would be home and the house would be filled, if not with furniture, then with the sound of her family.


Riding a Bike

Alongside a border, seventy children came together this past Saturday morning to learn about riding a bicycle. The bikes that were there to be loaned out had been lined up in rows. They were, like the children, of all sizes, and, like the children, seemed to glow in the south Texas January sun.

 Bright green vests and brand new helmets were handed out in a flurry, and then, there were no more.  The children were lined up in pairs, facing the Belden Trail, a wide, thoughtfully-created bike path that is the kind of thing that makes one proud of their city.
Seventy heads of all sizes were leaning over their handlebars, and seventy pairs of eyes were squinting ahead into the sun.  And then they were off in a flurry of pedals, near-misses and shared focus.
Some of the children crashed at the beginning of the ride, and some crashed upon their return, but there were no serious injuries, just laughter and the battle against gravity and the discipline of the Ones In Charge. The adults, for all of their responsibility, were kind with the children. “Stay to the right, now!”  “You can do it! I will stay with you!”
In the midst of all of the activity, it was these helpers who got my attention. They were unfailingly cheerful, offering constant encouragement. For these four hours on this Saturday morning, these volunteers were simply there for those kids lucky enough to have found someone to lend them a bicycle, a helmet and some attention.
And then the event was over. The bikes and helmets were handed back in, and everyone left on their separate ways, although already looking forward to the next biking event.
What struck me about the morning was the simple, ordinary goodness of it all. While putting the event together was much more work than one might imagine (so much work!), it was, and should be, the sort of thing that we should all expect to be happening in all of our neighborhoods, and all of the time. It is a simple, good thing that adults take a morning off to share with children the glorious freedom of riding a bike.  That this experience was created especially for children whose families can’t afford a bike lifted the event from the category of the good into the realm of beautiful.
I spent the last part of that Saturday morning riding beside Jocelyn, a quiet seven year old stuck at the back of the pact, and who spent a lot of energy wrestling with her bike. But then, as we turned down the stretch that took us to the finish of our ride, she suddenly leaned out over her handlebars and began peddling like mad. “I am leaving you behind!” she shouted back at me, laughing. I laughed as well, thinking, “Another child has learned to fly.”