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.


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