Growing Up in a Colonia: A Personal Journey Toward Understanding

CP_1Cameron Park is one of 196 colonias in the county of Cameron, in Brownsville, in the most southern tip of Texas. The county shares its border with México, which is one of the descriptors that qualifies it as a “colonia,” according to the State Department’s website.

On my first visit, Cameron Park seemed familiar, not because it reminded me of a specific place but because of its characteristics, mostly as an impoverished or distressed community. I recalled my first teaching assignment as a bilingual elementary teacher in 1971 in Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, a Texas school district known to be among the poorest in the country. I had many questions then that I have for the Cameron Park community: What’s it like to grow up in a colonia? What do the children see and how does it filter into their lives? What lessons do they learn and do they think about a future when they will leave the colonia?

Cameron Park’s general character is not unlike what I had experienced, where the children and their families’ faced numerous daily challenges, such as street flooding due to poor drainage facilities, unlighted, poorly maintained streets, and generally, a intense level of poverty as reflected in the poorly constructed and run-down homes. The Edgewood community was known as the “barrio.” As a teacher, poorly paid in a less than adequate working environment, I could have sought to become employed elsewhere, but I too felt compelled to give back to the community, especially because of its unique needs. After four years of teaching, I chose to pursue advanced degrees, and even so, I decided to develop my professional career as an educator, working with communities just like Cameron Park.

My academic inquiries and research on how best to educate children and their families whose educational needs are often ignored or misunderstood have served as the basis for just about everything I’ve done professionally. In one of the service learning projects, I brought together university students from various state and out-of-state institutions with community members in small rural Maya-speaking town outside of Merida in the Mexican state of Yucatán. In an informal yet communal sense, we formed a “center of learning,” using language and culture as an exchange mechanism. We learned from one another; our group, ranging from 17 to a dozen within the three-consecutive summer timeframes, taught English to the interested community members (upon their request); and, in turn, they taught us Maya, and aspects of cultural and social practices that we could participate, at least as participant/observers. The more we learned from one another, the more we became “integrated” as a community.

My background as well as my professional work is central to the theme of this narrative. Without the specific lens I wouldn’t be able to understand the deep layers of context and the outcome of my narrative would be very different.

The two-part narrative begins with my interview with the Tutorial Center director, then, I focus on my perception of the community, including descriptions or observations, and a photo gallery.

A Visit to the Center – The Heart and Soul of the Community

             I made an arrangement to visit the neighborhood Tutorial Center one afternoon in the fall of 2014, and noticed that the building was one of several in the Catholic Church complex. My first conversation with Angela*, the Tutorial Center’s director, was at first quite formal, but we soon realized our common interests in working with community-based learning projects, and our formality quickly turned to the urgency of “knowing,” and building “la confianza.” I asked only a few questions, and Angela responded with an impressive comprehensive narrative, as if on cue, filling in the information, even with only a few basic prompts. The exchange of dialogue with familiar and unfamiliar responses, underscored the need for what researchers call the “overlapping data collection and analysis” (Huberman and Miles, 2002, p. 15), specific to the methodology used in qualitative research. The information shared by Angela was for the most part “known”, however, the filter by which I perceived the data was laden with auto-ethnographic knowledge and experiences. Angela related a brief personal history, from the time she begin elementary school, graduated from high school, married and became a wife and mother. Her roots are firmly planted in Cameron Park. Building “la confianza” is essentially an important part of the process in learning about the community. There is a method, style, and strategy for collecting and analyzing the data. But the basis for working together is a matter of triangulating pieces of “knowing”, and filtered interpretations make connections, along with the multi-dimensional aspects of “knowing” derived from the lives and work of key players, such as Angela.

In my work as a researcher and teacher, I often begin my investigation(s) not with questions of what I don’t know, rather I find the common point of entry into what I and the community members do know. Thus, our understandings overlap as we create the context, narrative, and inquiry of frames that enrich our quest for what we’re seeking. As I reflect upon my conversation with Angela at the Tutorial Center I focus on the following information and questions:

  • The Tutorial Center’s main function is to assist children with their school assignments, although it also serves as an information hub to help parents navigate through the social and academic rules of schools and how they can best help their children succeed. The children need specific assistance since most of the time they are behind in their schoolwork and their lack of English is oftentimes a barrier to academic achievement. The volunteers who serve as their tutors, work within boundaries that keep them focused on the task at hand, translating the directions to English and helping them complete their work. But the overall needs of the students, academic or otherwise, are not addressed and thus, while homework assignments may be complete, the problem of academic underachievement is unresolved. There is substantial evidence that the Tutorial Center is a vital part of the community; the schools recognize their work and inform parents of their tutorial services and the community members actively participate in the Center’s activities according to their needs and interests. However, certain questions loom incessantly in my attempt to understand, so I look closer at the Center’s work with the community.


For example, what role does the Center play in helping children not only succeed in their school assignments but in achieving overall school success? How are the students and their parents’ attitudes toward school shaped by their participation? Are the schools doing their part in helping the children, or are they satisfied with providing them with information on services they can access outside of school, e.g., referring them to the Center?


  • The fact that the children I observed at the Tutorial Center struggled with their assignments due to their lack of sufficient academic English points directly to the language-in-education policy in their schools (nearby schools are Gallegos and Burns Elementary Schools). As I examine language use in the community of Cameron Park, their perceptions are clearly noted in their narratives on how schools opt for using predominantly English throughout the curriculum regardless of their students’ native language, mostly Spanish, and in spite of their abilities to choose to implement an appropriate bilingual education program. The children’s (and their parent’s) circumstance in regard to language (and culture) is an example of how students whose native language is not English consistently struggle to succeed in school despite their motivational push (centrifugal factors), while the schools enforce the use of English to the extent that children’s native language resources are depleted and their motivation to succeed wanes (centripetal factors). The “language” conflict influences the way the Tutorial Center and indeed, the community, respond to the needs of children.

How does Cameron Park maintain its efforts and abilities to work within a restrictive language environment, helping children and their families succeed in the English language world of school while instilling cohesiveness among families and the community, culturally and linguistically?

 Use of Contextual Factors as Lens of Understanding

             Angela’s description of her views for understanding the community from her role as both resident and Tutorial Center director enables us to create an expanded cultural landscape. Her involvement in the Catholic Church’s traditional practices is an example of how she combines the personal and the social with the needs of the community. Upon her invitation, I was able to participate first-hand in the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe held at the church, next to the Tutorial center. The event began with a group procession led by a decorative float with a few children sitting among bright colored Christmas lights. A group of about 50 community members walked behind a simply decorated float toward the church entrance, chanting hymnal phrases. The block-long procession included parents and their children, adults of all ages, and a couple of disabled adults in wheelchairs. Once inside the church, the narrator behind a podium welcomed everyone, and proceeded to the presentation of an enactment of the story behind the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is well known among the parishioners as a symbol of faith and adoration. The children acted with dignity and respect as required by the roles of Juan Diego, the youngster who saw the miraculous apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the little girl about 10 years-old that played the Virgin, and the church dignitaries that at first doubted Juan Diego’s story. The story ends when Juan Diego displays the proof of the Virgin’s apparition, the cloth encrusted with the Virgin’s image and the bunch of red roses, heretofore unknown to produce in the dry, desert region where it took place. It’s a story that reminds the faithful that by believing their faith will deliver them from their problems, illnesses, indeed, even from their hopelessness.

Angela’s role was integral in helping children actively participate in the church’s event. As Director, she also guides the Tutorial Center in becoming an extension of the various community events that perform social and religious functions. By learning about the Center’s roles, by participating in the religious event, walking with the procession, taking photos and making observations, I became closer to understanding the “heart and soul” of the community, and wanting to learn more about their beliefs, perceptions, dreams, and visions for their community. Even so, I feel as though I have more questions today than when I arrived; each one challenging my understanding of the best ways to work with children and their families.

The Community’s Entrepreneurial Economic Activities

A six-square block survey of Cameron Park’s entrepreneurial activities produces a photo album of working residents in an array of businesses that bear the markings of a people that are self-sustaining, resourceful, and creative. Along the busy four-lane street that serves as one of the city’s thoroughfare and Cameron Park’s west boundary, several businesses stand out among others located inside the community. A sprawling restaurant with a large parking lot stands in one of the corners. Then, a row of small businesses closely follow each other: an optical eye wear store, a kick boxing fitness center, a beauty shop (a total of four shops), an adult day care center, a restaurant with cyclone fencing tightly fitted in the front area, a car garage and shop, a tire store, a laundry, a tortilla factory/taquería, a learning center/day care and thrift store, a panadería (bakery), an insurance company, a meat market, a boat repair shop, and a taquería with an air/water pump station. Even though the businesses seem to maintain economic vitality, these are uniquely different from those across the major street, which are of a higher capital status and economic level. On the “other side,” (outside of the Cameron Park boundary) these seem to have an upgraded capital as evident in their buildings and façade. Perhaps, there is also a sense of separateness by business owners on the “other side” as they compete with each other’s businesses. For example, the day care center on the “other side” boasts in large lettering that their business is “LICENCED.” There is no such labeling in Cameron Park’s day care center.

The residential streets of Cameron Park are named “calles” (streets in Spanish), with the “Ave”. listed in front of the name, such as “Ave. Carlos”, and “Avenida Eduardo.” Almost every house is encased within a four-foot or higher cyclone fence, perhaps, to keep out possible delinquents, but in full view of passersby are the owners’ materials, furniture, appliances, tools, etc. Indeed, every third or fourth house in some way or another displays their work or business, or the residents may prefer to leave or remain them outdoors. Fences are conveniently used to hang clothes in a garage sale fashion. Every block has a house or two with a variety of clothing and goods for sale, the kinds that one buys at a thrift store. A drive-inn style paletería (frozen treats) has a poster menu of items that the driver can select from and then, move through the store to purchase their selection. Now, residents don’t have to wait for the “paletería” truck with its “Hello!” song to make its way through their street to buy their favorite paleta. Other drive through businesses carry different kinds of items, such as beer, wine, snacks, and even mixed drinks, such as the “mix sencillo” and the “bomba.” Certain houses are most likely “repair shops” as evident in the number of small engine and appliances, such as lawn mowers, refrigerators, bicycles, etc.

The businesses seem tailor made for the community. The supply/demand dynamic is not consequential, but the manner by which they’re organized is not well structured or planned. There are businesses that may not have the full support of the community members. For example, there are three or four large fireworks stores in the area, perhaps, more than what the community actually needs. The drive-inn stores within the residential area may not bode well with members that perceive the alcohol consumption among the youth as extremely high and dangerous. A couple of local restaurants or taquerías may “play politics” by displaying the large campaign posters of certain politicians alongside their business names, obscuring the intentions of both the owners and the politicians. The noise levels may be highly elevated due to the businesses such as car repair garages and those with 18-wheelers and other large vehicles.

Cameron Park community members seem actively engaged in the work ethic that symbolizes the “American Dream.” If it seems within reach, the residents will strive toward its obtainment. Even if their entrepreneurial efforts pay off, there is evidence that many residents remain in the community for a very long time. Many homes are in the process of remodeling or repair, and new construction sites signaling the building of new homes are seen throughout the community. Not every entrepreneurial activity is a sound investment, however, the energy or spirit that propels the hard-working members is vibrant, and self-determination is evident to succeed past the obstacles and barriers that they encounter every day.


Whereas the challenges of Cameron Park seem obvious just as they are in a similar community environment, the solutions are not easily forthcoming without knowledge of the history of the colonias.

In the 1950’s, the State established the colonias, so called because their counties were within a 50-150 mile proximity to México, for the sole purpose of creating a living space for people whose annual income was below the poverty line, lower than the State average of $16,700 (see the State Department’s website). The land earmarked for this initiative was deemed “agriculturally worthless,” and/or in a flood plain, in an unincorporated subdivision. The plots of land were divided and the only way to purchase a plot was with a contract of deed. This was a financial arrangement whereby the buyer could not resell the property until it was completely paid off. The buyer was left to his or her own resources to build the home, and in order to hook up the water the building must meet the standard inspection codes. Thus, families lived in subnormal conditions for extended periods because of financial retrains, which left them trapped in a situation that was extremely difficult to overcome. The community photo gallery that follows reveals the consequences of this plan that can only be described as an outrageous example of greed on the part of the developers, and the result of the irresponsible and negligible decisions made by county and State administrators and officials.

Through their own volition and hard work, the residents of the colonias have been able to procure the basic utility services as well as paved streets and streetlights, however, this is an on-going struggle for Cameron Park and many other colonias that still lack these services. The most alarming of the problems is the lack of wastewater infrastructure and potable water which without proper installments and oversights can result in the discharge of waste in flowing water that can end up in the Gulf of México, and the risk of tainted drinking water on the health of the families.

It appears that Cameron Park has developed into a community that understands the importance of working together, of building community relationships, and in working with the youth that they recognize are at once fragile and vulnerable, yet strong and motivated enough to create a better future for themselves, their families, and their community.

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For Further Reading

Shirley, D. (2002). Valley interfaith: Organizing for power in South Texas. Austin:             University of Texas Press.

Ward. P. (1999). Colonias and public policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by stealth.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Shirley’s book chronicles the work of Valley Interfaith community organization in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas who for fifteen years addressed issues related to improving housing conditions health care, unemployment, and school reform. Shirley’s research encompasses related local and regional problems that have heretofore lacked sufficient investigation, particularly in the parallel development of both community organization and school reform. Using the case study approach he chose three school communities to build quite thorough and comprehensive perspectives of Valley Interfaith’s collaboration with various community and school leaders. Each case includes an insider’s dealings with the various institutions – the local schools, State educational rules and policies, the political landscape both local or regional and state, as well as the cultural and economic characteristics of the selected communities. Shirley’s scholarship is broad and comprehensive and his study produced a wealth of information about the Valley Interfaith organization’s work and the communities and schools that they impacted on a short and long-term basis.

While Shirley’s insightful study provides the reader with a detailed and panoramic view of the various dynamic relationships between and among community members and school personnel, his research methodology is focused on the Valley Interfaith’s goals, strategies, and accomplishments.

Ward’s book, Colonias and public policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by stealth, serves as a reference volume for information seekers of colonias on both sides of the US/Mexico border. The book is a product of an elaborate research project conducted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Readers will acquire an in-depth perspective of a myriad of issues and factors associated with social, health, and economic well-being of the residents. Readers should know that his numbers have changed since the publication 17 years ago: there are now about 400,000 residents not 300,000, a total of 2,294 colonias, not 1,500 colonias; along the 1,248 miles not 868 miles on the northern side of the US/Mexico border in Texas.


*Angela is not her real name but used here as a pseudonym for  privacy protection purposes.


Huberman, A.M., & Miles, M.B. (2002). The qualitative researcher’s companion.             Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

State Secretary of State Department, (


My heartfelt thanks go to Drs. Kathy Bussert-Webb and María Díaz from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and María Elena de la O.


Please see the article, Student Fights for Youth and Families in the Rio Grande Valley

Here is an excerpt from the article written by Maria Rigou:

”One of the residents, Nidia Mireles, is the first in her family to attend college. Nidia is pursuing a mathematics teaching degree from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and is an active member of the Brownsville Border Youth of Proyecto Juan Diego.”

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