I first visited colonias around Corpus Christi and the West Side of San Antonio, Texas, in May of 2016. I was there as part of the domestic emergency response pilot program through CWS. Near Banquete, Texas, I met with colonia residents at the monthly food distribution that has been organized for years by Lionel and Juanita Lopez, local organizers and co-founders of the South Texas Colonia Initiative.
Colonias are unincorporated communities that began cropping up in the lands near the border between the United States and Mexico in the 1950s, when developers foisted off cheap plots of land with no running water, sewer systems, electricity hookups, fire hydrants or paved roads to low-income families. The average annual income of colonia residents is roughly $10,000.
Not much has changed since in the last 60 years. The same lack of infrastructure exists today, and poverty is its main cause. Meanwhile, the younger generation has largely moved away, leaving behind many elderly residents who are proud of the piece of land they call home. The combination of poverty, an aging population and dietary choices have led to numerous debilitating medical conditions among residents.
Flooding is too common in these colonias. When flooding occurs, it often leads to water sitting outside of low lying structures for weeks or even months. The lack of financial resources as well as the age of the homeowner often prevent necessary repairs, which can leave the resident with tarps on the roof, no working stairs or wheelchair ramps and mold and mildew growing rampant in the home.
My trip to Texas also took me to the West Side of San Antonio, which covers about 35 square miles and is home to more than 50,000 residents. Residents include those born in the area, those who came to the United States several years ago and others who have recently arrived.
In both Banquete and the West Side of San Antonio, many residents have received little information about personal preparedness. Banquete colonias have experienced flooding repeatedly in the last few years, and a tornado caused damage four years ago. As I spoke to community members, I heard over and over again that “no one cares.” I heard mention of discrimination and being forgotten. It became quickly apparent that these communities would greatly benefit from CWS training and advocacy and that our team could provide both.
In coordination with the Lopezes and The House of Neighborly Service, we planned a short training in each community to share information on disaster preparedness and to better support community members as they advocated for themselves around disaster relief. We chose to hold the meetings at the Senior Center in one of the colonias in Banquete and at the House of Neighborly Service in San Antonio. Both venues provide a rare opportunity to congregate, meet friends and neighbors, sit down for a free meal, receive information or news on important issues affecting the community. Our team’s presentation and handouts were available in both English and Spanish.
As I prepared for my first training session – this time in Banquete – I had the same worries that anyone giving a presentation has. Despite our best publicity efforts, will anyone show up? Will they be interested? When I pulled into the Senior Center parking lot, though, I saw a couple comfortably sitting in their lawn chairs outside, waiting for the door to open. This helped lift my spirits! One by one more and more people filled the room. Some were elderly, some middle-aged and even younger families with children. We had a wonderful session with 24 participants. The session confirmed my suspicions that there was little infrastructure in place in the community to aid in disaster response. There were missing tornado sirens, the local school was not equipped to serve as a shelter and many residents did not have access to phone or radio to know if they needed to evacuate.
The second training took place the following day in San Antonio. This is the only community center available for the 50,000 residents. Because the center serves lunch every day, we held the session right after lunch to prevent residents from having to make the trip to the center twice in a day. This time, the session was conducted primarily in Spanish with the help of a translator. Nevertheless, it was a great session with more than 35 participants. Like in Banquete, the audience was friendly and eager to listen. When we surveyed participants after the training, it was clear that they had gained an improved understanding of key disaster risks in the area. I was also able to give out some CWS Hygiene Kits and Emergency Cleanup Buckets as samples of the kinds of goods that CWS provides to communities following a disaster.
I was truly moved by my experience in both of these forgotten communities. The needs here are great, but this was only the first step in how CWS and the communities will partner to help local families build resilience to natural disasters in the future. It will take strong collaboration with residents to move forward. But I am hopeful. I am looking forward to helping advocate with the “forgotten people” (as the Lopezes say) of the colonias in Corpus Christi and the West Side of San Antonio.
Susanne Gilmore is an Emergency Response Specialist with CWS.