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Views offered on housing inequality in area

County conducting periodic assessment of community patterns

BY NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE

STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN — More than a dozen public officials sat patiently this week as colonia residents and advocates spoke out about housing inequality in the Rio Grande Valley, its history and the current challenges.

La Union del Pueblo Entero hosted a “ platica,” or public forum, Thursday to help residents and public officials in Hidalgo County better understand the enduring legacy of residential segregation.

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“It’s rare to hear the word discrimination in the Rio Grande Valley — especially because a majority of the population is Hispanic,” said Josue Ramirez, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service in the Rio Grande Valley.

And yet, it exists as evidenced in the housing opportunities and options for low-income residents, Ramirez said.

As part of a federal mandate from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the county’s housing authorities banded together with the Hidalgo County Urban Program to conduct an assessment that identifies patterns of segregation and neighborhoods with little access to opportunity.

In order to receive funds from the federal government, this assessment must be carried out every five years. Thursday’s forum offered the community a chance to review the assessment and weigh in.

“We have done a lot, but it’s not enough,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. “We have to keep fighting, and that is what these organizations do — fight for those who can’t.”

Canales was referring to nonprofits like LUPE and ARISE, whose members filled the seats and lined the walls of the open-air building in San Juan. Several of them spoke about the challenges they constantly face living in colonias, such as a lack of public lighting and the need for drainage and sewer infrastructure.

“If we don’t tell them, they won’t know,” one woman said about public officials and their plight.

One by one, they took the mic and detailed their experiences. One woman said her home had been flooded for three weeks after Hurricane Dolly hit in 2008. No amount of sunshine could soak up the floodwater that had mixed with the contents of the septic tanks in the area. Instead, the water had to be pumped out.

Another woman said she walks her children to the bus stop with a flashlight in hand because of the lack of public lighting. When suspicious activity is reported to police, even officers find it hard to locate suspects in the dark.

“It makes our community unsafe,” she said.

Another woman said she’s seen children waiting for the school bus fall into the standing water, stand up and board the bus.

“It broke my heart and it wasn’t even my child” she said.

Carlos Cantu, a professor at South Texas College, gave a detailed account of systematic oppression beginning with the rise of the area in the mid-19th century to the Pharr riots in 1971.

He spoke at length about the policies throughout history that subjugated the Hispanic population, such as the poll tax.

Many laborers couldn’t afford the tax, so their bosses, or patrones, would offer to pay it. In return, they would dictate the candidate and intimidate those who did not fall in line.

Children were segregated in schools and adults were systematically kept from positions of power.

“All of this was legal,” Ramirez said. “These policies were created in a time when it was acceptable to discriminate.”

And the effects of those policies endure today, Cantu said.

“The struggles that these Chicanos were fighting for are not over,” he said.

nlopez@themonitor.com

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