Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rural Minorities Ponder The American Dream From The Bottom Rung Of The Economic Ladder

About 22 miles northeast of Laredo, Texas, in an otherwise desolate and unincorporated stretch of Webb County, a roughed-out grid of unnamed dirt roads cuts through a maze of half-built cinderblock homes and dilapidated trailers.

Israel Reyna, a local attorney and advocate for the poor, has been driving me through this and similar communities, and we've stopped amid a haphazard cluster of residences a few hundred yards off the main highway. As I linger at the side of the road, a yellow school bus inches past, taking care not to savage its struts on a path rutted by poor drainage and cycles of fierce, mud-churning rain and baking prairie sun.

Reyna calls from the side of a tidy trailer where he is chatting with its owners, Elia De La O and her husband, Rogelio. The couple invites us inside.

Like most of the homes in this ostensibly planned subdivision, the De La Os' trailer, with its exposed beams and jerry-rigged wiring, is a work in progress. The family is blessed with electricity -- still a luxury for some impoverished communities along the Texas-Mexico border -- but they lack running water. For this residents queue up, sometimes for hours, at a county-run spigot a couple miles away, where they fill huge plastic drums of varying shapes and vintage with foul-smelling water that officials describe as potable. Elia and Rogelio, like most residents, won't drink it, preferring to visit a private, for-profit water vendor in Laredo, or nearby Rio Bravo, for jugs to slake their thirst.

The De La Os were not born here and they have not yet sought full citizenship, they say, in part because they've struggled with the language. But they've learned enough to find steady work as seasonal agricultural hands in states across the Midwest, and they have been permanent, legal and taxpaying residents of the United States for more than a dozen years. They take great care to say that they are proud of their home, and that they are grateful to have gained a foothold on the American dream. But Elia, 64, also shares that, growing up in Mexico, she once imagined that dream rather differently.

"I never thought there were people living like this, like we're living here, in the United States," she says. "We always thought, 'This is the United States -- it's the United States, it's the best.' We didn't think when we came here that we would live like kings, but we didn't imagine there would be places like this."

From the borderlands of Texas and the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the reservations of the Great Plains, there are many places like this, and they have remained as such, generation after generation -- all of them easy to find. While much has improved since this sort of grinding poverty was first identified as a national disgrace more than 40 years ago, advocates for the rural poor say the pace of change has been glacial. They also say that persistent, multigenerational poverty continues to plague millions of people living in rural areas, particularly blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans who languish in small towns and isolated outposts where dollars are scarce, development is difficult and discrimination is historically rampant.

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