On our way into Brownsville, we swung by Proyecto Juan Diego, located in the colonia Cameron Park. Cameron Park has around 8,000 people and is about 2 square miles, surrounded by the city of Brownsville. Because of its location and unincorporated status, Cameron Park is site that attracts drug activity, with the sheriff's officers rarely in the vicinity. Sister Phylis, the director of Proyecto Juan Diego, shares with us some other statistics of Cameron Park's population: 60% live below the poverty line. 30% have diabetes. 10-20% is undocumented with 30-40% of those folks currently in the process of getting papers. 50% are 18 years old or younger. Cameron Park ranks 39th on the list of the poorest places in the Unites States, with a per capita income of $4,103.
Cameron Park has long been a very poor colonia, often the first home of immigrants to the United States. Advocacy work for Cameron Park began 16 years ago in the local parish with the leadership of Father Mike Seifert. He and others worked to advance this community, getting the residents basic services like paved roads and street lights. As Mike Sefiert prepared to leave the Cameron Park parish, Sister Phylis Peters, a Daughter of Charity, stepped in and continued the work, starting the organization Proyecto Juan Diego, now in its 8th year.
Proyecto Juan Diego works with approximately 5,000 people each year, primarily in four program areas: education, diabetes, community action and family. The education program offers after school tutoring and classes in early literacy, parenting, GED, immigration, and citizenship. As one in three residents of Cameron Park have diabetes, the diabetes program offers health education, support groups and classes focused on cooking, gardening, nutrition and aerobics. The community action program encourages cleanups within the neighborhood, education in recycling and getting the residents to register and vote.
The impressive family program is more involved--they enroll 20 families each year in a 3 year program with the goal of getting them to "grow" and become community leaders. The first year is spent learning values, the second year focuses on relationships and in the third year the focus is on community. During the entire program, there is an education of systems knowledge and participation in local politics. One of the struggles of the program, which echoed the words of Ann Cass at Proyecto Aztecta in San Juan, is keeping people invested in their community, instead of just moving on after they are empowered.
Proyecto Juan Diego is run by 2 sisters and 10 staff members, several of whom are from Cameron Park. When budget cuts shook the organization recently, instead of laying off staff, the employees' hours were cut so they work only 20-30 hours per week. With this knowledge, we really appreciate Sister Phylis taking time out to meet with us and share with us their great work.
After getting treated to lunch and that awesome visit to Proyecto Juan Diego, we rode into downtown Brownsville and over to the home of our latest and last hosts, Gene and Ruth. Gene and Ruth are writers, poets, activists, cyclists, etc. and they are just plain awesome. Ruth is a nurse and Gene tutors college students. They moved to Brownsville in the late 80's and a few years ago they decided they didn't want to have a lawn anymore, making their whole yard into a garden. Now they are the only backyard garden to sell at the local farmer's market. Gene and Ruth welcomed us into a casita in the rear of their home for our week in Brownsville and we often joined them in their house for lunch, dinner or just to chat. We loved staying with them because we basically want to be them--energetic, enthusiastic, and sassy.
|Generous Gene and Ruth|
|The keynote speaker: Professor Justic Akers Chacon|
Back in Brownsville, one of our first stops was a visit to Hope Park. In its last few miles before reaching the sea, the Rio Grande snakes widely to the north and south, and at this downtown park in Brownsville, you look east and see Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Once a beautiful park, residents of Brownsville protested the construction of the border wall passing through Hope Park, and ICE appeased them, saying they would place the wall along the riverbank which is about 50 feet lower than the park. This way, immigration would get its fence and residents would get their unscathed view. However, residents continued to protest other sections of the fence, and they believe, when all was said and done, immigration placed the fence right through Hope Park to spite their efforts. Aptly, I don't think people call it Hope Park anymore...
|Looking at Matamoros through the fence of Hope Park|
Adjacent to the park is Galeria 409 and Mark Clark warmly welcomed us in. Mark is an artist recently settled in Brownsville after retiring from the Smithsonian museums in D.C. His current exhibit was from female artists of the Valley, but he generously showed us his apartment upstairs and his art there, much of which was border themed.
|an unfinished painting by Mark Clark of the U.S.-Mexico border|
|La Mojada / The Wet Woman / The Wetback|
|La reconquista (Eric's title) by Mark Clark|
Chatting with Mark was awesome and we loved his art and he was kind enough to let us park our bikes in his downtown gallery when we crossed over to Matamoros the following day.
We had only one destination in Matamoros so our trip into Tamaulipas was very short. Following the instructions of the manager of the shelter, we caught a bus downtown that headed to the outskirts of the city. There we found the Casa del Migrante. There were a few guests in the house, about 6 men and 3 women, a few deported from the U.S., others from Central America hoping to cross in the Valley area. We chatted for a couple hours with them, sharing a simple meal of soup and tortillas. The woman in charge of the house during our visit told us that Matamoros receives over 100 deportees per day, but that most try and leave the city as soon as possible because, due to the Zetas, it has the reputation of being the most dangerous on the border. The other thing preventing deportees from using the Casa del Migrante? In January 2010, members of the Zetas entered the house and kidnapped 15 migrants. We can't find this event reported and we didn't ask much about this incident, not wanting to linger on such a scary moment, knowing it was best to quickly move on to a more benign subject. The number of migrant arriving has plummeted, but in the face of danger, they continue to open their doors to those who have no other option.
Eric and I decided to go on this bike trip to explore the border and see the issues of the area. We also figured we could scope out projects that we might want to be involved in and cities that we may want to reside in in the future. With Tijuana and Tucson close behind (and not including El Paso), I think Brownsville is the most livable city on the border. After growing up in Minnesota, I appreciated the presence of water the resacas provided, how green the city is, and that you could have a garden without the guilt of watering in the desert. The people were humble and inspiring and welcomed us back to help them to set up a Catholic Worker (A ver!). It is a true bordertown, located right across the river from our beloved Mexico, and it is only minutes from the beach! I am so glad we got to end our trip with such a wonderful town that we keep us dreaming of return.
Next up, our ride to the Gulf.