The Best of Both Worlds

Louis Dubose. The Texas Observer. January 15, 1988. p.13

Hereford-On the southwest edge of the city, clinging to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks that define its southern limit, is the Colonia San Jose, or the San Jose Labor Camp. The very choice of names used to describe the local farmworker housing camp, in a sense, assigns one to a political faction within this divided community. Originally built to house Italian prisoners of war, the sprawling collection of crumbling adobe barracks, mostly substandard single-family housing units, and abandoned cars and trucks, is home to 160 families. Between October and April, however, the population increases geometrically as farmworkers from south Texas migrate north. Lately, residents have begun to refer to San Jose as the Colonia San Jose. The Anglo community still refers to it as the labor camp.

A map, published in the Amarillo Globe-News, suggests that San Jose is a contiguous extension of the city. In the past, some have argued that the city annex the labor camp. But, according to Hereford Mayor Wes Fisher, annexation is not even a remote prospect. The labor camp, according to the Mayor, does not adjoin the city. Fisher said that substandard streets, many without curbs and gutters, and the substandard structures, would all have to be brought up to city code specifications before the city could annex the old labor camp. “It would require an unfair financial burden on the residents of that community,” Fisher said. He also said that the county has recently paved many of the streets in the labor camp and that a water system has been installed. “The people out there,” Fisher said, “have water now. They got their own water system through a big grant. And the city and county provide police and fire protection. In a way, they have the best of both worlds. And the citizens of Hereford don’t supply water to nonresidents.”

Others have not agreed with the mayor’s description of the camp. Sister Theresa Gleeson, a former Catholic missionary who testified before a Farmers’ Home Administration hearing on migrant housing in Hereford, described conditions at San Jose as worse than peasant housing in Ecuador (TO, 11/20/87). “I must honestly say that when I came to San Jose Labor Camp I was shocked that in our country this could happen,” Gleeson said at FHA hearings held in Amarillo in September of 1987.

Some insist that the city has refused to even consider annexing the camp because they fear any increase in the number of Hispanics eligible to participate in city elections. Pete La Fuente, of Concerned Citizens of Deaf Smith County, said the city consistently has refused to annex San Jose because “they don’t want to add another single Hispanic to the population.” La Fuente also said that inclusion in the city might not really help residents of the San Jose community. “They can probably do a lot more if they develop their own leadership,” he said.

According to La Fuente, some of the opponents of a federally funded housing project within the city limits also fear a growing Mexican American voting bloc. Supporters of a $1.8 million housing project recently were assured that the project would be approved. But according to La Fuente, they now face a shortage of FHA funding that results from a funding formula that ties the number of units to fixed number of dollars. “Some of that political opposition, La Fuente said, “was a fear of an increased Hispanic voting power in the city.” If the housing project is not approved, the colonia will continue to house most of the migrant population in Hereford, as well as a growing number of Hispanics who have settled permanently on the edge of the city.

Residents of the San Jose camp complain of poor sanitary conditions. And sheet flooding from adjacent agricultural fields often carries pesticides and herbicides that collect in a large pond on the east end of the community. Rural Legal Aid lawyers, who often work with residents of the camp, still depend on four-wheel drive vehicles to get into some sections where roads remain unpaved. “Before the roads were paved,” TRLA attorney Steve McIntyre said, “whenever it rained, this place would shut down.”

McIntyre said that some progress has been made in the San Jose Colonia and cited a recent agreement with aerial sprayers and the Texas Department of  Agriculture that will require advance notice when growers spray fields adjacent to the camp. Sprayers have also agreed to refrain from spraying when the wind would carry the chemical mist through the camp. “In the past,” McIntyre said as we drove through the colonia, “people here never knew when they were going to spray. This won’t stop the spraying, but at least people will be able to get out with their children while the spraying is going on.”

According to McIntyre, the agreement, reached with the assistance of the Department of Agriculture, requires aerial sprayers to post notice in English and Spanish that include the name of the company and the time and date of the spraying. McIntyre filed an initial complaint on behalf of the San Jose residents in June. At the time, TRLA attorneys also informed local sprayers of the complaint and of their intent to sue if some agreement could not be reached. “Nothing,” McIntyre said, “ever comes easy out here.”