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May 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

Rich City vs Poor City

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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When Marie Delores Lopez wants to bathe one of her four children, or boil water for rice, she can't just turn on her faucet. Instead, the 34-year-old single mother waits until after dark, when no one will see her, then creeps a few doors down to her evangelical church. There she fills up two five-gallon jugs from the church's garden hose and lugs them home. She returns two, maybe three times, to ensure she has enough for the week. "We bathe in our yard, pouring pots of water over our heads," she says. "But not every day. We have to conserve."

Like many of her neighbors in South Alamo, TX, the poorest community in the U.S. (according to Census Bureau figures for populations over 1500), Lopez doesn't have access to running water because she doesn't own the land on which her mobile home is parked. The median income for a family of four is $13,000--$3000 below the poverty line. Located 10 miles from the Mexican border, its 4000 residents live in an "unincorporated district," meaning they don't qualify for public services such as garbage pickup or street cleaning. Nor are there any housing codes, resulting in some wildly unorthodox construction. An odd assortment of shacks, slapped together with plywood and corrugated tin, line dusty, treeless streets.

Given its proximity to the border, South Alamo is settled almost entirely by immigrants--some legal, others not--all intent on pursuing the proverbial dream. Virgin Mary statues grace the backyards; brand-new American flags drape over chain-link fences. Ten years ago, the area was little more than a patch of scraggly earth just north of the Rio Grande. But as the flow of immigrants increased, landowners began selling off small parcels of their pastures. Exploiting the fresh arrivals' naivete, they reeled in buyers by asking for eminently affordable down payments of $150--then charged interest rates of 300 percent.

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