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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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In a few short years, South Alamo was born--though until as recently as six years ago, the roads were still dirt. Without a sewer system or electricity, residents hooked up their lighting fixtures to car batteries and generators.

Most people barely get by. Perla Vasquez, 36, and her four children have been living on $390 a month in government aid since her husband, an undocumented worker, was caught trying to return to the U.S. from Mexico a year ago and sent to jail. Although she occasionally cleans houses for teachers in neighboring towns, Vasquez doesn't own a car, limiting her ability to reach customers. In the months following her husband's arrest, Vasquez fell behind on home payments; it now belongs to the government. Small towns have their advantages, however: Members of Vasquez's church built her a two bedroom replacement house by hand.

Despite its bottom-rung status, South Alamo has a hopeful energy. People who cross the border, after all, do so to make their lives better, and many succeed. "The people here have a vision for their lives," says Juanita Valdez-Cox, the director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, a local advocacy organization. "They worry they won't make it, yet they persist in the face of tremendous hardship." Glimpses of a brighter future can be found in the new businesses opening (McDonald's and Little Caesar's pizza), as well as in aerobics classes for women held at the Dolores Huerta Community Center.

Entrepreneurship reigns. Hand-painted signs clutter the street corners: "We do small-engine repair," they read. "We sell sweets." Leti Sanchez, 37, and her husband worked for a furniture maker when they came to the U.S. in 1998. After three years, they decided to open their own store. "We didn't want to be someone's employees forever," she says. The first year, they barely survived. "We worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day."

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