DONNA, Texas — In the northern part of Donna, Maria Hernandez lives with her five children in a yellow mobile home. One of its shattered windows is boarded up; an air conditioner, propped up by a wooden pole, hangs from another. Among the items sitting on the ground outside are a broken toilet, a toddler’s car seat, and a mop.
The home’s condition is par for the course in the area. Hernandez lives in a colonia, one of the dozens of rundown neighborhoods typically found along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, where migrants often settle after they enter the U.S. There are more than 100 colonias in Donna alone.
Last Tuesday night, The Tablet joined Father Franciscus Asisi Eka Yuantoro and a group of parishioners from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Donna who went to the colonia where Hernandez lives to try to get families to sign up for a flu shot.
The effort lasted about three hours, and about a dozen families signed up. Along the way, The Tablet spoke with some of the families about what it’s like living in a colonia. The common sentiment expressed was that they value and enjoy where they live.
By the time the group reached Hernandez’s home, the sun had started to set. She was out back while three of her kids played on a trampoline out front. At that point her day was winding down; it had begun, as usual, at the crack of dawn, when she rises and leaves for work to go clean homes in the Donna area. She does that until about 2 p.m., then she returns to clean her own home and feed her children.
Of life in the colonia, Hernandez told The Tablet, speaking through an interpreter: “It’s really calm. I like it here.”
A short distance down the road, Jose Garcia was working to install electricity into his new mobile home. He and his partner, Maria Morales, recently started a business to help others in the colonias move into and set up their own mobile homes in the area.
He too enjoys life there and values its sense of community.
“All of the neighbors are really good and look out for each other. We all have different businesses and help and support each other,” Garcia said through an interpreter. “This place is tranquil. We can barbeque and have loud music and nobody complains.”
And as the group of volunteers from St. Joseph’s continued on their quest to find flu shot takers, that’s exactly what Garcia and Morales did. They fired up a grill as neighborhood children rode bikes and played in the street nearby. And before the volunteers got too far away, Morales asked them to tell Father Yuantoro that Garcia wants to be baptized so that the couple can be married in a Catholic church.
The first and last stop for Father Yuantoro and the parishioners was Nubia Santiago’s house. Like Hernandez, she leaves for work first thing in the morning to be home by 2 p.m. so she can take care of her kids, and feed a collection of animals that includes chickens, turkeys, geese, lambs, pigs, and dogs. She works at a Tortilleria, a business that makes corn tortillas.
Santiago said she enjoys living and raising her kids in the colonia, but wishes the county would install speed bumps on the local streets so cars wouldn’t drive through so fast.
She also wishes they were closer to town, and most importantly, closer to St. Joseph’s. Pre-COVID-19, Santiago was in charge of a rosary service at a nearby park where Father Yuantoro held Mass.
But making visits to Santiago and the other colonia residents is nothing new for Father Yuantoro and the parishioners. Every month they go to different colonias in Donna to provide food, water, clothing, and other essentials the people may need.
“[We go there] because we try to serve something to the people who are struggling and in need,” Father Yuantoro said. “At least we can support once a month to help them so they can survive and have something to be at peace with their situation.”
One of the parishioners, Haydee Lopez, said the reason she helps is rooted in her faith.
“Jesus teaches to practice the works of mercy towards others who are in need, and a lot of things we do,” Lopez said, “which is feeding the hungry and clothing the people who have no clothes and giving water to those who are thirsty. Those things are a part of what we’re doing and we’re practicing when we go out there.”
She also noted that the families want to be involved and participate in the church. And another reason she likes to spend time in the colonias is to get to know the people.
“They’re friendly. They’re humble people who are happy to live in a place where they feel comfortable, where they feel free, which is better than where a lot of them have come from,” Lopez said.
Before the group from St. Joseph’s left the colonia that day, Santiago gifted Father Yuantoro a bowl of fresh eggs, something he acknowledged she’s done before. Next Monday, they’ll be in the area again, the priest said, this time to distribute food provided by a local food bank.