SAN JUAN, RGV – At the conclusion of La Unión del Pueblo Entero’s latest citizenship graduation ceremony, Juanita Valdez-Cox, LUPE’s executive director, received good news from state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, who was calling from Austin.
Hinojosa phoned to say LUPE’s No. 1 issue before the Legislature, a bill to fast track the installation of street lights in colonias had been passed by the Senate and was on its way to the House.
Valdez-Cox said she wished she had received the “wonderful news” while the citizenship ceremony was in progress because she could have relayed the information to LUPE members and explained that this was an example of democracy in action and why it is important for colonia families to get involved in civic activity, such as contacting state legislators and voting in local elections.
“This is great news and I want to thank Senator Hinojosa and Representative Martinez for carrying this important legislation for us. The street lighting bill is our top priority this session. We have been fighting to shed light on our colonias for more than ten years,” Valdez-Cox told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“The new citizens that were here tonight heard why it is important to vote and to participate in community action. The street lighting legislation is an example of what can be achieved. It is important that those impacted by legislation are the ones to give their voice, to tell their stories, to give their testimony on what it has been like to live without street lights.”
Sen. Hinojosa’s street lights-for-the-colonias legislation is known as Senate Bill 1950. Rep. Martinez’s street lights-for-the-colonias legislation is known as House Bill 3002. It is Hinojosa’s bill that has made the most headway so far. It cleared the full Senate this week and has now been referred to the House Committee on County Affairs.
LUPE’s representative at the state Capitol on this legislation is John Henneberger. When SB 1950 was heard by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development, Henneberger testified. He held up a large photo taken by satellite of the Rio Grande Valley at night. The McAllen-Edinburg area was lit up and so was Brownsville and Harlingen. The largest colonias were outlined on the photo and they were in total darkness. Henneberger provided the senators with copies of this photo to make his point.
“We have had a number of children struck walking to or getting off school buses,” Henneberger testified. “Security and public safety are a big concern. The colonias are so dark it is really difficult for the sheriff’s department to patrol the areas. Children are often playing outside in the colonias at night and there have been some tragic accidents with children being struck by automobiles. There are literally no street lights in these areas.”
Henneberger added that street light legislation is “a very high priority” for the people who live in colonias in Hidalgo County. “In fact, it is the No. 1 priority above everything else,” he said.
Hinojosa testified that previous legislation – authored by state Rep. Veronica Gonzales – gave Hidalgo County the authority to assess and collect a fee from colonia residents for street lights. However, Hinojosa said, some people feel the legislation was “silent” on how the fees are to be assessed and collected. He said his bill clarifies this. The fees are to be assessed and collected by the Hidalgo County tax assessor and collector, Hinojosa said. He said his legislation allows Hidalgo County to place a lien on property if the street light fees are not paid. However, he said that lien could not lead to foreclosure.
Martha Sanchez, community organizing coordinator for LUPE, has been working on the street lighting legislation. Like Valdez-Cox, Sanchez said colonia residents have been campaigning for street lights for the past decade.
“Our county commissioners need to put the money in their budget to add the infrastructure for the street lights. Our colonia residents do not mind paying a fee for the lights but the county has to install the lights,” Sanchez said.
A pilot program involving two colonias in each of the four county precincts is going to be started, Sanchez said, to see how the assessing and collecting of street light fees will work in practice. It is probably going to cost a colonia resident $25 to $50 a year.
“Unfortunately, we are still struggling to get the pilot program off the ground. We get a little frustrated with the pace at which our county commissioners have been working on this issue but we still keep working. We are thrilled, though, that the legislation from Senator Hinojosa and Representative Martinez is making good progress,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez added that the street lights legislation came about through house meetings held in colonias by LUPE and Project ARISE. She said the success of the legislation is an example of how colonia residents can empower themselves, if they participate in the process. “We are thrilled with the news from Austin. We will have a big party when Governor Abbott signs the bill into law.”
Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this story, members of the RGV Equal Voice Network, which includes LUPE, are pictured campaigning for colonia street lights at an event in Weslaco in February, 2013.