Border Seen

Impoverished children in San Benito chronicle their lives through photographs

Little distinguished the apartment complex amid the dilapidated frame homes and trailer parks in San Benito, a town of about 25,000 near Brownsville. A toy pony on springs, windows covered with aluminum foil, an old man in a wheelchair scanning the bushes for aluminum cans. There was all that.

Particularly eye-catching one afternoon last fall were drying clothes stretched across lines on the complex’s long, second-story porch, near a posse of roaring kids.

As I approached to take a picture, a teenage boy joked about what my camera might bring at a pawnshop. A slightly inebriated young woman flaunted a glass tube, as if the pipe were a powerful conch on this island of hardship.

That day began a photography project lasting seven months. Called a “shoot back,” the idea was to enlist willing kids and adults to document life at the apartments using disposable cameras, and on a few days borrowed digital cameras. More than 700 images were shot, mostly by children. Their work is a visual trip into a world of innocence and innocence lost among people forced to accept their lack of means.

So close to the border, these families illustrate how stubbornly Texas neglects its poor. This is a region with perennial bumper crops of single, teenage mothers, poor access to health care, and meager high school graduation rates. In San Benito, where hometown Tex-Mex music legend Freddy Fender’s face is painted on the water tower, a third of the town lives under the poverty level. Per capita income is about $10,317, five bucks an hour. Roughly half its kids graduate from high school.

In her apartment, Maria de la Luz Galvan, 67, pointed to a sofa in her living room, set under a large hole in the ceiling. “We have rats; we have roaches,” she said. “I sleep right here, and I am afraid of opossums.” Despite the structural problems, a young mother feared complaining to the city because authorities might condemn the complex of a dozen one-bedroom apartments, and an adjoining tiny house where a family of 10 lived. At $250 a month, bills included, it was the best deal in town for her. In a backward way, the place was a public service. She lagged months behind in rent, but wasn’t kicked out.

Life’s struggles were usually coupled with daily celebrations for what seemed the smallest of things-the arrival of a used, miniature pool table, 25-cent hamburger night, a child acting like a gangsta spinning on his head. Bigger celebrations came with tax returns and the beginning of each month, when food stamps, or “Mexican Express” debit cards, received a cash injection.

For the first shoot-back assignment, 10 participants shot half a roll of film each on what they liked and disliked about the apartments. Only four cameras immediately came back. Among the first round were pictures of a San Benito police car, a poster of God, a teenager holding a knife and brass knuckles up to his throat, mailboxes, fish being cleaned, rancid water in the parking lot locals called the “Mexican swimming pool,” groceries, and various overflashed shots of too-far-away randomness. Perhaps most poignant was a photo taken at the bus station in nearby Harlingen. It showed three children leaving to join extended family in Michigan because their mother wasn’t able to look after them.

Excitement for the project eventually waned to a few loyalists, but a steady stream of cameras was handed out and returned throughout the fall, winter, and spring. In one photo, a young witch lay with a broom on Halloween. In others, kids wrestled, played basketball with a broken backboard, and sipped like grownups on an empty beer bottle. A girl posed with gangster hand signs; another, in front of a graffitied staircase. A hermit resident was in her room, imprisoned by a handicap and an addiction to spray paint. For Christmas, a family gathered at a home across the border in Matamoros.

Some kids burned an entire roll of film trying to document the same object-a window, refrigerator, punching bag-from different angles. Occasionally they captured action, like a boy sprinting across the lawn or a tattooed arm curling a beer, but the challenge was getting them to avoid posed pictures and convincing them that the photography game had a point other than diversion. Regardless of their approach and intentions, the backdrop of the photos had changed by spring.

The complex was sold, and the new owner began refurbishing. Snarled trees were cut down. Piled brush and garbage were hauled off. The swamped parking lot was filled with new gravel. Interiors were redone. The building was painted peach, getting rid of the graffiti and giving the old apartments a bright, new image.

The rent, however, went up. So much that all the residents were forced to move out to a new, affordable place, to start over.

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Jesse Bogan is a freelance journalist and former border reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

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Published at 12:00 am CST