Along the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of thousands of people live without running water, sewage service or electricity in unincorporated subdivisions known as “colonias.” Texas has the largest number of colonias—an estimated 400,000 Texans live in more than 2,200 of them. The average yearly income of colonia residents is less than $10,000, and unemployment is more than eight times the state average.
Texas’ political leaders have done little in recent years to aid colonias. The “about” page of the Texas secretary of state’s “Colonias Ombudsman Program” is blank save for a quote from Gov. Rick Perry.
One person who’s helped improve conditions in colonias is Israel Reyna, though you’ll never hear him take credit for it.
Reyna runs the Laredo office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free representation to impoverished residents of South Texas. Reyna and his staff work to ensure that workers receive workers compensation and overtime pay, that day laborers aren’t arrested and harassed by police merely for looking for work, and that water and sewage providers offer service to the colonias that dot the border region.
Reyna joined the nonprofit straight out of law school in 1980. He’s one of the rare advocates who knows how to needle political leaders into action—then step back and let them take the credit.
“He is not someone that has ever been in the limelight or sought the limelight,” says Jose “Chito” Vela, who works in the office of State Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat. Before joining Ortiz’s staff, Vela served as the city manager of El Cenizo, a colonia south of Laredo that was incorporated under Reyna’s guidance. Since El Cenizo incorporated, the community has levied taxes and now provides residents with some basic services.
Under Reyna, the legal aid group also serves as what staff attorney Fabiola Flores calls a “baby lawyer factory.” Reyna recruits law-student interns and entry-level attorneys from across the nation and puts them to work on pro bono cases. He enlists them in the cause, as he puts it, “to get things right. To move mountains … for little people.”
He’s reluctant to take the credit. “I am the messenger, not the messiah,” Reyna says. “The heroes are the clients—the people who stick their necks out and expose themselves to the risk of litigation.”
Says Vela, “If you’re promoting democracy, you can’t come in from above and lift up these people—they have to lift themselves. At some point, you’re going to go away, and the people are still going to be there. So they have to be able to organize and lead and fight for themselves.”