Dark Valley: Life in the Shadows

Pockets of poverty persist across America's Southwest

Dark Valley: Life in the Shadows

Pockets of poverty persist across America's Southwest

This is part one of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read the introduction »

This is part one of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read the introduction »

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The women often arrive carrying children in their arms, their burdens etched in sun-beaten skin. The men come with blistered hands and feet from hard labor or hard journeys. They arrive day and night, a stream of the weary, to this barbed wire compound of low slung buildings just minutes from the Mexican border.

They come for hot meals and soft beds—human comfort for those sent into the wind by economic or emotional calamity.

People come to this shelter—known locally as the Ozanam Center and throughout Latin America as Casa Romero—from across the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout this forsaken city. It is both a way station and a destination for thousands of homeless immigrants and deeply impoverished local residents—an oasis in a city perennially ranked as America’s poorest.

“There’s a lot of need, a lot of hunger, a lot of undocumented along the border from here to El Paso,” shelter director Victor Maldonado said. “Sometimes the needs get so heavy. You just take a breath and try to do your best and pray and hope that wherever they are going, whatever they are looking for comes through.”

Maldonado stood under the searing Texas sun on a recent afternoon, watching a van pull into the compound carrying more than a half-dozen homeless men and women.

“We take in anybody and everybody regardless of your documentation or your status,” Maldonado said. “That’s no excuse to close our doors to anyone. They are here and that’s not going to change. It’s the human thing to do to help them.”

Shuttered buildings and broken dreams litter many of the cities that dot the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s often hard for people in these communities to find good jobs or access to a quality education.

Hunger in the Valley

Texas is no anomaly. All across the Southwest, from the long, arid stretches of southern California to the badlands of Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, persistent pockets of poverty have been exacerbated by a messy tangle of bad economic and immigration policy. Generations of mostly Hispanic families, U.S. citizens and the undocumented alike, have faced insurmountable challenges in achieving the kind of American prosperity that drew so many of them to this country in the first place.

Of the 353 counties in the United States deemed by the federal government to be persistently poor—meaning the poverty rate has been above 20% for three consecutive decades—85% are in rural areas including Hispanic communities like Brownsville, set in the belly of the Rio Grande Valley at the southernmost point of Texas.

“Sadly, there’s a segment of our population that will never be lifted out of poverty. They’re stuck forever.”

With a poverty rate that has hovered around 36% in recent years, Brownsville regularly tops the list of America’s poorest cities. Poverty in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is just as dismal. Between 2009 and 2013, according to the most recent census, about 35% of county residents fell beneath the poverty line. The numbers of poor children in the county are even more numbing, with nearly 47% living in poverty. This region of south Texas also struggles with deep health and educational disparities.

Fifty years after the War on Poverty, this wealthy nation still has plenty of places like Brownsville—regions coping with widespread joblessness, persistent income inequality and staggering hunger and food insecurity.

“Statewide, one in four of our children are hungry. In the valley that number is one in two,” said Terri Drefke, CEO of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley. “A lot of folks need extra assistance, and whether they are getting it from the food bank or from SNAP [food stamps] and just trying to make it on their own, it’s all supplemental and none of it is enough to make things whole.”

Drefke said the food bank distributed nearly 30 million pounds of food to the valley’s needy last year, from its headquarters in Pharr, some 50 miles from Brownsville, and through a network of food pantries that serve more isolated areas.

Pastor Bill Reagan runs Loaves and Fishes, a 42-bed shelter and soup kitchen in Harlingen, about 30 minutes north of Brownsville. Reagan said the steady flow of hungry and homeless families that comes through his doors can be daunting.

“Sadly, there’s a segment of our population that will never be lifted out of poverty. They’re stuck forever,” Reagan said. “I’m a pretty optimistic person. But sometimes I feel like that story of the boy on the beach where there are thousands of stranded sea stars.”

As the story goes, Reagan said, the boy is picking up the stars one by one and throwing them back into the ocean, when another boy approaches and tells the first boy he’s wasting his time and that he can’t save them all. But, the hopeful boy responds, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Loaves and Fishes serves about 375 meals a day and hands out 100 bags of food a month from its pantry, including staples like rice and beans, pasta and canned goods. Meals are served to anyone who wants a plate, but monthly rations come with restrictions, including proof of citizenship, family size and social security numbers. Because the shelter is partially funded with government grants, some of its services are restricted to U.S. citizens.

The valley suffers from a combination of too few jobs that pay a living wage and too few educated, high skilled workers to fill the smattering of good jobs that do exist in the region. Despite a recent precipitous drop in border crossings, there remains a strong perception locally that competition between American citizens and a steady influx of undocumented workers who are willing to work harder for much less.

“The lower middle class is being squeezed out of opportunities unless they are willing to take low wage jobs which many of them simply can’t afford to do because they have to feed their families,” Reagan said.

Photographer Matt Black's journey through the Southwest's most impoverished communities.
Power lines in Kettleman City, Kern County, Calif. Population is 1,439 and 23.1% live below the poverty level.
Coconino County, Ariz. Population is 134,421 and 23.0% live below the poverty level.
Dennehotso, Apache County, N.M. Population is 746 and 43.2% live below the poverty level.
Shiprock, San Juan County, N.M. Population is 8,295 and 40.7% live below the poverty level.
Mine tailings in Coconino County, Ariz. Population is 134,421 and 23.0% live below the poverty level.
The border fence in Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas. Population is 175,023 and 35.3% live below the poverty level.
  • Photographer Matt Black's journey through the Southwest's most impoverished communities.
  • Power lines in Kettleman City, Kern County, Calif. Population is 1,439 and 23.1% live below the poverty level.
  • Coconino County, Ariz. Population is 134,421 and 23.0% live below the poverty level.
  • Dennehotso, Apache County, N.M. Population is 746 and 43.2% live below the poverty level.
  • Shiprock, San Juan County, N.M. Population is 8,295 and 40.7% live below the poverty level.
  • Mine tailings in Coconino County, Ariz. Population is 134,421 and 23.0% live below the poverty level.
  • The border fence in Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas. Population is 175,023 and 35.3% live below the poverty level.

Ghost Town

Brownsville and other border cities have a symbiotic relationship with Mexico. Not only are most residents of Mexican descent, but the economies on either side of the border share mutual interests. When the Mexican economy suffers it pushes more of its citizens into the U.S. to look for work. But it also means fewer Mexican customers are able to cross legally, with extra money to spend with U.S. businesses. When traffic along the border is cinched, for political or other reasons, so too is the lifeblood that flows across it.

“We have money when they let Mexicans in and out,” said Obe Ordinales, 78, sitting in the little storefront shop where he and his wife make a pittance selling religious literature and second-hand clothing. The storefront in downtown Brownsville, with its collection of Spanish-language Jesús ephemera, candles and tambourines is just a block from the border.

Ordinales said guards at the border crossing have gotten especially strict about who they let in and are routinely scrutinizing who is going over and with what.

“Now, you can’t get across the border with two 10 pound bags of chicken and a loaf of bread for sandwich making. When I was a boy you could come and go. The bridge was open, they just wanted a little money for their coffee and they’d let you go by,” Ordinales said. “Now they’re checking to see how many pieces of bread you have.”

The old man gestured up and down the block, waving his hand like an aged but agile maestro. He pointed to abandoned buildings that once bustled with business, to shops that have changed hands so many times that the faded names from prior incarnations stubbornly haunt the latest signage.

Many cash-strapped business owners in Brownsville have opted to hand over their property to the city rather than pay back taxes. That means the city owns a number of hulking relics in its historic yet haggard downtown. Many storefronts sit empty and dark, while others glow with colorful quinceanera dresses, plastic flowers and shoes in vibrant hues of yellow, red and blue.

Ordinales said the good old days of easy passage across the U.S.-Mexico border have given way to far more than just ramped up scrutiny at the checkpoint. The border, he said, has grown far more dangerous -- with the desperate and the desperados all scraping for whatever they can, and by whatever means.

“Drive over there with a nice truck? Take a picture, because it’ll be the last time you ever see it,” Ordinales said. “The people who come here are making $50 a week with a wife and two kids. They’re desperate.”

Add to that the uber-violent drug cartels that control the black market and the underlings and wannabes caught in their orbit, and the desperation is downright frightening, Ordinales said.

Linda Campos, 65, who sells antiques and baubles at Manny’s Collectibles out of a stall at the Border Flea Market, said as a kid she grew up riding her bicycle with friends along the border. They’d take family trips into Mexico to go to restaurants and visit relatives. All that has changed, she said. Too many bullets are flying these days.

While the violence has stayed largely on the Mexican side of the border, Campos said the Texas side is experiencing trauma of its own. The lack of business, undercut by the weak economy and undocumented workers, are starving out resident businesses, including hers and her husband’s, Campos said.

For 45 years Campos’s husband has worked as a broker trading in shrimp hauls dredged from the Gulf of Mexico. But higher prices mean fewer people are buying domestic shrimp, while shrimpers from Mexico are illegally chartering into American water and collecting loads of the product, often out of season and before the shrimp can mature.

The nature of the shrimp business has also eroded. In years past boat captains, which are required to be government licensed U.S. citizens, would round up workers as needed, offering decent pay for long hot days on the water. But as those captains have aged out and few younger folks have embraced what has become a dying trade, a once steady infusion of income into local households has dried up.

Where there had been hundreds of boats operating in the Gulf, many of those are now sitting in disrepair, rotting away as their owners slowly die off.

Vast stretches of the Southwest are economically and geographically isolated, both of which are factors that often contribute to crime, vice and despair.

“I don’t think it can get any worse than it is now,” said Campos, whose father emigrated legally from Spain, through Mexico to the U.S.

Campos said that as an American citizen she’s conflicted as to the plight and complications brought on by life along a soft border.

“I was born here and my family came legally. And we’re all paying a price for those that come illegally,” she said. But, she added, “The only true Americans are the Indians. The rest of us are all immigrants.”

Downtown Brownsville boasts century-old Southwestern architecture, much of which has eroded due to decades of neglect and disregard. Old men gather in groups to chew the fat on sultry summer afternoons, as younger ones run errands in local shops. There are beggars and street-sleepers and families with small children huddled in taco places and chicken joints in the shadows of towering, once-noble hotels and city buildings.

Predators abound, circling the poor and vulnerable here like sharks—from employers who pay little for back breaking work in the fields and factories, to lenders who offer same day loans at crippling rates.

From the corner of 9th and Washington Street, just up from Ordinales’ shop, no less than 10 quick loan shops beckon.

“We don’t have big corporations. No good jobs.” Ordinales said. “We just have dependence on the government. And people looking to take advantage of us.”

Faces in Forgotten America

  • Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas.
  • Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas.
  • Cotulla, La Salle County, Texas.
  • Gallup, McKinley County N.M.
  • Coconino County, Ariz.
  • Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County, Calif.
  • Cedar City, Iron County, Utah.
  • Kern County, Calif.
  • Barstow, San Bernardino County, Calif.

Perilous Lives, Deadly Journey

Warning: This section of photography contains graphic imagery
While so many locals struggle with unemployment and poverty, those who do find work often do so out on ranches and farmland. Many pull meager livelihoods from the ground, harvesting citrus, corn and cotton. Others are drawn here by the prospect of such jobs, which don’t pay much but don’t require much more than a strong back. Others leave Texas to follow the harvests cycles of other crops in northern states.

The hope of better days in the valley draws a countless horde from south of the border. But even as Brownsville expands with big box stores, fast-food restaurants and a burgeoning health-care industry, jobs in those places remain out of reach for much of the population here.

That explains the draw of the soil and a need for workers to toil in it, or invisibly in warehouses or factories. Those workers, a blend of documented and undocumented mostly Hispanic migrant laborers, are packing our vegetables, picking our fruit and carving up animals to give us burgers and bacon. This labor force is vital to agribusiness in the U.S., yet these workers are among the most economically disadvantaged and vulnerable in the country.

The undocumented are barred from taking advantage of most federal safety net programs. They are a relatively young group, men mostly, who often leave their families behind in their home countries to chase a better life. What they find instead is hard living and low pay.

About half of all undocumented workers in the U.S. are uninsured. Many cannot attend public colleges or universities, while others are victims of wage suppression and discrimination. While they labor in plain sight they live mostly in the shadows, in fear of being snared by authorities and deported, their families torn apart.

For a huge number of undocumented, Brownsville is the entry point into the U.S. before they fan out to wherever the wind or the harvest cycle takes them.

McAllen, Hidalgo County, Texas. A family from Honduras detained at the border. Population is 129,877 and 26.7% live below the poverty level.

A couple hours north of Brownsville in Brooks County, along the dusty back roads that snake all the way up from the border, a team of border patrol agents scour the scene. Immigrants crossing illegally have expanded their routes, and this area near the city of McAllen has become a prime cut through to avoid one of the major border patrol checkpoints. It’s tremendously inhospitable terrain, hellishly hot during the day and frigid at night. Many immigrants get to this point with little food or water, often smuggled in by so-called “coyotes” just this far before they are dropped off and left to fend for themselves.

The bodies of travelers have begun to pile up here, and local authorities don’t have the manpower or resources to do much about it. On a recent afternoon, officers corralled a dozen or so people including a teenager caught hopping a fence, a mother and her three children from Honduras, and two other young men snagged behind a Burger King.

The experience being tracked and captured by border agents can be wrenching. The Honduran family, including a pre-teen son and daughter and a younger boy, was visibly shaken. The girl, doubled over near the agent’s patrol car along the side of meandering dirt road, began to vomit as officers questioned her mother.

On some days, officers said, you can look down and see hundreds crossing. If caught, the migrants are loaded up and taken to a nearby detention center. For the officers responsible for patrolling this area, many of whom are Hispanic, the work can be draining.

“You can’t blame these folks for coming in to better themselves. Not every person is a bad person. If you regulate it better then you can decipher the bad guys from the good,” said Urbino “Benny” Martinez, Chief Deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff's Department.

Law enforcement efforts in south Texas, Martinez said, are like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose. The financial and emotional toll can be daunting, he added, and pointed to the dozens of bodies of illegal immigrants found in Brooks County so far this year.

Many immigrants who cross into America illegally don’t survive the journey. Instead of finding better wages or a better life, they find death just beyond the border.

By late June, 28 bodies had been recovered by county officials. Each was photographed and added to what the sheriff's department refers to as The Book of Human Remains, a tome of bodies in various states of decomposition.

For years, with no clue of who they were or where they came from, the remains of the undocumented would be buried by county officials in mass paupers’ graves. But recently the county has teamed up with forensic pathologists and local universities to collect and catalogue DNA from the dead — providing a genetic link that relatives can use to identify and claim the remains of their loved ones.

The program has grown since its modest inception in 2009. Today, Martinez said his department is fielding calls from all over the country and from countries south of the border inquiring about a missing loved one.

Martinez praised the team of pathologists who work like puzzle masters to piece together what the dead left behind for the living.

“They understand that these persons, these victims are human beings and there is a lot of dignity involved in exhuming the bodies and putting them together,” he said.

The program has been effective but costly. About $700,000 has been spent on it so far, using a blend of various grants and federal funding. The county assumes the bulk of the remaining costs of recovering, transporting and processing the bodies.

“If the person is brought in alive the federal government will pick it up and take care of them, do the processing and pay to deport them,” Martinez explained. “If the person is dead it becomes a local issue. They are spending lots of money on deportation, and holding them and maintaining them and all of the other shelter they provide. But when they are dead it’s like there’s no value. There’s no value on the dead.”

A look inside poverty-stricken towns and cities in the Southwest.
El Paso, Paso County, Texas. Population is 649,121 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County, Calif. Population is 99,553 and 20.7% live below the poverty level.
Eagle Pass, Maverick County, Texas. Population is 26,248 and 27.8% live below the poverty level.
El Paso, El Paso County, Texas. Population is 649,121 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
Laredo, Webb County, Texas. Population is 236,091 and 30.8% live below the poverty level.
San Juan County, N.M. San Juan County's population is 130,044 and 22.4% live below the poverty level.
Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas. Population is 175,023 and 35.3% live below the poverty level.
  • A look inside poverty-stricken towns and cities in the Southwest.
  • El Paso, Paso County, Texas. Population is 649,121 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
  • Eagle Pass, Maverick County, Texas. Population is 26,248 and 27.8% live below the poverty level.
  • El Paso, El Paso County, Texas. Population is 649,121 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
  • Laredo, Webb County, Texas. Population is 236,091 and 30.8% live below the poverty level.
  • Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas. Population is 175,023 and 35.3% live below the poverty level.

Heartbreak and Hopelessness

Jose Gonzalez grew up in Brownsville and attended Homer Hanna High School, home of the Fighting Eagles and “absolutely” the best school in the Rio Grande Valley, Gonzalez said. He was a high school football player whose 300-plus pound frame served him well.

“In Brownsville it’s like, good and bad depending how you want to live it,” said Gonzalez, 39, on building a life in the hardscrabble city.

Gonzalez’s glory days are far behind him, and it all happened in a snap. About six years ago, he had a commercial driver’s license in his wallet and a good job driving trucks, raking in upward of $60,000 a year -- a boatload in a city where the annual per capita income is less than $14,000. He was a devoted husband and doting father to a beautiful, cherubic daughter.

“I wasn’t living it up but I had a good life,” Gonzalez said. “Then all of a sudden, boom.”

One day he noticed something strange happening to his body. His limbs began to swell and grew weaker as his squat, round body began to balloon even further. He stopped urinating as frequently, which was odd given he has diabetes and was used to many nightly trips to the restroom.

By the time he saw a doctor his kidneys had basically shut down. Gonzalez was diagnosed with renal disease. Day by day his condition worsened. Within the first year of his diagnosis Gonzalez lost his CDL license, lost his job, his wife and contact with his then 9-year-old daughter.

“Eventually everything just went downhill,” Gonzalez said.

Among the many maladies that countless poor people suffer are bad health and hunger, conditions that exacerbate already dim prospects of steady work and general stability.

He didn’t have any money coming in. He was estranged from his family and the independence he’d enjoyed most of his adult life was swapped with an uncomfortable dependence on help from relatives. Medical bills mounted quickly.

Because of his condition he’s unable to work. His gait is slow, he’s constantly fatigued and his medications make him nauseous. His mind copes with dueling bouts of depression and anxiety.

“I’m still learning how to live with my illness,” he said. “I’m still learning to live without any real income.”

He subsists on $808 a month in disability payments, barely enough to feed himself, pay for various miscellaneous expenses like clothing and toiletries or the cell phone he bought for his now 12-year-old daughter to keep in touch with her. Without federal subsidies there’s also no way that he could afford his medication — he takes 14 daily pills and one shot each day for a laundry list of conditions including hypertension, depression, anxiety and diabetes.

Just like that, in a matter of a few years, Gonzalez joined the many millions of Americans knocked into poverty because of poor health. An estimated 10.6 million have been pushed below the poverty line because they can’t pay their medical expenses.

Things got even worse for Gonzalez recently, after a sister he’d been staying with kicked him out of the house after a disagreement. With nowhere else to turn, Gonzalez arrived at the gates of the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center.

The first thing many people do at the center is kneel and pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue guards a thicket of aloe vera plants that have grown in the garden for as long as anyone associated with the shelter can remember.

Data reflects U.S. Census's 2013 model-based Small Area Income & Poverty Estimates (SAIPE)

The visitors slice into the plants to release the gel trapped beneath their tough outer skin, a natural healing aide used for centuries to tend to wounds. Many of those in the shelter come battered from sometimes arduous journeys from as far away as Honduras and El Salvador.

“The more they’re cut, the more they grow,” Maldonado said of the plants. “There’s something deeply symbolic about that.”

Many Ozanam visitors work the fields by day and sleep at the shelter at night.

Even as grants for services have been cut year by year and the will and sentiment of locals to help the poor or undocumented has ebbed, Maldonado says they are learning to do more with less.

“There isn’t any light for me. To be honest I don’t see any difference in the days. My illness isn’t getting any better. I don’t have money. I’m depressed. No light at all.”

To save money they’ll leverage the skills of their visitors to keep up the property or do maintenance or repairs. They’ll turn off the air conditioning during the day and switch it back on at night so folks can sleep comfortably.

And for those working hard to land on their feet, the shelter offers housing assistance, including a down payment and three months’ rent.

“We try to be good stewards of the money and we try to assist individuals who really want better for themselves,” Maldondado said. “We see this every day and you can sympathize and relate to what they need because when I was growing up I had gone through situations like that. I have to put myself in their shoes.”

When the shelter runs out of meat for meals, cooks will go the garden and snatch up cactus to make Nopales Con Huevos, a dish made of scrambled eggs and cactus stems.

On most nights every bed in the place is filled.

Maldonado grew up in a poor family of nine, with parents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. His dad worked as many as four jobs while his mother tended to the brood.

Each of the Maldonado siblings went on to earn a college degree, he said -- a testament to the power of determination.

Maldonado and two of his brothers make up something of an odd triangle in the immigration continuum. While he runs the shelter, one of his brothers is an immigration attorney and the other works in the office of Homeland Security.

On a recent evening as the sun fell over the Rio Grande Valley, Maldonado stood in the courtyard of Ozanam overlooking the Mother Mary and her aloe vera plants, and the young and old men and women who’d traveled hard roads to get there.

“There are some folks that leave the valley and you won’t see them for another 10 years,” he said. “We have some people that do appreciate our help and they come in before they leave and say thank you for being there at a time that I needed you. That makes my day. That’s why we do this.”

For Gonzalez, even with a temporary roof over his head, his tunnel is as dark as ever.

“There isn’t any light for me. To be honest I don’t see any difference in the days. My illness isn’t getting any better. I don’t have money. I’m depressed. No light at all,” Gonzalez said.

His daughter, Gonzalez said, is the only thing keeping him alive.

She’s 4’11 with a pretty smile, he said, “chunky like her mother” with the voice of an angel.

“I joke with her. I say, one day you’ll become a famous singer and support me,” Gonzalez said, a smile pressing across his swollen face.

As Gonzalez spoke from that office at Ozanam, he had 9 days left on his 30-day stay.

Photos by Matt Black/Magnum for MSNBC