NEAR DONNA — In Colonia Muniz, progress has come little by little.
When Maria Melchor first moved there 18 years ago, the hardscrabble neighborhood at a dead end of Trenton Road barely had navigable roads. Melchor, the president of a grassroots group that works to improve the colonia’s quality of life, joined her neighbors in fighting for basic needs, such as paved streets, clean water and safe neighborhoods, over the years.
And five years after legislation was passed granting it, Muniz leaders are celebrating another basic necessity: light.
Hidalgo County crews recently finished installing six streetlights in the colonia that was once pitch black, creating hazards for drivers returning home at night and students waking early to catch the school bus. Muniz is among about a dozen Hidalgo County colonias that will receive streetlights this year as commissioners work to identify funding for hundreds of other rural neighborhoods without lighting.
Melchor, whose five children can now play outside when it’s dark, said colonias deserve the streetlights that are taken for granted in cities.
“Colonias are forgotten when it has to do with infrastructure,” Melchor said at Muniz’s celebration of the lights, which was organized by grassroots group A Resource in Serving Equality, or ARISE. “It’s much better now. With lights, there’s security.”
Hidalgo County commissioners are installing the solar-powered streetlights — funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — in a few colonias within their precincts. In Precinct 3, where the county’s plans to put the solar lights in colonias first took root, Commissioner Joe Flores is installing about 25 lights in six different colonias, the most of any precinct.
Precinct 3 crews spent Wednesday installing the lights in strategic locations throughout Pueblo de Palmas, the sprawling, poverty-stricken colonia near Alton where the only lights previously visible at night protected its church and community center. Because the county has a limited number of the solar lights available, precinct crews installed the lights in strategic locations: at school bus stops, near its busiest intersections or where children often play.
Four streetlights went up inside a small park at Pueblo de Palmas that once emptied out when the sun went down. The park’s lights will allow a soccer coach who works with neighborhood youths to give them extra practice time on its field.
Precinct 3 Chief Administrator Mona Parras said the simple addition of streetlights makes a large difference in the safety, security and quality of life in Pueblo de Palmas and the other affected colonias.
“It was pitch dark before,” she said. “The most critical thing is making it safer for the children.”
State Rep. Veronica Gonzales passed legislation in 2005 authorizing border counties to install streetlights, one of the last needs for colonias that have gradually seen running water, sanitation and other improvements introduced. When commissioners complained there was no funding source included to pay for the lights’ usage, Gonzales passed another bill two years later to authorize counties to collect fees from residents to cover electricity costs.
But the cost to install the lights and poles still had to come from the county’s share of federal Community Development Block Grant funds or from elsewhere within the county’s budget, said Martha Sanchez, a community organizer for the immigrant advocacy group La Union del Pueblo Entero. And until the county received the federal grant to increase public safety in colonias, no funds had been directed toward the streetlights.
With about 1,000 Hidalgo County colonias still lacking streetlights, “this is the beginning,” said Sanchez, who wants commissioners to allocate a portion of each year’s road budget toward streetlights in colonias.
Commissioner Joseph Palacios, who installed the solar lights in Muniz and two other colonias this year, said he wants to set aside funding to tackle anywhere between five and 10 colonias a year in his precinct.
“We’ve decided that we were going to go through the methodical process of prioritizing all the colonias,” Palacios said, listing population and crime rates as criteria to rank them. “We would love to do them all at once, but there’s going to be a strategy we’ll follow for the installation of the lights.”
Like the infrastructure improvements that Melchor has seen in Muniz, light will come gradually to the county's colonias. But the streetlights that now dot the intersections in Muniz are a welcome sight for Maria Socarro Gonzales, a 72-year-old grandmother who moved to Muniz when streetlights fell far behind other basic necessities.
“We can’t wait until things are given to us,” she said, describing the effort undergone to reach this point. “We have to make sacrifices for them to change.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4424.
Follow Jared Janes on Twitter: @moncounty