Rural Texas, about as close to the Mexican border as one can get.
To the east
you’re only a 30-minute drive from the Gulf of Mexico. To the south, you can practically see eagles offset against the red, white, and green flags of Mexico as they flutter atop the border patrol stations. They are posted merely 10 minutes away from the city center of San Benito.
The city is pocketed in this unique transitional space, situated between a fusion of two nations, the marriage of two nationalities. In so many ways it belongs to both, and in so many other ways, it is unclaimed by either. It’s a span of acreage that has lived in neglect. Because as the people who live here will tell you, San Benito is the face of the term, “colonia.”
Colonia: an unincorporated settlement. This is where Kenia Aguillera lives.
Kenia is a Community Coordinator in rural areas
for Immigrant Families and promotes social services with Ventanilla de Salud (the Mexican Consulate).
She has a matter-of-fact tone when she speaks, an alertness and wisdom that betray her youth. But she delivers all of her words in a way that exudes ease and comfort. There isn’t even a slight edge of bitterness to her tone even while she relays some of the harshest realities of conditions within her community. She is calm. She is poised. She even has a pink-lipsticked smile throughout much of her conversation. It all echoes familiar for so many stories like hers: the undeniable timbre of resilience and hope.
“San Benito is a very humble community. Most of the people who live here are migrants, so they don’t have legal status. But – and this may be a cultural thing – we are very united. When something bad happens, we respond. Again, this may be cultural, but we help each other even when we don’t know one another.”
“We struggle with a lot of problems in San Benito: electricity, the internet is down all the time, lack of public lighting.” She recounts a video that circulated Facebook from San Benito where people were filling up glasses of yellow water from their kitchen sink and trying to decide whether or not it was safe to drink. These are just a few examples of the degrading infrastructure the people face every day.
Community is something Kenia lives for, and one of the reasons she calls San Benito home. Not so long ago, she moved from Mexico to the United States with her grandparents when she started high school. At the time she didn’t speak a single word of English and was subsequently bullied by other students. She just remembers crying during most of her classes. This is an experience many Mexican immigrants can relate to: relocating to what is, in theory, a geographically close neighbor, and yet upon crossing, they’ve arrived in another world entirely.
I know how they feel. I can understand, even when sometimes they can’t explain exactly what is happening in their families.
It’s an age-old story, government oversight and a lack of critical resources. This recurring narrative is what made Kenia empathetic to the thousands who are fighting through this journey, because she was there once too. Post-graduation she started as a public health worker, coordinating efforts to get people in touch with agencies and financial groups that could help them. Given the vast amount of need, this evolved into community gatherings and then regularly organized meetings. They invited nonprofits and community groups to the table who were able to educate citizens on how to reach out to the commissioners and legislators for support. One group petitioned for electric lighting. After enough time and voices were heard, electric lights were installed. This was proof she needed that change could be made. Something could be done.
It’s these sorts of initiatives, this coming together that spurs progress. But not just because of the tangible accomplishments. Because of the camaraderie - the power in trust to keep a group united and keep them doing more. The only way to know one another and to know the reality of what’s happening is to be a part of it.
If someone from the promotora comes to your house, then you go to these meetings and they know you and they trust you, they tell you everything. It’s very easy for us to create confidence with them. This trust
Since beginning her on-the-ground life work, Kenia has seen hints of progress. “Mostly it’s about making people realize there are resources out there,” she says. And this work is affecting the outlook of others. In particular, a woman from another colonia met with Kenia because of the changes she saw her making. After meeting with Kenia, that woman does similar work for her community.
Kenia realized that this knowledge-is-power replication needed to be shared on a greater scale:
“I was invited to have a radio program.
There were people who knew what I do for the communities and they offered me the days and times I wanted to do something with this great resource (the radio show).
I started 3 years ago; I used to go every week on Thursdays for one hour with a program called “Servicio a la Comunidad” (Community Services). Every week I had an invitee talk about their services (agencies, organizations, etc…)."
"I had to stop with the program when the pandemic started, but I just went back this year in May, twice a month because I have gotten busier. Now, I invite doctors to talk about health topics and coaches to talk about personal growth, etc. I decided to present these topics taking in consideration those who listen to the program and live in other countries so that way it’s not just my community, but anybody can learn and benefit from the program.
Listeners say it’s a blessing every time they receive information through our program because they learn how to prevent or control illnesses when sometimes they’re unable to go to the doctor because of a lack of money. When they listen to someone presenting about a personal growth topic they get motivated because they discover their own strengths and can ultimately help stay positive every time they face challenges without giving up.”
She knows it’s a long road to travel. But it’s the things like the radio show and its response that keep her going. Change is continually happening, even if it’s not as fast as she may want. And, it’s always with its ups and downs.
For San Benito, this is no exception. But Kenia knows the most important thing is to keep working, to keep looking toward the future. Because as a colonia, where this is community, there is still hope. The city exists on a divide, a transitional territory. Mexican-American. While their history is written on a land of neglect, Kenia and many others are helping to draw a line once and for all: A path to a better future.