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The Ache of Injustice

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment
I peered deep into the 50 gallon plastic container at the few inches of water remaining at the bottom. Just moments before, the bucket was full- but after 20 minutes of using this water to pressure wash the inside of the 2500 gal water tank that provides water for the Ramirez* home, my plastic container was practically empty. I began to drag the container to the open field just behind the home to dump out the remaining water in attempt to begin the clean-up process after a day full of manual labor, frantic trips to the hardware store, sunburn, sore muscles, and homemade tamales. Just then, Mara*, the female head of the household, walked outside of her home and it dawned on me – maybe she wants to save this water. Upon asking, she hurriedly brought me a 5 gallon open bucket to pour the remaining water from my container into, to be saved for later use in the home- perhaps to fill toilets, bathe with, or be used for cooking.
2500 gallon water tank
photo: 2500 gallon water tank.
view of algae inside water tank
photo: view of algae inside water tank.
water from tank at the faucet
photo: water from tank at the faucet.

Over 600,000 households located in unincorporated, predominately Hispanic neighborhoods, known as colonias, find themselves in this reality everyday of their lives. Water often costs anywhere between 5 and 40 percent of a monthly household income, to be compared with the US average of 2.5%. Every drop saved is gold. Every drop saved is money for propane gas, for gasoline, for food, for electricity, for school supplies, for livelihoods.

For a short, gut-wrenching 8 hours- I experienced the ache of water insecurity. In undertaking an attempt to rid one family’s tank of the algae that had been accumulating for over 10 years, I experienced disgust of the water quality that is used to ‘clean’ bodies, dishes, clothes, floors, etc., fear of exposure to water-borne contaminants in the tank, stress associated with working out the logistics to obtain the proper equipment- including a fresh water source for the cleaning process, not to mention the process to transport the 50 gallons in an over sized, heavy, leaky, plastic container- thirst for hydration that was unquenchable other than by a 30 minute trip to the nearest gas station, frustration when the outdoor hose had a broken nozzle- rendering it unfit to be connected to any power washer, in addition to electrical outlets not working, lack of extension cords, and the loss of a water vacuum extension wand as it was dropped inside the 10-foot tall tank – unreachable without a nerve-wrenching trip inside the enclosed space that wreaked of mold, a blistering sunburn, muscle soreness, exhaustion, and an empty pocket.

UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension
photo: UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension.

The process to clean the inside of a household water tank, for those households that are not connected to a municipal or private water distribution system, takes place about twice a year. The process to schedule and pay the water hauler to fill your water tank when it is empty takes place anywhere from 3 times per month to once per month, depending on family size. And families spend close to $24 to $96 per month on purified water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth, not including the cost of gas and time to reach the local market or water vending machine, the time and labor of cleaning the purified water storage containers, and the worry associated with the inability to pay at any and all of the above points.

Welcome to the United States of America. Where less than 1% of the population lacking access to basic water infrastructure equals 1.5 million people carrying the burden of water provision for their families every single day.

*Names changed for confidentiality

Reflection on Day One, Houston, TX

Our visit to South East Houston was incredibly eye opening for me. I was surprised at the strength of cultural influences that dominated the area Juan Perras works in, conceptualizing for me the demographics and statistics that once casted an apathetic shadow on my perception of the community. The area seemed so far away from my home, but hesitate to say so due to the awareness that my “sheltered” lifestyle most likely encourages me to do so. How could I have missed this? Why have I been so unaware? And why has my life looked different? These thoughts flooded my mind as we were taken to our fist stop on our toxic tour. The image of a community bike trail in the foreground, car incinerator facility in the background, and piercing crashes and sirens flooding your ears from the smashing of steel and countless massive trucks continuously moving and working, an image I can only imagine much like a properly functioning bee-hive. My bike trail doesn’t feel like this. My park doesn’t sound like THIS. They deserve better.

I presume that Juan Perras’ view as a community activist is much like mine, only colored with memories and history of what it’s like to actually experience that environment on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. This must only lead to an understanding that is much more passionate than the young student who grew up only experiencing the benefits of what this community is paying for. White guilt. I know the word, and I shook its hand that morning, but separating my thoughts from it that weekend was no easy task. I was continually struck by the daunting truths that continued to reveal themselves to us through Juan’s words, our conversations, and most significantly, through what we saw. The lack of zoning laws, history of Magnolia and Manchester, infrastructure change from downtown Houston to Harrisburg, lack of insurance available to the community, lack of sidewalks, trash, smells, culture, deed restrictions, residential tax base, leukemia rates, asthma cases, Bush’s legislative decisions, Texas’ refusal to implement Federal laws, lack of solutions, abandoned homes.

Collectively, these facts speak to the area we witnessed, but they enabled me to better understand the concept of nature that most likely holds true for the community residents in South Houston. The term “nature” flashes an image in my mind of a luscious mountainside lined with evergreen trees, birds’ songs filling the silence, and a crisp, chilly breeze filling my chest and brushing my face. For me, that’s a desirable environment that is only a road-trip away. But for this community, it’s most likely closer to their view of Heaven. Reality, for them, perhaps requires a hope, simply for fresh air, a sidewalk with an empty skyline, and an evening free from the calamity of clashing steel. However, in their case, a nature that is much less attainable. My thoughts only conclude, that’s not fair.

Not only did our tour conceptualize the injustice for me, but also stamped names, and life, to the numbers and words that only scratch the surface of reality. This is real, and lives are at stake. You can tell me there are 10,000 cases of children with asthma, but I don’t understand that until I sit down and stare 1 in the eye.

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