For a decade, the onset of the stifling summer heat in South Texas meant it was time for Patricia Gonzalez and her three children to drag their mattresses out of their cramped home to sleep outside. Like their neighbors, the Gonzalezes didn’t have electricity. No fans or air conditioning broke the heat. An ice chest kept the food and medication for her kids’ respiratory ailments cool. When daylight faded, she and her three children did schoolwork by candlelight (Gonzalez was studying for a GED). In the summer, they would sweat; in the winter, they would shiver.
For 36 years, the people of La Presa, a dusty neighborhood set among prickly pear cactus and squat huisache trees 10 miles south of Laredo, have lived without potable water, sewer connections, drainage, and properly maintained roads. Water for drinking and cooking is hauled in by truck and stored in large, plastic barrels. Septic systems often consist of little more than a cesspool behind the house. Most of the 350 residents in this colonia—shorthand for a substandard development built in an unincorporated area without basic services—aren’t connected to the electric grid. Instead, they get by with portable gas generators, electricity shared among neighbors via a daisy chain of extension cords, power poached from the grid, or nothing at all.
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