It was 30 years ago that the City of Pharr annexed the final acres in the area that is known as Las Milpas, completely taking over that community. The lead-up and aftermath of that historic point in Pharr and Las Milpas history is one that reveals the importance of local leaders and grassroots community organizing here in the Rio Grande Valley.
As a child, Eduardo Anaya began residing in Las Milpas when it was first starting to get populated.
“Mesquite, brush, it was all farmland. There was no international bridge,” Anaya, who is now an attorney and has his offices based out of Las Milpas, remembers. “It was a community of about seven homes, and ours was one of them. Basically, it was an isolated area, a farming community.”
Over the years, the community began to develop south of Pharr and more colonias were being built in and near the surrounding areas.
“There was a lot of land developers that would just sell individuals a piece of land that was 50 by 100 feet, wide and long, so they could build their homes,” Anaya said. “But they were built without a sewer system, without water, without lighting, just a piece of property. And they would do it contract for deed, [the land developers] would say, ‘You know what, give me a $100 a month, I’ll charge you 20% interest, I’ll sell this $15,000 to $20,000 for this piece of land, and this is it.’ And that’s the way this community started to build and grow. Now it’s developed into— over a period of many years— about 35,000, 40,000 people.”
The Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization that would give birth to Valley Interfaith, came to this area in the early 1980s. It first came through the Diocese of Brownsville and introduced a way to organize here in the Valley. Then Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick, who is often credited as the founder of Valley Interfaith, authorized it and thought it would be the right thing to do here in South Texas, according to Anaya.
“[It was a way] that the poorest of the poor…who didn’t have a voice, could organize within the colonias and communities,” Anaya said. “As a result, Ernie Cortés came here as the first organizer, and identified people that were movers and shakers of the communities.”
That’s how Cortés was first introduced to the late Carmen Anaya, Eduardo Anaya’s mother. Originally from Mexico, Carmen and her husband Jose Anaya settled in Las Milpas with their six children, becoming migrant workers and also eventually opening a general store there. She became very aware of the issues surrounding her and the discrimination that her, her family, and the community were facing.
“Lack of water, housing, colonias didn’t have sewer systems, streets [paving], lighting, police protection, and things of that nature,” Anaya answered when I asked him what were some of the issues that Las Milpas was facing at the time.
In the book Valley Interfaith and School Reform: Organizing for Power in South Texas by Dennis Shirley, the book quotes Carmen from an interview.
“Recibimos muchos humillaciones de los anglos porque fuimos mexicanos [We were often humiliated by the Anglos because we were Mexicans],” Carmen Anaya recalled bitterly. “Fue muy feo [It was very ugly].” (Page 13)
Carmen’s personality was something that stood out to Cortés and the other organizers that were working with colonias residents at the time. In that same book, Carmen remarks on the way she communicated to her community and politicians.
“No tengo miedo decir la verdad [I’m not afraid to tell the truth],” she said. “Tengo atrevida.” (Page 14)
Shirley also writes the following about Carmen:
“Detecting in Carmen a quick intelligence, a willingness to study hard, and a profound religious faith, the priests in her community invited her to attend a series of training workshops that would help her understand the theological basis of community organizing.” (Page 14)
According to Shirley, other leaders, along with Carmen, that also sprung up during this era of local organizing include the following: “Esmerejildo Ramos, Ofelia de Los Santos, Elisabeth Valdez, Father Leo Ferreira, Elida Bocanegra, Father Alfonso Guevara, Father Jerry Frank, Father Armand Matthew, and Javier Parra.”
Anaya says that with Valley Interfaith, Carmen found an organization where she could grow as an organizer and create power within her community. The St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Las Milpas was a meeting place for a lot of community members there and where Carmen could usually be found.
“A lot of people came to the church for help,” Anaya said. “And she was a person of faith that was involved in the church, and they would come to her. She felt there was a need to do something about it…So there was a lot of people that would come to our home because we had the only water well in our community…So she would give water to a lot of our community. A lot of the individuals that would come to our community were immigrants, new people in our community, so they would reach out to her for help.”
Carmen was featured in the documentary The Ties That Bind: Immigration Stories (1996) where she talked about the origins and importance of her being a community organizer:
“For example, I’ll go to someone’s house and ask, do you have running water? Well, no, she’d say. Well, neither do I, I tell her. How about you and I get together and we’ll visit with your other neighbors to see what some of their needs are so that we can work together.” (An English translation was dubbed into the film when Anaya spoke in Spanish; She would communicate in Spanish.)
The Valley Interfaith group in Las Milpas organized in different ways to combat the various issues that were happening in their community. According to the Dec. 5, 1985, issue of the Pharr Press newspaper, one memorable pilgrimage happened on Dec. 8, 1985, where residents of Las Milpas marched from the Nuestro Señor Catholic Church in Las Milpas to the Catholic Shrine in San Juan, and then hopped on a caravan to a Valley-wide Valley Interfaith convention in Mercedes. The newspaper writes the following details about what lead up to that action:
“Las Milpas leaders devolved the better part of the last month and a half to talk to people about Valley Interfaith and the upcoming convention. The group went door-to-door to talk to all of the 4,000 households in the area. [Carmen Anaya] points to the over 2,000 committed to going to the convention as a sign of the interest of people in Las Milpas to do something to improve their community.” (Page 3)
During the 1980s, people who lived in Las Milpas were hoping to make the area its own independent city. Carmen is quoted in an English translation in that same article as saying: “We want to improve our community, and if it takes our having to form a city to get paved streets, water, sewer, and drainage, we will do it.”
Anaya backed up what was written in the Pharr Press in 1985.
“Over a period of time, we organized our community to where we felt that we could become independent, become our own city, provide for our own community,” Anaya said. “We had our own vision of good schools, bringing in water, sewer systems, streets, lighting, police protection. So we, as a community, felt that we wanted to become independent and become our own little city— Las Milpas.”
When the city leaders from Pharr found out that community leaders from Las Milpas were starting a process for their area to become independent, they quickly got involved.
“As of a result, the very next week, they annexed not the community but they annexed the road [HWY 281] that basically divided the east and west side of Las Milpas,” Anaya said. “Which created an impossibility of us becoming independent, our own city, because they divided us. So they created a problem for us because they didn’t provide any services for years because the only thing they annexed was a road.”
Since the City of Pharr wasn’t providing any services, Valley Interfaith and community organizers continued working on colonia legislation. They were able to find funds to implement sewer systems and water systems within their community in 1987.
“As a result, the City of Pharr was the first city in the Valley that submitted a grant and was approved for $30 million to be invested in the community,” Anaya said. “After that investment, it wasn’t until then that the city annexed our community. Why? Because they didn’t have to spend $30 million. Valley Interfaith brought the [grant] money.”
That final annexing of the remaining land in Las Milpas happened on Dec. 19, 1987.
“They annexed the whole community,” Anaya said. “Because it was to their benefit, now they had the money. It was grant money that we as a community provided for them.”
The issues between Las Milpas and Pharr did not improve after the annexation of 1987.
“We wanted representation,” Anaya said. “We were being taxed but not being represented. In fact, the very next election after they annexed us, every single city board member was ousted.”
Anaya explains the reason residents of Las Milpas worked towards voting those members out was that, at the time, Pharr had still not provided so many of the things that they had been demanding.
“What we would always hear from the City of Pharr was, back then, ‘We don’t have the money,’” Anaya said. “We made changes to the board. We decided to make a change in the city commission. As a result, we started seeing improvements because of that.”
Despite some improvements they saw, Valley Interfaith and the residents of Las Milpas had to continue fighting and looking for solutions for everything they wanted, since the representatives in Pharr would not always deliver with their promises, according to Anaya. It was constant organizing that got things done for that community, year after year.
“Up until a couple of years ago, over the past 28 years, the only services that were basically given to our community were donated or if there was a grant,” Anaya said. “For example, Jones Box Park, it was a grant. The sidewalks that were recently put four, five years ago, that was a grant. The sewer systems, it was through the Texas Water Development Board. The water systems, it was a grant.”
Anaya notes that things started to change about two years ago when the Pharr Forward administration came in and listened to a forum that Valley Interfaith hosted for them in April of 2015. He says that approximately $7 million to $10 million has been invested in Las Milpas since then. He points to a new Library and Learning Resource Center in Las Milpas, that is set to open in January of 2018. It’s the very first library to be open in Las Milpas.
He also mentions streets there being repaved, improved street lighting, new work on Jones Box Park, and a new public transportation system. Exactly 30 years from Las Milpas being annexed, the community is finally being represented by the politicians of Pharr, says Anaya.
“We finally feel like we are part of Pharr,” Anaya said. “Because the City of Pharr is finally now investing millions of dollars into the community.”
To reach this point where they are finally getting resources sent their way by the City of Pharr, Anaya says it wouldn’t have been possible without people like his mother, Carmen, and everyone else from Las Milpas who fought for their community and colonia rights.
“She delivered in educating the community in what they could do for themselves, and not waiting for politicians to come in here and tell them what they needed and what they were going to get. That’s what Mrs. Anaya taught the community.”
An elementary school in Las Milpas was named Carmen Anaya Elementary School in 2013, keeping the memory alive of the fierce and important activist who passed away in 2006. Anaya says that every year in the Fall, students celebrate “Carmen Anaya Day,” where they learn about her work, the work of Valley Interfaith, the history of Las Milpas, and the impact of grassroots organizing in our communities.
“So that the students will know and will not forget the work that she did, so that one day, one kid, maybe two, maybe five will continue her legacy and improve the quality of lives in their communities. That’s probably the most inspiring thing I get whenever I go to Carmen Anaya [Elementary].”