As a high school teacher in La Joya, Texas, I frequently visited my students and their families in the colonias. Homes were often clean and decorated, but constructed from makeshift materials and without running water. When I saw one of my students using an overturned bucket as a desk, I realized just how little I understood about my students. In these surroundings, homework was not a casual affair but a daily challenge. For those who were unable to take showers or buy new clothing, school was not a refuge, but a place of shame. My students and their families spoke about unemployment, health problems, drug-related violence, and the incarcerations of family members. I began to see why so many students shrugged when I asked them about college. A diploma seemed distant and useless in these immediate surroundings.
I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching in order to document the challenges that so many of my students faced. I was drawn initially to taggers or graffiti artists, many of whom came from the colonias and seemed to have the hardest time conforming to the expectations of their parents and teachers, not to mention law enforcement officials. One tagger in particular caught my attention. Fernando Paez, better known as “Scribble’s Creations,” heralded from a tagging crew named “Meant to Control” (M2C). Highly regarded among taggers for his lightning fast work and keen sense of color, Fernando was also a recent high school dropout and a father-to-be. His life embodied so many of the problems of the local area: teenage pregnancy, poverty, and the failure of the educational system. I raised the idea of a video project with Fernando and his family. With some funding from Humanities Texas and the Rio Grande Valley Arts Council, we began work on a video project in October 2003.
The project has not always been easy. The personal problems of Fernando and his girlfriend Janie have on more than one occasion compelled me to put down the camera and take up the role of counselor and friend. I have also been greatly disheartened by the sheer number of obstacles that Fernando must overcome. The world is not kind to a young man who lacks a high school diploma, social connections, or any capital upon which he can build. With a new family to support, in-laws to appease, and a job that pays minimum wage, one wonders how Fernando can ever get ahead in life.
Yet, hope rests in me still. Fernando, like so many other colonia residents, continues to plan for a better future. He says to me smiling, “I never quit. Can’t stop, won’t stop. Scribble One. It’s my little tagger attitude. If a cop is running after you, don’t trip. If you trip, get up and run.” Grim living conditions and an apparent lack of job opportunities will not deter him. His love for his girlfriend Janie and new daughter April is too great; he will make the necessary sacrifices and move forward. I hope he succeeds. He’s suggested that I return 5 years later to document their lives again. It is an invitation I gladly welcome.
– Kathy Huang