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Community Benefits

New leadership in the Old Nogales Highway Colonia fights for infrastructure and respect

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Clarissa Florez doesn't point to the miles of unpaved roads when asked to describe the Old Nogales Highway Colonia. And she doesn't bring up the shabby homes, many of which are dilapidated trailers strewn across different-sized lots.

"People on the outside may look at this community and only see poor immigrants or people who are undocumented," says Florez, in Spanish. "But it's important that people know most of us aren't criminals, that there are many young families with children ... who want to have playgrounds, and schools, and live with dignity."

Florez and her neighbors want just basic services from Pima County, like speed-limit signs and street-name signs. They also want to know that calling the Sheriff's Office to report a crime isn't going to result in friends and neighbors being deported.

Florez thinks part of the problem is that her community is relatively hidden, in an area south of the Tucson International Airport and west of the railroad tracks. Another factor is the history of the neighborhood: It's a wildcat subdivision that first popped up in the 1940s and has since grown without much regulation.

She does speculate that most people in Tucson know little about colonias, like hers, that in some parts still lack proper water, sewer and electrical connections. Some residents bought their homes not knowing their trailer was in the middle of a flood plain--that is, not until the monsoons arrived.

Florez smiles at the other women in the room at the Summit View Family Resource and Wellness Center, near Summit Elementary School. The Sunnyside school and the center serve as a community hub, and include a food bank, support services for teenagers, a health clinic and a Head Start program.

While Florez and the other women in the room have family members who attend Summit, they credit the Border Action Network, an immigrant-rights organization, with bringing them together to organize and identify issues they want changed.

About two years ago, they created the Summit Committee and began to identify infrastructure problems in their community; that finally got Pima County's attention. They reached out to Supervisor Ramón Valadez, and in early June, he met with the community to hear about the issues directly.

Summit View center coordinator Adolfo Araiza says it was packed house. He thinks it was obvious to Valadez and others present that the meeting was a turning point for the neighborhood.

"These women are dedicated. They aren't going away," Araiza says.

Raquel Ochoa, the Summit Committee's president, says the committee and neighbors have identified five points they hope Valadez and Pima County will address to help the community's estimated 1,800 residents.

The first issue was addressed last month, when the committee, neighbors, Border Action volunteers, Valadez and several of his staff members participated in a day-long cleanup of streets and empty lots. The county was able to provide some funds for the cleanup, and Tucson Clean and Beautiful provided bins to collect the waste.

Next on the list: The placement of speed bumps along the roads that border the elementary school. While the committee says they are hopeful the speed bumps will be placed this fall, Valadez says he's continuing to talk with the county's Department of Transportation.

Valadez says he is also working with the DOT to fund another project the women have identified: Much of the colonia is built in a flood plain, with several washes and arroyos separating parts of the neighborhood. One arroyo in particular floods every monsoon season, and the school bus can't get to the kids on the other side. The committee told Valadez they want a bridge.

Another need is signage. Drivers often speed down the unpaved roads, causing accidents and safety concerns, Ochoa says. Also, the lack of street signs means that emergency responders often can't figure out where they're going.

But the issue that the committee anticipates will take the most time to resolve is the relationship with the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

When Valadez came to the community meeting two months ago, he was joined by Lt. Willie Belin. It's Belin who is in charge of the neighborhood's district, so neighbors took the opportunity to explain to him that crime is high, in part, because many residents will not call 911, afraid that they could be deported.

Araiza says the teens he works with tell him they are often stopped by deputies and asked about their documentation. Ochoa says most people will remain silent rather than report a crime or turn in a suspect.

Belin says he continues to stand by what he said at the meeting: Pima County does not have a policy of asking for documentation when responding to an emergency call. This isn't Maricopa County, he adds, referring to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's policies. He says he also told the crowd at the meeting to call him personally if they were worried about reporting a crime.

Valadez says he recognizes that the neighborhood wants immediate changes. He adds that all of the problems the Summit Committee has identified will be resolved--just slowly.

"I've been happy to see that in the last several years, leadership has developed in the community, so now the community itself is meeting, and they are figuring out what are their pressing needs," Valadez says.

Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, says the Summit Committee is a good example of what happens when people learn how to become leaders in their community.

"Clarissa (Florez) is the one who initially went through our training, and she is the one who started working with a group of women in her neighborhood," Allen says.

Border Action Network's training focuses on human rights and the U.S. Constitution. The organization doesn't typically get involved in neighborhood cleanups, but an exception was made for Florez and her neighbors.

"What guides our work ... is building the life of immigrant families and having them be recognized as participants and leaders in our communities," Allen says. "They had this real frustration and a long history of starts and stops, just for really basic amenities. My parents live in the county; they call, snap their fingers, and it gets done. For Summit, it has been a much slower process."

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