2008 PFIG Recipient Genevieve Heckel

Career Administrator

Genevieve Heckel
College of Arts & Sciences
2010 Graduation Year

Internship: Proyecto Azteca in San Juan, TX

After a wonderful week of helping the construction workers of Proyecto Azteca on my Alternative Spring Break trip, I realized that I wanted to spend my summer in the Rio Grande Valley working as an intern at this amazing non-profit organization, which has a self-help building program for residents of colonias in Hidalgo County. Just for clarification, colonias are areas of extreme poverty along the Mexican-US border, and yes, I am a few miles away from Mexico, that far down in south Texas.

During spring break I learned about the border wall issue, and I want to learn even more about it during the summer as well as other issues and concerns of the Rio Grande Valley. Another personal goal is to increase my knowledge and ability to use Spanish, and considering that 90% of the people are Hispanic—it is basically a different country down here—I think I will be using my Spanish a great deal. Another goal, that I only realized a few days before my drive to Texas, is to learn to live outside of a bubble, especially since I would be in an area where I knew very few people and no one my age. While there was initially difficulties with the locks of the place I am staying in and no roommate, I am no longer locked out, lonely, and terrified, but rather I have a key that works and a roommate to keep me company—not to mention the adventures we go on to explore the area.

Notes on the first week

The first day in I immediately started working on a spreadsheet that contained the qualifying information for the families for the Heron Report. Someone had already started it and for the next few days I worked on it and began the process of going through hundreds of files to find the necessary information. On the wall in the office I work in are hundreds of files—each family that received a home has their own file. My second day at the office was a staff meeting, and it was the perfect opportunity to see how the organization works, meet everyone, and learn about how each individual contributes to the functioning of the organization. During the meeting there was talk about the PAR grant and a new mortgage software, and I know that both of those things I will be working on. After three days of the Heron Report, I started making a spreadsheet that included the file code, the families name, mailing address, and legal description of the plot, because for the PAR grant we had to survey every person who has a Proyecto Azteca house. I noticed how there are certain colonias that have a large number of our families, and so when we complete the survey it would be more efficient to survey all of the families in one area. After I made one spreadsheet with the long list of all the families, I begun sorting them and each colonia had a different worksheet. On Friday there was a meeting to discuss the PAR grant and the other people were impressed that I already had a plan of action. By the end I had several tasks ahead of me: making a flyer about the services Proyecto Azteca offers to its families (in English and Spanish), edit an older survey so that the survey would show how the lives of the people have changed (again, in English and Spanish), and continue making the spreadsheet with the information on the families (also including their phone numbers and moving date of their house—to see how long they have lived in it). The director also allowed me to develop my own idea about making a map of the county with blow-ups of certain colonias to demonstrate how many houses Proyecto Azteca has built over the years.

Clearly I have a lot of work to keep me busy and for most of the summer I will be going around the colonias conducting the survey of almost 400 families. I am certainly excited about the work I will be doing and learning even more about the logistical aspects of this non-profit organization, and I am even more excited about learning more about the border wall issue. Currently the most pressing component of the issue is that construction will begin in July on the levees and border wall. For some reason the people in office are unable to comprehend that the construction will not be beneficial or effective if it is during hurricane season. The No Border Wall Coalition is planning on speaking up to the local government and potentially the greater United States to demonstrate their disapproval of the construction during hurricane season and at any time. Hopefully when I am not working or supporting the No Border Wall Coalition I will be able explore the local area as well as the larger cities in eastern Texas. This summer will be one I remember for all time!


The major project that I have been working on is the completion of the survey of all of the Proyecto Azteca families. I originated an initial course of action at the end of May by dividing the hundreds of families into the areas where they live. There are ten colonias in the county that have a large number of our houses, as high as 51, and then there are 15 other colonias that have between 2 and 10 houses, and there are about 100 other houses that are spread across the county. For two weeks I tried to prepare everything, including the survey itself, which is 77 questions long, a pamphlet on the new services Proyecto Azteca is offering, the authorization release form so that we can use their words and photos, the small gifts we would give them a cup and key chain that has the Proyecto Azteca name, logo, and telephone number on it and the spreadsheets that divided the families into groups which included the code, family name, physical address, legal description, move-in date, and phone number.

The major obstacle I encountered was how to keep organized in order to determine where to send the groups to do the surveys everyday because there were that many houses that needed to be surveyed. I realized the necessity of having one copy of the lists of houses that contained the most current information regarding the completion of surveys that would never leave the office. Another aspect of keeping organized was how to record the completion of surveys which houses, by whom, which areas. Through two spreadsheets I developed, I am able to determine the number of surveys completed by each person so that I can request their checks for payments and I can quickly see which areas have the most or least number of houses that need to be surveyed.

The second major obstacle was determining the most efficient method for preparing the survey materials for the various groups every day. I made a binder that has two copies of every list, map, and plat and is divided with tabs. Each set is divided how the lists are divided, high density, low density, and towns. Then for the houses divided by towns I used a website, landtitleUSA.com, to double check the physical address for each home and find the house on a map. With the completed binder all of the preparation for sending the groups is done.

Having personally interviewed a large number of families for the survey, I have unforgettable memories and stories. At the last house on the first day, when we asked the lady if she wouldn't mind writing a brief testimonial about her experience with Proyecto Azteca, she said that she could write a book about how it has changed the lives of her family. And several weeks later for the same question, another woman said that she could write an essay. Another lady constantly mentioned how before she had her house it was extremely hot because there was no AC, but after it is so much better because it is not as hot at least ten times in an hour. One of my favorite questions is "Before/after you moved into your house, how did you feel your family's ability to live comfortably was/is excellent, good, fair, or poor?" For this pair of questions, for the "before" part most people answered fair or poor, but for the "after" part almost everyone answered excellent. My other favorite question is "Before/after which pests were a problem in your house?" With possible responses of roaches, termites, ants, spiders, crickets, mice, rats, snakes, and bed bugs. This time for the "before" question many people say all of them, but for the "after" questions most people smile, shake their head, and say none of them. While the vast majority of the interviews are done in Spanish which has improved my Spanish speaking and understanding abilities immensely there have been a handful done in English. There was one survey that I did in English and I heard one of the saddest stories I had ever heard. The following is what I wrote about the house from that day of surveying.

I think this house has had one of the biggest effects on me so far. The house had no tiles on the floor (you could see the wood everywhere), the windows and doors were broken, the AC was not on, there was writing on the wall, and as far as I could tell the house was in poor condition. However, at the same time, this woman was so grateful that she had a home and a place for her daughter and her daughter's three children to live the daughter and I are the same age. Constantly throughout the survey the lady said that she was looking for a job and she really wanted to find one so that she could make the payments on the house because she knows that she is behind. Through the survey I was able to find out a bit about this woman: she was married and lived with her son and daughter; her husband was protective and only let her have one friend; her husband was sleeping with her one friend and so she divorced him which caused her to lose her house which was completely paid for; her daughter used to be a cheerleader, but then became involved with drugs, married, was beaten by her husband, and so she left him and the mom had to quit her job so that she could be with her daughter and protect her; her son also was involved with drugs and is currently in jail; at one point she had to leave her Proyecto Azteca house and while she was gone it was broken into and people caused all the damage when she returned there was water all over the floors; and now she and her daughter are looking for jobs so that they can provide for the three children and make the house payments. This story is definitely different from the other houses I had been to and it certainly left a mark on my day.

While certainly all of the family's stories are not like that, and this story was particularly heart-wrenching, it is necessary to show that not all the family's are the same some are older, some have young children, some have older children, some are single parents, some have well-kept houses, some houses need repairs, some people are so happy and grateful, and most have led a hard life.

One of my goals for the end of my internship is to establish a lasting method to complete surveying all of the families. In order to accomplish this goal I plan on creating a document to explain how to use the binder and all of the logistical paperwork to keep everything organized. Another goal is to begin making the information gathered from the surveys useful to the entire office by updating the original lists with current information and providing it to all. My final goal is to update the current Proyecto Azteca pamphlets that describe the organization. Hopefully in the last few weeks I will be able to accomplish all of these tasks.

Besides my internship I have tried to stay informed about the developments of the border wall issue here in south Texas . As I mentioned in my previous journal entry, there was a rally here for the National Day of Protest Against the Border Wall on Saturday, July 12th. It began at the campus of the University of Texas Pan-American in the theater. Everyone gathered and listened to speaker after speaker in English and Spanish and their reasons to stand up to the government and the people who support the border wall. In the theater there were at least four to five hundred people from the county some were Proyecto Azteca families, I recognized someone from a museum I went to, some were college students, and all were against the wall. Then with signs and posters in hand we all walked to the building of the Commissioners Court it was amazing because the lines of people lasted 3 blocks. While the wall has been started in south Texas , it is important to demonstrate the views of the people, especially to those elected by the people and to others in government. Before I leave, I hope to visit where the wall is being constructed so that I can explain to people how the wall is cutting into our nation and dividing it.

Final Reflections

During the last few weeks of my internship I focused on maintaining the system I had created for the logistics while also finding new ways to improve and utilize the information collected. Once I made several improvements to the process of surveying the families and maintaining the logistics of the project, it was much easier to use the system and to update the documents. One of the last documents I created was a spreadsheet that had an updated contact information sheet of the families. This spreadsheet included the most current telephone number of the families as well as the legal description and physical address of the house, so that when anyone would have to visit the house again it would be much easier to locate the house. During the last week of my internship I made preparations so that the system I had developed would continued to be used by other people. I wrote a document explaining the logistics of the documents and how to update all of them after a day of surveying. At the end of my internship there were over 250 completed surveys with just about 100 that needed to be completed; however several of the surveys yet to be done were of families that were difficult to contact. On a slightly different note, one of the last tasks I wanted to complete was updating the pamphlet that explains the organization, and while it was not finished, the information was updated and restructured for an easier read. The pamphlet only needed newer and better photos of the organization and its work.

The Border Wall issue continued to be talked about a great deal during the last part of my internship. Hurricane Dolly hit the south tip of Texas and where I was, but the next day the construction team returned to work on the border wall-levee. After learning more about levees during my summer I know that there needs to be a lack of water in the soil and materials used during construction, and so the fact that the construction team returned to work so quickly so that they remain on schedule is extremely disheartening. At another section of the border wall, the University of Texas at Brownsville had a small victory when the judge decided that the wall did not need to divide the campus, but the university would have to strengthen the fence that they currently have. Before I left I visited the section of the wall that was being built in Hidalgo County and what surprised me so much, was that the wall was literally in the backyard of the families that lived there. Upon leaving the border I hope to continue to tell people about the many sides of the border wall issue, and hopefully people that are not directly affected by these specific activities of the Department of Homeland Security will begin to realize that no good will come from the construction of a border wall.

One part of my experience in the Rio Grande Valley, or just the Valley as the people would say, is how different of an area the place is culturally. I truly believe that there is no other place like the Valley it is a place with a confused identity, technically in the United States, but with a huge influence from Mexico . Two major classifications of things I noticed related to food and language. With respect to food, tortillas are eaten every day, limes go with everything limes with your water, not lemons, chili powder goes on everything from candy, to apples, to alcoholic drinks, to slushis, jalapeanos are eaten with a large variety of food, and the food is more Mexican than TexMex. Regarding language, Spanish and English are constantly mixed together and all packages are in both languages. While the following are true of other areas, I still wanted to make note of them: one calls most people mami or papi, the word “but” is not used only pero, and when answering the phone, it is either bueno, mande, or quàquieres. A few final observations included that cumbia is a social dance that is great for quinceaneras, a national is a resident of Mexico, most people have been to Mexico more than they have been outside of the state of Texas, and that every holiday is celebrated for three or four days. While these observations in no way incorporate everything about the area, they were some of things that I noticed were different from where I call home.

With several last words I would like to try and explain how this past summer has truly helped me grow in numerous ways, especially learning more about myself. Through the surveying project, I learned that I have the organization skills and determination to complete a large scale, multifaceted project. I also learned that I have the ability to constantly re-evaluate and improve the system. There is not a doubt in my mind that my Spanish listening and speaking skills did not improve my vocabulary certainly expanded in surprising directions, I know the names of pests that could be in your house. I learned more about life as an adult by living in a different place and knowing no one, which forced me to learn the area and meet new people. Finally, and possibly the aspect that will have the deepest effect on me for the rest of my life, I was constantly reminded that I have so much to be thankful for. By living in the county with one of the highest rate of poverty in the entire United States (the per capita income for the county is $9,899), I was repeatedly reminded of how there are so many people whose lives and problems are far more difficult than anything I have ever experienced. My summer in the Rio Grande Valley was a completely new, different, and amazing experience that allowed me to learn much more about the area while I grew as a person.