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Nursing students get glimpse of border colonia environment (11/09/98)

Community health nursing students, their faculty and nurse practitioner faculty from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio visited the dirt floors, plank board walls and patchwork roofs of a border colonia Sept. 24-27 near Matamoros, Mexico. The faculty, from the Health Science Center's School of Nursing, plan to make the visits a regular feature of the undergraduate curriculum's community health nursing course.

Fourteen students in the course, four faculty including two nurse practitioners, and one student in the family nurse practitioner major of the graduate nursing program journeyed to Brownsville and Matamoros, where they performed physical, environmental and cultural assessments in the Cinco de Marzo (Fifth of March) colonia just inside Mexico. Faculty termed the visit the "Texas-Mexico Border Field Project."

"We studied the environment and its effect on health," said Linda Lopez, RN, assistant professor in the department of chronic nursing care. "The colonia has no running water, sanitation or electricity. The homes are made by squatters to the area—people who came looking for work, claimed pieces of land and built one-room dwellings."

Brownsville activist Domingo Garcia and Sister Susan Mica of the Benedictine order of nuns served as consultants for the visit to contact colonia leaders. An estimated 2,000 families have moved into the Cinco de Marzo colonia in the last four months, Lopez said, exacerbating every public health problem.

Students noted the following physical symptoms caused by lack of running water: gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and parasite infestation.

"We also assessed the effects of toxic waste," Lopez said. "In the community health class, we reviewed the literature on studies of anencephalic babies born in the area. We actually saw the environment in which some of that occurs."

The Benedictine nuns work for social justice in the maquiladoras, factories owned by U.S. and other interests but located just inside Mexico. "These are factories where waste often is not properly handled and where workers are paid about $4.50 to $5 a day," Lopez said.

Open waste dumps have created "horrific living conditions only two miles into Mexico," she said. "Many of the maquiladora workers have not been trained in the proper way to dump toxic waste, and the waste makes its way to the drinking water in Matamoros. The factories also burn plastics, releasing toxic waste into the air. Smoke has been known to drift into the Brownsville area.

"Some think that problems across the border don't concern us," she continued. "But air and water know no boundaries, and the only things separating the colonia from us are a river and a bridge. The colonia's problems affect us as well."

Despite the conditions, colonia residents have banded to form an organized living structure that reveals their strength, resourcefulness and resilience, she noted.

The School of Nursing group was joined on the tour by Mexican doctors who introduced the students to surprising facets of the Mexican health system, including the fact that along the border prescriptions are not needed to acquire many medications.

Faculty making the trip were Lopez; Rachel Rodriguez, PhD, assistant professor of chronic nursing care; Diane Lesch, MSN, assistant professor of family nursing care; and Judith Longworth, PhD, assistant professor of family nursing care.

"We hope to make this an ongoing project," Lopez said.

Contact: Will Sansom