‘Estamos Aquí’ – We are here: Voices from Colonias Along the US-México Border

A panoramic view, overlooking the southern part of Pharr, Texas, towards the U.S/Mexico border, reveals a magnificent landscape of milpas, stretched out in rows of planted crops and open skies. Some of these fields are tended by small groups of people, perhaps families, intensely laboring over the harvested produce. These fields were in abundance decades ago, but urban encroachment has steadily diminished a great deal of what used to exist in both lifestyle and livelihood. The Rio Grande River (also known as el Río Bravo), which serves as the two-country boundary, provides the water that sustains the fertile banks and irrigation canals.

Water channeled from the river was a true godsend during the peak growing seasons of the 20th century, but in recent years its depletion has become problematic for both the Mexican and U.S. farmers and ranchers. This area known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is rich with antiquity from as early as the 18th century that includes historical milestones such as México’s 1910 revolution and the 1845 annexation of Texas as the 28th state of our country.

Adjacent to the milpas are residential areas known as colonias, or unincorporated, low-income neighborhoods and home to hundreds of working Hispanic families.Unlike unincorporated communities, colonias were first defined by the state (Office of the Attorney General) as residential areas along the Texas-México border, within 150 miles of the border, although “colonia” translates to “neighborhood” in English. Although both kinds of communities, the unincorporated and the colonias, are governed by their prospective counties, they are not associated with a municipal authority.

But colonias are distinctively described as “economically depressed” border communities, associated with high unemployment and low per capita income. Importantly, there are colonias located in Native American lands. According to the state, over 2,400 colonias are spread along the 1,951-mile U.S./México border that includes California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

This map indicates the location of the highest concentration of colonias in Texas.

Source: Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress Along the Texas Mexico Border

Population in six counties 369,500.

According to this map, the red-shaded areas show the localized communities labeled as “investment areas,” or sections where colonia residents predominantly own their homes. An estimated 2.5 million people live in these designated areas.

Source: Colonias Investment Areas: Working Toward a Better Understanding o Colonia Communities for Mortgage Access and Finance

The following table shows the population in the border states, the total in colonias and in the number of colonias.

Table: Border States, Population, and Total Number of Colonias

Border StatesPopulation: Total
Border Region
Population Total in
Total Number of
New Mexico471,080273,249145
Source: Colonias Investment Area Measures in https://ruralhome.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/colonias-investment-areas-report.pdf

In 2013 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a report (summarized in this document) that describes the progress in the infrastructure development of colonias. A tracking system that conformed to particular colonia characteristics was designed to not only describe the deficiencies but to study the investment into the improvements. Therefore, a Texas colonia classification system was created to define three levels of infrastructure improvement, using the color codes of green, designated as the most improved, then, yellow and red. The following table illustrates the classification system. The report includes a commentary on a notable achievement in the investment of the 84th Legislative session’s report, “Tracking the Progress of State-Funded Projects that Benefit Colonias,” that resulted in the on-going increase of red to green-coded colonias.

Table: Texas Colonia Classification System

ClassificationInfrastructure Developments
GreenDrinkable water, wastewater disposal, legal plats, paved roads,
adequate drainage, solid waste disposal
YellowDrinkable water, wastewater disposal, legal plats, and in progress, but not yet completed:
paved roads, adequate drainage, solid waste disposal
RedIn progress, not yet completed: Drinkable water, wastewater disposal, legal plats, paved roads, adequate drainage, solid waste disposal
Source: Senate Bill 99: “Tracking the Progress of State Funded Programs that Benefit Colonias.” Presented by the Colonia Initiatives Program, Office of the Secretary of State, 2010.

See also, “Colonias on the border struggle with decades-old water issues,” Texas tribune 2017

Colonias in Pharr, Texas that approximate “green-coded” infrastructure.

Poverty as the Main Source of Health Problems

Families in colonias may run the risk of developing serious health problems. Parents that stretch their meager income to provide enough food for the family usually rely on the food-stamp program. Even so, their diet is reduced to cheap, processed foods that may stave off their hunger, but increases the risk of health problems such as obesity and diabetes. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the colonia residents live below the poverty line, as determined by the federal government guidelines. Another 20 percent of the residents closely approximate the poverty line. Living in poverty exacerbates health issues, especially amongst children, many of whom develop obesity early in life. And, healthcare expenses are beyond what the families can afford.

The following summarizes the basic demographics, based on sampling of available colonia census data and includes the counties of Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, Maverick, Starr, and Webb.

  • Hispanics/Latinos comprise more than three-quarters of the population in Colonias Investment Areas, which is considerably higher than their 47 percent share of the population for the remainder of the U.S.-Mexico border region.
  • Median age of Colonia dwellers is 27, while a similar overall age of Texas is 33.6.
  • Citizenship status: the citizenship rate of children under the age of 18 is 94.1 percent; while the citizenship rate of people over 18 years of age is 60.8 percent; the citizenship rate in Texas is 95.6 percent for children ages 18 and younger, and 86.6 percent for ages 18 and older.
  • Educational attainment: those receiving a high school diploma is at 23.4 percent; receiving less than a HS diploma is 54.8 percent.
  • Employment status: the employment-to-population ratio is 50.4 percent and the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent. Comparatively, Texas has an employment rate of 60.2 percent and an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent.
  • Median household in dollars: for colonia residents – 28,900, and for Texas, not including colonia residents – 50,900.
  • Poverty status: the poverty rate for colonia residents is 42 percent while for Texas – 17 percent; near-poverty rates are as following: colonia residents – 19.4 percent; for Texas – 11 percent.
  • Exposure of toxic pesticides is a frequent occurrence amongst colonia residents.
  • Government assistance (food stamps): colonia residents receive 40.3 percent; while Texas receives 11.6 percent.

Organizing: The Crucial Role of the Non-Profit Organizations

Colonias began as non-platted subdivisions in the 1950s by developers seeking to profit from the selling of land by wealthy landowners. Particularly, colonias attracted diverse families ranging from recent arrivals to the LRGV to long-term area residents, and despite their limited resources, the idea of purchasing land and building their first home was nothing short of a lifetime of dreams. But without a local government to help them navigate through steep and unintended and complicated problems, community members realized the necessity in participating in local organizing and civic responsibilities. Developers were not bound by law then as they are now, so providing basic infrastructure is currently required in the development of colonias. Nor were developers required to include contractual disclosures concerning flood zones and other similar hazards as they are now. However, colonia community members realized that they were highly responsible for ensuring that their specific demands were officiated and delivered. Three non-profit organizations developed in the late 1980s sought to address the needs of colonia residents: LUPE, ARISE, and TxLIHIS. The organizations are located in the LRGV region, which has experienced dramatic urbanization since the 1960s. For example, Hidalgo County’s population in 1970 was 181,535, which more than quadrupled to 865,939 by 2018.

            LUPE, La Unión del Pueblo Entero was originally created by the United Farm Workers leaders, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the late 80s, and was further developed in South Texas with Juanita Valdez-Cox at the helm in 2003. LUPE has integrated thousands of participants in their membership roles throughout South Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley. In 2016, the LUPE organization facilitated the installment of public lighting in Hidalgo county’s eight colonias.

             ARISE – A Resource in Serving Equality was the missionary construction of  Sister Gerry Naughton in the late 1980s, and has since grown to include a total of four centers that serve colonia residents throughout the LRGV’s Pharr-San Juan-Alamo-Donna area. ARISE has sponsorships that includes Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Houston, TX, and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

            The Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS) is a community outreach and advocacy organization that supports Texas residents in their efforts to acquire “affordable housing in a quality neighborhood.” Exclusive resources such as the Community Development Block Grants approved by the 1990 National Affordable Housing Act were invaluable. But the organizing and campaigning efforts at the grassroots levels by these and other similar organizations resulted in the participation of residents that heretofore had never been politically involved, especially in raising their voices on matters that affected them as a community residents.

            Involvement in activism has since become a standard practice, if not obligatory, for the majority of residents. Priorities for reducing high-risk health factors were established and communities set out to achieve what was initially perceived as an impossibility within a reasonable timeframe. Families in these colonias were able to acquire drinkable water, wastewater and solid waste disposal, paved roads, and drainage systems. But other problems  were persistent enough to create even more priorities, such as the high-risk of developing diabetes, the presence of mosquito-borne diseases in flood zones, exposure to toxic pesticides used in agriculture, the absence of healthy foods from the daily diet, and the distressing likelihood that children will become obese.

Although the colonia residents face many challenges, particularly problems associated with poverty, their resilience is evident in their active involvement. They work together as a collective, identifying and prioritizing their needs and utilizing resources effectively and creatively.

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