Living on the edges: Life in the colonias of Texas
Hundreds of thousands live in communities without basic services and infrastructure on the US-Mexico border.
South Tower Estates, Texas, United States – Sitting in her front yard at a small wooden table with chipped green paint, her eyes filling with tears, Eva Carranza speaks of the challenges of being separated from her sisters in Mexico.
A single mother, Eva has lived in the South Tower Estates community for the past 17 years with her parents, who are also undocumented, and her 16-year-old daughter, who was born in the US so has citizenship.
As an undocumented immigrant, 40-year-old Eva cannot visit her sisters in her native Reynosa, which is just 30 kilometres from her neighbourhood on the outskirts of Alamo, Texas. And because her sisters lived without documents in the US for decades, the likelihood of them obtaining a visa to visit Eva and her family in the US is slim.
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“It feels outrageous. You feel helpless,” she says as a pair of dogs run around the grassless lawn behind her. “I can go to Hidalgo [a nearby town] and look across the border, but how could I get back [to the US]? I can stand it, but I put myself in my mother’s shoes and it’s painful to think about all of our family so close, but we can’t get to them just because of a line.”
When her parents and siblings came to the US in 1991, she stayed behind in Reynosa to work in a factory. When she became pregnant in 1999, she joined them in the US, hoping for a better future for her daughter.
South Tower Estates is one of 2,294 colonias in Texas. Although colonia means “neighbourhood” in Spanish, the term has come to refer to unincorporated makeshift communities in rural areas beyond the municipal boundaries of the nearest cities and towns.
Owing to their location outside the city limits, these impoverished communities do not have access to much of the basic infrastructure and services available in the cities. While colonias also exist along the borderlands of New Mexico, Arizona and California, Texas has the largest number of colonia residents: more than 500,000 people, most of whom are Mexican immigrants.
Colonias are among the most poverty-stricken communities along the US’ Texas border, and South Tower Estates is in Hidalgo County, the fourth poorest county in Texas . Neighbouring Starr and Cameron Counties, also home to high concentrations of colonias, are the second and third poorest counties, respectively.
Though many homes in South Tower Estates are modest, completed residences made of stucco or brick, others are jerry-built shacks of plywood or ramshackle residences pieced together with cinderblocks, metal sheets and tarps.
Eva, her parents and daughter share a modest two-bedroom home – painted in three large orange, purple and green stripes – that was built as part of an NGO programme designed to provide better housing for colonia residents.
Because Eva is only able to work odd jobs in housekeeping, babysitting and food services, she sometimes sells clothing, soaps or crafts for extra cash. Between the three of them, they bring in an annual income of around $10,000.
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When asked how they survive on so little, she clasps her hands and replies simply: “Miracles”.
Martha Sanchez, a community organising leader at La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a civic group that works with colonia residents and undocumented communities, explains that despite gradual improvements in the living conditions in colonias, many challenges remain.
“The housing is a big problem because people don’t have enough money to build a house that is done right with all the proper inspections and methods. So what they do is invest in paying for the lot and the houses become secondary needs,” she explains.
Referring to the ongoing presidential elections, Sanchez says few people have faith that national politicians will pay attention to their needs if they do not speak out: “It doesn’t come natural for public officials to want to listen to the people, especially people who don’t have a lot of voice because they are poor and marginalised.”
The history of colonias
In Texas, colonias date back to the 1950s, when low-income immigrant communities – mostly from Mexico – began settling in impromptu neighbourhoods outside the costlier housing markets in the cities. Developers divided land into lots and sold them to low-income individuals hoping to have a home of their own.
The pitfall, however, was their location outside the city limits, which cut them off from municipal services and government-provided infrastructure. To make matters more difficult, colonias are often located on reclaimed agricultural land, rendering them effective flood zones that leave homes more vulnerable to water damage during heavy rains.
Although new colonias are no longer popping up along the borderlands, Josue Ramirez of Texas Low-Income Housing Services explains that migration patterns have resulted in the growth of existing colonias in recent years.
“The lack of affordable housing in cities and municipalities is one of the factors that leads to the growth and development of colonias,” he says.
The median price of homes in colonias was $40,730 in 2015 – more than five and a half times cheaper than the national median price of $230,000. Many residents put up tents or small shacks and build homes or add improvements as they save up money over the years.
“That’s the market that is available for individuals who cannot access the ordinary housing market,” Ramirez adds. “Part of the [community organising] effort is not to fix individual issues but to point to larger systemic problems … and to demand from the counties to be more accountable and provide services to colonias.”
In 2014, the national median household income was $56,516, according to the US Census Survey, while the median household income in Texas colonias was $28,928 in 2015, according to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in April 2015.
That report – “Las Colonias in the 21st Century” [PDF] – documented the improvements in living conditions in colonias along the Texas-Mexico border over recent decades.
Nonetheless, the report noted that the median household income of colonias in Texas is less than $30,000 a year, while more than 40 percent of colonia residents live under the poverty line, compared with the national average of 14.3 percent.
Working mostly in low-income fields such as agriculture, manual labour and the service industry, 40.3 percent of colonia residents rely on food stamps or other forms of governmental assistance to survive – nearly four times more than the national average of 11 percent.
Almost 55 percent of colonia residents do not graduate from high school, while the national average of people with an education level less than a high school diploma is 14.6 percent. Only 5.5 percent hold college degrees.
Low education rates can be partly explained by the difficulty of accessing schools for youngsters, who are bussed to the closest city – sometimes a half-hour drive or more from their homes. And with family incomes already meagre, many youths have to abandon their studies to start working full-time to help support their families at a young age.
In some 340 underdeveloped colonias, more than 38,000 people do not have access to safe drinking water, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report. Many still do not have potable water, electricity, septic or sewer systems, paved roads and safe housing.
No documents, no stability
As generation after generation of children have been born in the colonias, the rate of those holding US citizenship has surpassed the number of those without documents. Nearly three-quarters of all residents hold US citizenship, but more than 94 percent of children are documented, according to the report. [PDF]
of what would happen to my daughter if I was sent back to Mexico.”]
Like many households in colonias, Eva’s family has mixed immigration status, with only her daughter holding US citizenship.
Eva says her father is constantly checking the car’s brake lights and making sure that the licence plate and inspection are up to date, knowing that a traffic stop could end with a police officer handing him over to immigration authorities for deportation.
“There is a lot of fear,” she says. “These are details that you’re always nervous about them. My fear isn’t so much that immigration will come find me, but more about my daughter. More than anything, it’s [the worry] of what would happen to my daughter if I was sent back to Mexico.”
Being separated from her sisters by the heavily militarised border between the US and Mexico has always been difficult. But in 2009 it became doubly challenging when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Eva and her family spent a year jumping through bureaucratic hoops to obtain access to chemotherapy treatment.
“To be able to get medical help without documents is very complicated,” Eva recalls. “And [there is] helplessness from the fact that my sisters couldn’t come here, or that my mother couldn’t go over there.”
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To make matters worse, her father, who now works in a hotel, has in the past struggled with work, finding himself vulnerable to exploitation.
In one instance, a few years before Eva moved to the US, she says her father was hired by a man who needed home repairs. After he had completed the job, he asked for payment. But in order to avoid paying him, the man had called immigration authorities, who showed up moments later and arrested Eva’s father. He was deported to Mexico and was only able to make it back to his family by entering the US irregularly.
Although she is unable to vote in the forthcoming presidential elections on November 8, Eva says she has been encouraging friends and neighbours with citizenship to vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, citing Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s threats to deport undocumented people.
Laughing, Eva says she would like to thank Trump for his frequent anti-immigrant comments “because now my daughter wants to be an immigration lawyer”.
She adds: “I would invite [Trump] … to come work in the fields with Mexican labourers just for one hour and see how he feels.”
Fight for lights
Located just 17 kilometres outside the border town of Mission, the Mi Sueno colonia is a single, pothole-ridden street lined with wooden and concrete houses, trailers, crumbling shacks and car parks.
Sheets of shiny tinfoil blanket the windows of residences along the sole road, put there by locals who need respite from the blazing southern Texas heat but lack the money to insulate their homes. Small rays of light shoot from the foil back into the neighbourhood when the sun hits at the right angle.
Some structures resemble the one- or two-bedroom homes that characterise working-class neighbourhoods across the Rio Grande Valley region, while others are tumbledown formations patched together with scrap wood, cinderblocks and tarps.
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There are no drains, no sewage system and no regular rubbish pickup; residents endure flood damage, rely on septic tanks and haul their own rubbish to a landfill nearly a half-hour drive away.
On a warm evening in early September, dozens of women and children gather on the lawn of Yolanda Reyna’s home in Mi Sueno.
The women and their daughters sit at picnic tables with hand-drawn sheets for bingo, while a handful of boys kick a football back and forth beyond a rusted grey sedan that sits on cinderblocks. The ball floats across the yard, landing on the car’s front windshield before rolling into the dusty street.
One lady throws her hand up excitedly, shouting “Bingo!” as her tablemates break into applause and laughter.
Yolanda sits down to smoke a cigarette during a break from the game, swatting at mosquitos as she explains that she lives with her husband and son in the small wooden home behind her. Unable to work full-time as she must also take care of her child, she earns an annual income of just above $7,000 as an employee at a nearby bakery.
“There aren’t any drains here,” she says of the colonia. “The flooding is very bad around my house when it rains, especially in the front. It’s hard to drive and the water gets so high that it gets in the cars and damages the carpet.”
Because most colonias are not connected to public transportation routes, a water-damaged car can compound residents’ problems, making it impossible for them to access their jobs in the city or on far-off agricultural lands where many work.
Explaining that her family pays federal income taxes, Yolanda says: “We feel that because we pay these taxes we have a right to ask for infrastructure like drains.”
After decades of living in the dark, residents of Mi Sueno were given their first streetlight earlier this year after a five-year campaign during which they protested and lobbied public officials.
Olivia Zarate, who raised her children in Mi Sueno, recalls deciding to act after hearing a story about a child who was run over by a school bus in a nearby colonia.
“The bus didn’t see him because it was so dark,” she says, explaining that the streets of colonias without streetlamps are pitch black during predawn hours.
Flor Martinez, a mother of two who lives in Mi Sueno, makes an annual income of less than $3,000 working odd jobs as a housekeeper.
Flor’s family, like many others in the colonias, shares a three-bedroom mobile home with two other families. “It’s very common here for [families] to share homes … for financial reasons,” she explains.
Because most residents survive on low incomes and many live below the poverty line, they find themselves in a cycle of spending their money on temporary repairs each time cars or homes are damaged by the weather, Flor says.
“It floods so much when it rains here,” she adds, explaining that the water often sits for weeks. “People get sick more often, and it makes it harder for kids to go outside [to play].”
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Lisa Mitchell-Bennett, a project manager at the University of Texas School of Public Health, has been working in the Rio Grande Valley for more than two decades. She explains that the most prevalent public health concerns in colonias and similar low-income communities are diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity.
“In general, the access to healthcare is just crisis-level. That’s not the case anywhere else except for in other border communities,” she says, explaining that many undocumented people, unable to get health insurance, used to cross into Mexico for affordable healthcare before border authorities clamped down in recent years.
“There is high prevalence of chronic disease that keeps you unhealthy for your whole life,” Bennett adds, noting that more than a third of residents in the Rio Grande Valley suffer from diabetes.
“If they lived in a place that allowed them to make healthier choices, their lives would be much easier. The whole Rio Grande Valley is like this, but a colonia is just like that on steroids.”
Change through struggle
The Hidalgo County authorities did not reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for a comment on the lack of infrastructure in colonias.
But Gina Nunez-Mchiri, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas – El Paso, says policymakers and municipal service providers often neglect colonias because of their location outside city limits and the residents lack of political power and social capital.
“The growth and infrastructural changes that have taken place in colonias have come over years of community meetings with agencies and elected representatives,” she notes.
Yet many people – particularly those who are undocumented – are hesitant to openly organise owing to fear of drawing too much attention to their communities.
Undocumented communities have endured record deportations since Barack Obama became president in 2009, with more than 2.5 million people being deported to Mexico and elsewhere in Central America by 2015.
And the current presidential elections could spell yet more frustration for immigrants without documents. Republican candidate Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to stop immigration and has threatened mass deportations.
His opponent, Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, has vowed to enact comprehensive immigration reform, saying she would only deport undocumented immigrants convicted of “terrorism” or violent crimes.
Sitting at her kitchen table in the Curry Estates colonia, Emma Alaniz, a 52-year-old mother of four who came to the US from Monterrey, Mexico, 36 years ago, says she acquired citizenship through her late husband.
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In 2000, Emma and her family moved to the Curry Estates from the nearby town of Edinburg, where they had been renting a lot in a mobile home park for years for nearly double the price of a $400 mortgage in the colonia.
She says she has seen “a lot of good people” deported back to Mexico, explaining that some colonia residents are afraid to demand better services because many community members do not have documents.
Having documents, she says, makes all the difference – and her own family’s success seems to support that claim. She has a son in the military, one who is a nurse and another who is a university student, while her daughter works for the county. With their support and $700 in social security benefits, she was able to retire, a type of security many living in low-income communities do not enjoy.
When her family first moved to Curry Estates, there were only a handful of homes near the area where the entrance sits today. They moved their mobile home to their new land and continued to live in it while they built their home in segments, adding to it whenever they could afford to.
Able to own land for the first time, Emma says she imagined life would be great for her and her family in Curry Estates. Yet during the first spring, torrential rains left the neighbourhood flooded, damaging several homes and overflowing septic tanks up and down her block due to the absence of drains. “There were children swimming in the water and the sewage was in the streets,” she recalls, shaking her head.
Year by year, new homes, storage sheds and car parks popped up in Curry Estates as low-income families seeking more affordable housing moved in. The area eventually grew from a cluster of trailers and shacks to more than 70 homes lining two paved streets.
‘Stepping out of the shadows’
For more than a decade, Emma and her neighbours endured the flooding, feeling that they had no other options. Preoccupied with her work as a hairstylist and supporting her husband, who was sick with kidney cancer, Emma had to make several costly repairs to her home, particularly after Hurricane Dolly battered south Texas in 2008.
“The water reached our door,” she recalls of the time after the hurricane. “You couldn’t see the grass [in the lawn] or the street.”
Four years ago, Emma found a flyer asking for Curry Estates residents who were interested in community organising to contact the LUPE organisation.
Emma started to host monthly community meetings in her home, where neighbours and community organisers from LUPE and other organisations came to discuss the community’s needs and how to move forward.
After protests, campaigning and lobbying of public officials in one-on-one and community meetings, the county recently provided the colonia with a drainage system. But Curry Estates still has a long way to go, says Emma, citing the lack of sidewalks, playgrounds, streetlights, improvements to the pothole-riddled roads and scheduled rubbish pickup.
Most importantly, she says, Curry Estates needs streetlights, the absence of which allows petty crime to flourish. Last month, her neighbour’s car was broken into, and in the past several homes on her street have been robbed. “People are afraid to call the police,” she says, alluding to families with undocumented members who are distrustful of law enforcement because of its coordination with immigration authorities.
Emma has set up small lights in her yard, where she puts her dogs at night, hoping the combination will deter potential burglars. But step a few metres beyond her lawn, and in the pitch black of night you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
She believes that voting in national and local elections will help colonia residents and other immigrant communities. Emma lifts up her phone to show an image of her grandson wearing a sticker that reads “Future Voter”, explaining that she took him with her while she cast her ballot in early voting last week.
In recent months, she began encouraging Curry Estates residents who have US citizenship to vote in the upcoming presidential election for those who cannot participate in it. “If you don’t have papers, you don’t have a voice, according to politicians,” she says.
“If they [public officials] don’t hear your voice and they don’t see you, they don’t know you’re there. It’s a long, long process,” she concludes. “This is about immigrant communities stepping out of the shadows and demanding services. We deserve the same quality of life as everyone else.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_