Date: 2012 - 2014
Location: Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Author: Danielle, for the Michigan Journal of Sustainability
Support: University of Michigan, Dept. of Urban Planning


The following text and images are excerpts from a piece I did for the amazing people at the Michigan Journal of Sustainability. To view the full article, click here.


What are "Las Colonias"?

Self-labeled “The Forgotten Americans,” nearly 1.6 million people live along the United States (U.S.)-Mexico border in highly impoverished communities called “Las Colonias” (HAC, 2013). The first colonias were developed in the 1960s as a result of the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican farmworkers to the U.S. to fill job shortages in agriculture (Ward, 1999; Arizmendi, Arizmendi, and Donelson, 2010). As these workers migrated to cities across Southern Texas, they encountered a severe shortage of affordable housing. Unscrupulous developers, capitalizing on this, illegally subdivided agriculturally unsuitable lands across unincorporated territories near major border cities (Figure 5 below shows locations of colonias across Southern Texas). This allowed them to sell these lots to unsuspecting migrant farmworkers, who believed they were legally purchasing land. While residents were promised utilities, few developers kept this promise. Outside the auspices of local government and enforcement, this illegal activity continued unabated for nearly three decades. Numerous community-based organizations (CBOs), most religious, have since advocated for basic utilities and services in the colonias; through community organizing, they lobbied for basic representation and services (HAC, 2005; Donelson, 2004). 

Summary of the Study

The graphs and images below are visualizations of the Colonias Health, Infrastructure, and Platting Status (CHIPS) dataset, a geospatial database containing the location, size, and attributes of federally recognized colonias. While this database constitutes the most thorough federal data on colonias, interviews with local nonprofit leaders in the Lower Rio Grande Valley provide an account of its shortcomings. The most egregious of these shortcomings being the potential undercounting of colonias, which may be introducing a strong positive bias in the data. This creates a perception that the problems of service delivery and health in colonias may be adequately addressed, when the opposite is actually the case. 

References:

Applebome, P. (1989, January 3). At Texas Border, Hopes for Sewers and Water. New York, NY: The New York Times.

Arizmendi, L., Arizmendi, D., & Donelson, A. (2010). Colonia Housing and Development. In A. J. Donelson & A. X. Esparza (Eds.), The Colonias Reader: Economy, Housing, and Public Health in U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias (pp. 87-100). Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Donelson, A. (2004). The Roles of NGOs and NGO Networks in Meeting the Needs of US Colonias. Community Development Journal, 39(4), 332-344.

HAC. (2005). A Guide to Nonprofit Housing Organizations Serving the Colonias. Washington, D.C.: Housing Assistance Council.

HAC. (2013). Rural Research Report: Housing in Border Colonias. Washington D.C.: Housing Assistance Council

Ward, P. M. (1999). Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by Stealth. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

 

NOTE: All graphics were created by Danielle Rivera (2014) with the data cited in the captions/maps.


Figure 1: An aerial view of a colonia outside of Mercedes, Texas (Google Earth, 2014). There exist a diversity of housing in colonias, ranging from reused trailer homes to reused airstreams to makeshift structures. To sense the small size of these homes, consider the size of the red pickup trucks to the homes they juxtapose.


Figure 2: A complete cross-border analysis of border population by U.S. county and Mexican municipio depicts three regions of high population along the border: San Diego/Tijuana; Las Cruces/El Paso/Ciudad Juárez; and the Lower Rio Grande Valley (U.S. Census, 2010; INEGI, 2010).

Figure 2: A complete cross-border analysis of border population by U.S. county and Mexican municipio depicts three regions of high population along the border: San Diego/Tijuana; Las Cruces/El Paso/Ciudad Juárez; and the Lower Rio Grande Valley (U.S. Census, 2010; INEGI, 2010).

Figure 3: Cross-examined with Figure 2, it becomes clear that the majority of colonias are located throughout Texas, most especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (HUD, 2013). The unique policies surrounding unincorporated land in Texas make it fertile ground for developing colonias.


Figure 4: The location and scope of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the context of the U.S.-Mexico border.


Figure 5: Location of recognized colonias across Southern Texas (in blue) in relation to the study region. Most colonias are clustered around El Paso, Texas to the far left, or the Lower Rio Grande Valley to the far right.


Figure 5: CHIPS data combines the results of its findings into a single metric called "Health Risk" (CHIPS, 2007). The Health Risk of a colonias is the projected, cumulative effects of: platting, wastewater access, potable water access, flood risk, trash collection, paved roads, and more. 

Figure 6: Colonia susceptibility to flooding in light rains.


Figure 7: Trash collection service distribution.

Figure 8: Wastewater disposal service distribution.


Figure 9: Potable water service distribution.

Figure 9: Potable water service distribution.


Figure 10: There exist so many colonias, it can be difficult to ascertain the distribution of colonias with environmental issues, these bar charts help elucidate where the most colonias are, and what the particular issues are for colonias in each county according to CHIPS. These numbers should be accepted with caution, as the pilot study predicts a strong positive bias in the numbers.

Figure 10: There exist so many colonias, it can be difficult to ascertain the distribution of colonias with environmental issues, these bar charts help elucidate where the most colonias are, and what the particular issues are for colonias in each county according to CHIPS. These numbers should be accepted with caution, as the pilot study predicts a strong positive bias in the numbers.

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