what is a "colonia?"

While most scholarship on colonias takes the federal definition at face value, several scholars question the label of “colonia” by emphasizing the relational injustices in the history of colonias that are masked by the current definition (Hanchett 2010; Larson 2002). Some interrogate the cultural implications of using a Spanish language term to identify these communities (Mukhija and Monkkonen 2007); others emphasize these communities’ physical similarities to other unincorporated rural settlements in the United States (Durst 2015; Stuesse 2001; Ward 2004). Of these, the latter represents the hallmark call for a new definition or, in fact, the dissolution of the term. These researchers, located primarily in policy schools, focus extensively on housing policy and see great overlap between, as an example, Valley colonias and impoverished, peri-urban Dallas communities. In terms of housing policy, there are great similarities between colonias and other rural Texan communities; in fact, there is a phenomenon referred to as “colonia creep”: colonia-like development outside of the policy-heavy 150-mile border region (Rios and Meyer 2009, 12). However, in terms of issues of relational justice and, more importantly, culture, race and ethnicity, colonias and colonia-like communities stand apart, subjected to vastly different policies.

Instead of a trend towards generalization, I suggest the opposite – a focus on the variation across colonias and colonia-like communities given their spatial organization and histories. While colonia-like conditions may be more widespread (Mukhija and Monkkonen 2007), I contend that rural, unincorporated, and impoverished communities directly adjacent to the U.S./Mexico border experience an additional set of issues that is not present further inland in the United States; as one example, the increase in numbers of unaccompanied minors coming into the Valley during 2014 had significant impacts across the region and spurred much organizing in the colonias. Rather than defining the colonias in terms of their material deprivation, which suggests a distributive injustice, newer definitions of “colonia” suggest a relational injustice that emphasizes, first, the history of marginalization they experience as the poorest border communities (Hanchett 2010; Larson 1995; Larson 2002; Mukhija and Monkkonen 2007). In this respect, colonias are understood as historically stigmatized and marginalized because of their socio-economic status, perceived illegal residency status, and proximity to the U.S./Mexico border (Stuesse and Ward 2001).

Colonias are, then, defined in this study as:

Highly impoverished communities along the U.S./Mexico border that have historically experienced both distributive and relational injustices based upon their socio-economic status, proximity to the U.S./Mexico border, and perceived illegality and informality.

Figure 1: Street survey of housing in three colonias north of Weslaco, Texas (Rivera, 2015).

Recognizing colonia organizing

Initially, when this work began in 2012, there was little recognition of colonia-based organizations, as many scholars referred to colonia organizations as chisme, or gossip, not as hard-hitting direct action (Dolhinow, 2003, 2005). However, colonias organizations, while sometimes engaging in direct action (see Figure 2) are often organized through everyday organizing or quiet encroachment techniques (Bayat, 2009, 2013). This organizing tactic places greater emphasis on relational justice by pairing organizing and dissent with quotidian activities. While this may appear as chisme, this form of organizing is, in fact, a powerful and slowly-progressing form of organizing that cannot be undone. Oftentimes, colonia organizing takes a Freirian (1970) perspective, focusing extensively on education and civic participation. In this way, the organizers embody César Chávez's hope for the colonias:

“Time accomplishes for the poor what money does for the rich.”

However, Chávez's model for colonia organizing, the Community Union model, takes this a step further by emphasizing not just incremental organizing surrounding colonia education, but also emphasizes the incremental improvement of the colonia itself as a way of slowly legitimizing the settlement. Combined, the effect is akin to progressive realization in Mexican informal settlements (Larson, 2002). 

This research first recognizes the power of community organizations in colonias, using hybrid Global North/South theories of organizing and informality to understand the border culture surrounding colonias. It takes its spatial understanding of the border as a liminal "third country" from Gloria Anzaldúa's work, but also recognizes the role of the "nepantlera," the activist that must consistently negotiate liminality. From this, the research then takes an activist-scholar approach to colonia research, examining the most pressing concerns facing colonia residents in the Rio Grande Valley.

Figure 2: (LEFT) An historic image of the United Farmworkers' (UFW) first strike and protest in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (Fishlow, 1967). These protests assembled farmworkers in communities that would later be called "colonias" starting in the 1980s. (RIGHT) Image of LUPE's 2015 annual César Chávez Day March (Rivera, 2015). LUPE was founded by César Chávez to serve as a community union for colonia residents.

Figure 2: (LEFT) An historic image of the United Farmworkers' (UFW) first strike and protest in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (Fishlow, 1967). These protests assembled farmworkers in communities that would later be called "colonias" starting in the 1980s. (RIGHT) Image of LUPE's 2015 annual César Chávez Day March (Rivera, 2015). LUPE was founded by César Chávez to serve as a community union for colonia residents.

Goals of the research

Given the definition of "colonia" above, the primary goal of this long-range research project is to expose and interrogate distributive and relational injustices within the colonias. In order to do so, the research examines colonia injustices through both a social and environmental approach, looking primarily at the Rio Grande Valley (shown in Figure 3 below). First, the research follows the base of colonia organizing in the Valley to understand the most pressing issues facing residents, as told by those very residents. Second, the research teams up with community organizations to assist in data collection and analysis about pressing questions for which residents and organizers are not equipped to answer. This takes the research into areas of environmental justice, as organizers and residents seek to improve the space of the colonia, encountering numerous environmental and health issues, but face significant social injustices when attempting to right such issues. Of the pressing issues facing colonia residents, flooding and housing are often placed at the top of the list, as one colonia organizer states:

"...if you ask the residents in the colonias [what the most pressing issue is] they would say, drainage... drainage and housing, probably. But they’d say drainage first, because if you are not able to take the water out, it doesn’t matter if you have a great house, it will get damaged by the flood waters. Those are probably the top two."

Figures 1 and 4 both represent housing issues and flooding issues, respectively. From this, the research project is currently undertaking a number of initiatives to examine issues of flooding and open space in Rio Grande Valley colonias. This work will build off of a Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) survey of flood risk in Valley colonias. 

Figure 3: Location of the Rio Grande Valley within the 150-mile buffer zone of the U.S./Mexico border (Rivera, 2012).

Figure 4: Map of the Rio Grande Valley, showing the location of colonias and their widespread susceptibility to flooding (Rivera, 2013).

Current Research Results

This long-term project has been in place since 2012 and has resulted in multiple conference presentations, publications, and several community-based reports that are currently in-progress.

Conference presentations

2017: Housing Across Borders Conference, "Reclaiming 'Self-Help' within Rio Grande Valley Colonia Organizing" [Paper Presentation]. San Diego, CA, May 26.

2017: Association of American Geographers (AAG) Conference, "LUCHA: Everyday Organizing and U.S./Mexico Border Colonias" [Roundtable]. Boston, MA, April 7.

2016: Spaces of Struggle Mini-Conference, "The Nepantleras: Colonia Organizing in a Liminal Space between the Global North and South." Portland, OR, November 2. 

2016:  Urban Affairs Association (UAA) Conference, "Theorizing Community Organizing in a Diverse Society: Case Study in Rio Grande Valley Colonias." San Diego, CA, March 16-19.

2015: Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) 55th Annual Conference, "People or Place in Nonprofit Anti-Poverty Programs? Comparative Case Analysis in Rio Grande Valley Colonias." Houston, TX, October 22-25.

2014: Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) 54th Annual Conference, "Nonprofit and CDC Organization in Southern Texas Colonias" [Poster]. Philadelphia, PA, November 1-2. 

2014: Association of Borderland Studies (ABS) Annual Meeting, "Informal/Formal Divide: Municipal Borders and Annexation Policies in Borderland Colonias." Albuquerque, NM, April 5.


Rivera, D. Z. (2014). The Forgotten Americans: A Visual Exploration of Lower Rio Grande Valley Colonias. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 2, 119-130.


Rivera, D. Z. The Community Union Model of Organizing in Rio Grande Valley Colonias. Special Issue of Environment and Planning C, “Quiet Social Movements & Everyday Life in the Urban Global South: Towards New Geographies of Social Change”

Rivera, D. Z. “Questioning as We Walk”: Everyday Organizing in U.S./Mexico Border Colonias. (Submitted to International Journal of Urban and Regional Research).

Rivera, D. Z. Reclaiming “Self-Help” Within Rio Grande Valley Colonia Organizing. (Submitted to Habitat International).


Ford School Center for Public Policy in Diverse Societies, University of Michigan's Rackham Graduate School