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Inside Las Colonias, the Texas Border Towns Without Electricity or Running Water

A combination of poverty and loyalty keep families in these hidden slums along the US-Mexico border, often for generations.

Meredith Hoffman

Meredith Hoffman

Jose Ramirez, 13, who lives with his family in the Texas colonia of La Presa. All photos by the author

Sitting shirtless on the porch of his teal blue wooden shack, Victorio Ramirez, 75, squints half-blind eyes and listens to 15 grandchildren flutter around his South Texas land. A few young boys toss a ball and tease each other in Spanglish. A six-year-old girl rides her pink scooter through the mud. Barefoot babies flop on a giant bed with an aunt. Twenty-one relatives live on Ramirez's three-acre lot, crammed into four makeshift cottages, a trailer, and an outhouse.

Though he's now too frail to walk, Ramirez boasts of the homes, "I built them—who else?" The motley assortment of structures sits near Texas' southern border, just a few miles north of the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. But despite the proximity, Ramirez hasn't returned to Mexico since he emigrated to the US in 1963, and his grandchildren have never visited his home country. But conditions in their American neighborhood mirror those that Ramirez would have left back in Mexico. The family has no access to running water, waste disposal, or drainage. The dirt road floods so heavily that the family sometimes can't leave the property when it rains.

The Ramirezes live in a colonia, one of more than a thousand US communities near the southern border that lack basic infrastructure. In Spanish the word "colonia" simply means neighborhood—but in the US, colonias describe the improvised subdivisions that crowd the southern border, where ranchers or developers has carved dozens of lots to sell on the cheap—without access to water, electricity, or sewage. Immigrants, mainly from Mexico, own the lots, and have added on new homes and shacks to accommodate the new generations. But while most residents are now US citizens, the colonias are still among the most impoverished, underserved communities in the country.

In colonias, life can be a constant series of struggles to meet fundamental needs. Simply getting water can take hours of work, since many communities have no pipes or wells. Over half the colonias in Texas' Webb County, where Ramirez lives, still lack potable water, according to a report on colonias published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas earlier this year.

The Ramirez family is lucky, in a sense, as their colonia is close to a dam (the town's name, La Presa, means "dam" in Spanish). Residents travel a few miles, making multiple stops to retrieve the water they need. Since Ramirez can now barely walk or see, his son-in-law, Lucio Ramos, drives to the city pump every few daysto fill a giant tank the family uses for bathing and cooking. The water isn't clean enough to drink, though, so Ramos also purchases hundreds of water bottles at convenience stores each week.

"If you don't have a car, you don't drink and you don't eat," Ramos tells me as he grabs a bucket to fill from a fresh tank at the front of the property.

But while thetrips are a hassle, Ramirez at least, seems resigned to the family's circumstances. "Of course I'd like running water but what can I do about it?" he says.

Agatha Martinez, Ramirez's neighbor and a member ofLa Presa's community board, told me the community has long been pushing for water services, but to no avail.

"We've been fighting for years and years for water, and we're tired of no one listening," she said. "It hasn't gotten better here."

The struggle to fulfill basic needs can be even worse in more rural colonias. Folks living in Santa Teresita, about 30 miles from Laredo, Texas, must venture all the way to the city to restock—about a 45-minute drive. As in La Presa, cars are essential—there's no public transportation from the colonia.

Catarina Casares

Catarina Casares, a 60-year-old widow who now lives alone in Santa Teresita, relies on her grown children to visit from Laredo with water shipments each week, since she has no vehicle.

"Yesterday they brought me two bottles of five gallons of water," she told me in Spanish while strolling past the chicken cages and goats outside her bungalow. She moved to the colonia two decades ago, after living in Laredo for 20 years ago. "I don't have a car, so I work here, taking care of the elderly," she said. "I'd love running water, but by now I'm used to this."

Many colonias also lack waste disposal systems, which means residents install their own septic tanks, potentially contaminating their land and that of their neighbors. The lack of potable water and waste disposal presents a serious public health concern, says Juan Manuel de la Rosa, a professor of pediatrics in El Paso who serves on the US-Mexico Border Health Initiative, a bilateral initiative between the two countries.

De la Rosa, who also serves as the vice president for health affairs at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, told me when he conducted research of colonias in the 1990s, he found high levels of hepatitis A due to residents placing latrines too close to their neighbors' yards—sometimes near wells used to store water. Other studies corroborate his findings: Back in 1998, researchers found that children in colonias had a 37 percent rate of hepatitis A, compared to their contemporaries in urban border areas. (According to de la Rosa, inadequate research has been conducted to track the communities' progress with hepatitis A in recent years.)

Colonias often lack paved roads. Residents in La Presa told me the school bus doesn't enter the community after hard rains—and when the roads are blocked, it's impossible to drive to a well to retrieve water.

"Every time I see a dark cloud I drive straight to get water, before we get stuck here," Martinez said. "It gets so bad you can't get down the street."

Electricity is yet another battle, according to some residents I spoke to. Erasmo Sanchez, who bought a lot and house in a colonia in January, said the city of Laredo told him he needed water in order to qualify for electricity.

Since no water runs to his community, Sanchez would need to install a well, which he said would cost more than he paid for the property. "I can't afford to do that," he explained. Instead, he's bought a generator for his seven-person family to use for power.

This lack of basic amenities, from water to power, totally contradicts American housing standards, de la Rosa pointed out. "It must be remembered these are American subdivisions," he said. "These are not people living in a third world country but third world country conditions exist."

Colonias first started in the 1950s, when developers divided up rural land near the border to sell to immigrants for dirt cheap prices. The terrain tended to be located in floodplains, or be otherwise unsuitable for agriculture, and lacked access to critical services like water.

But many new arrivals were eager to own a slice of American land, and colonias were the only option they could afford, de la Rosa told me. As housing prices in South Texas cities began to surge, even rentals became prohibitively expensive, leading to a proliferation of colonias communities by the late 1960s. "Since colonias fell outside city limits, developers only had to follow the housing code of counties, which was often nonexistent," de la Rosa explained.

To woo buyers, developers commonly promised residents that water and other city services were on the way, said Oscar Muñoz, director of the colonias program at Texas A&M University. "The fact is [colonias residents] were sold the American Dream with the promise the city was eventually going to get to them with services," Muñoz told me. "It's a very lucrative business—it's not ethical, but it's easy for people to be taken advantage of."

For Ramirez, the colonia represented a rare opportunity to buy a a piece of property in the US. He first moved from Mexico to Dallas in 1963, working as a lawnmower, but by the late 1980s, he began to lose his eyesight and wanted a stable home for his family. So he bought three acres on a colonia for just $12,000 from a rancher, who had divided up his property.

"This land was cheap and we had nowhere else to go," Ramirez recalled. "Also, it was better here than the city. Here we don't have to deal with a bunch of noise, drunk people and loud music."

According to a factsheet from the Texas Secretary of State's office, émigrés who bought land in colonias often signed restrictive contracts for deed agreements, in which the buyer would for the property over time, often with high interest rates, and would not officially own the land until all of the payments had been made.

A contract for a deed requires no credit history so was a feasible way for low-income immigrants to purchase land. But the financial arrangement also left the buyers vulnerable to exploitation. The contracts weren't recorded with the county clerk, making it hard to enforce any commitments the developer made to provide infrastructure. And the developer could repossess the property if a buyer fell behind on payments for as little as 45 days.

In some cases, developers would allow delinquent buyers to continue living on the property, but would discredit all past payments so the resident would have to start paying again from scratch, said Jose Luis Guiterrez, the Laredo site director of the colonias program at Texas A&M. "There are people who've been paying for their property for decades, and they still don't own it," he said.

By the late 1980s, the housing crisis at the border began to attract national attention. As the price to live in cities surged, more and more residents fled to colonias, and the communities' problems became increasingly apparent. The New York Times reported in 1988 that colonias residents faced constant health risks: the South Texas county of El Paso had more dysentery than 30 states, more hepatitis A than 29 states, and more hepatitis B than 20 states.

"What you hear today are the sights and sounds of human misery," Reverend Ed Roden of the South Texas town Socorro reportedly told a congressional committee in 1988. "The situation is so shockingly tragic and profound that most people would not expect it to exist in this country."

Federal and state governments eventually confronted the conditions, and have pumped an estimated $1.79 billion into the colonias in Texas since the 1980s, according to some reports. The Texas state legislature also passed a series of bills in the late 80s and early 90s to allocate funds for water, sewage, and other infrastructure in the communities. State lawmakers there also passed 1995 bill known as the Colonias Fair Land Sales Act Colonias Fair Land Sales Act, which required developers to register colonia land sales and to declare available services, like water and sewage.

A new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas suggests that recent improvement efforts have significantly impacted the colonias. In 2006 the state of Texas started classifying colonias by their health risk and infrastructure, and at that time 442 colonias had no infrastructure, the report found. By 2014, the most recent year for which data is available), 337 had no infrastructure—a drop of about 25 percent. The report also found that in 2006, just 662 colonias had potable water, adequate drainage, paved roads and waste disposal; but by 2014, 922 colonias were fully equipped with such infrastructure.

While some colonias have indeed transformed through public aid, La Presa and hundreds of other communities remain virtually untouched. These colonias are classified as having a "high health risk," according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The Texas Secretary of State recognized in a December 2014 report that significant roadblocks—including the remote locations of the communities and limited grant funding—continue to hinder progress for many of the subdivisions.

"Compared to where we were in the 1970s with colonias we've made great strides," de la Rosa said, "but it's not enough."

As the state struggles to better equip colonias, the population in the communities continues to multiply. Most of the growth now stems from burgeoning families—according to an ABC News report, one-fifth of the 500,000 colonia residents in Texas are children, the vast majority of which are US citizens.

The poverty cycle can trap new generations in the colonias—61 percent of residents fall below or near the poverty line, this Fed report found, and 55 percent of adults living in colonias have earned less than a high school diploma. About 45 percent lack English proficiency, compared to less than 10 percent of residents in the US overall.

Ramirez half-joked to me about his offspring living on his land, "They have to stay here—where else would they live? Anywhere else they'd have to pay."

Other residents, like Martinez, are determined for their children to leave, so they can pursue a better life. Martinez's kids live and work in downtown Laredo, after she urged them to abandon her home.

"I think people only stay here because they have to," Martinez told me.

As taxing as colonia life can be, some urban youth decide to return to the communities as a way to connect with their roots. Valeria Garcia, 21, who lived on a colonia until the third grade, when her family moved to Laredo, plans to reclaim her grandmother's forgotten plot once she has finished college.

"I miss it, it's peaceful," Garcia told me in Laredo's Motel Six lobby, where she works.

And to Ramirez's children and grandchildren, the calm, close-knit community tethers them to La Presa.

"Even if I had more money I'd stay here," his 27-year-old daughter Rosio Ramirez told me. "We got tired of the city life...here we get to live in the open air."

Ramirez's grandson Jose, a 13-year-old who lives with his mother in a Dallas apartment, has spent his last two months in La Presa and has begged for his mother's permission to stay. In Dallas, he has internet and all the typical modern amenities, but he said he likes the peace of La Presa.

"There are so many robberies in Dallas, but here you don't have to worry about crime," the teen told me, as his grandmother Guadalupe strolled onto the property after a day working at Laredo's Embassy Suites hotel. She agreed and told me the "tranquil" colonia life beats Dallas.

"I feel more at home here," Jose added, leaning on a wooden plank near his grandfather as we talked. "I'd rather be around my family."

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