In the deep south of Texas along the Mexican border, one finds a world unlike any other area of the United States. Known as the Rio Grande Valley, the region is home to a rich intersection of influences. Strip malls and American franchise restaurants coexist alongside of mom and pop taquerias and pulgas (flea markets). Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably and the beats of conjunto and norteño music intermingle with those of hip hop and rap. Thanks to NAFTA and the construction of maquiladoras across the border, the Rio Grande Valley has become the third-fastest growing area of the country. Farm fields and neglected plots are replaced daily by new subdivisions and businesses. Hospitals and schools struggle to keep pace with the booming population.
Scattered among the glitter of the Valley’s new growth, however, lies the darker and often overlooked reality of the colonias. As the non-profit Las Colonias Project notes on its website, a colonia is an “unincorporated settlement that often lacks basic water and sewer systems, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.” Settled by a largely Hispanic population, colonias surround the U.S.-Mexico border in several states. Nowhere, however, are they found in greater numbers than in Texas. According to Las Colonias Project, Hidalgo County of South Texas alone has approximately 130,000 people living in 868 colonias.
Conditions in the colonias can be grim. Makeshift homes and trailers, often precariously balanced on cement blocks, line unmarked, dusty streets. Outhouses are dug in backyards and access to clean water is often regarded as a luxury, rather than as a basic right. Heavy rains wreak havoc for homes that lie in floodplains. The Borderlands Information Center reports that the residents of the colonias represent the largest concentration of people in the United States lacking basic human and health services. 50% of the inhabitants live at or below poverty level. 38% work for minimum wage or less. Many encounter diseases such as hepatitis and tuberculosis.
Perhaps no one is more affected by life in the colonias than the children. Dr. Jaime Chahin, Professor of Social Work at Southwest Texas State University, notes, “In the county of Hidalgo, a lack of basic health and human services, environmental services, and capital improvements creates a third world environment along the U.S.-Mexico border that has a significant impact on the quality of life of children and families.” In this impoverished environment, the children of the colonias often express lack of hope in their own futures. Teen pregnancies are often perceived as regrettable but understandable, with teen fertility rates in the colonias running at twice the nation’s average. Even education, a possible means to a better life, is viewed by some not as salvation but as another onerous requirement imposed by an uncaring, foreign system. The Texas Education Agency, Region 1, reports that a lack of supplies, language barriers, peer pressure, and the need for older students to hold jobs lead to poor school attendance rates among colonia students. Those students who manage to reach secondary school drop out at a longitudinal rate of about 17.3%, compared to an estimated state average of 14.4%.
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