By Madeleine Pepin, Ph.D.
Last Updated 11/05/98
Table of Contents
Part I What are colonias?
Part II What is environmental justice?
Part III What policies led to Texas' colonias?
Part IV What are the demographics and characteristics of Texas colonias?
Part V What's so bad about colonias?
Part VI How are the problems being solved?


The word 'colonias'
Colonias on the Mexican side of the border
Colonias that count on the U.S. side of the border
Colonias that count in Texas
Texas colonias: an illustrated definition 
Definitions and photos of Texas colonias at other websites


The word 'colonias'

Colonias is originally a Spanish word meaning simply neighborhoods or areas of a city. In Spanglish, the mixed English-Spanish spoken in the parts of the U.S. near the Mexico border, colonias refers to the primarily Hispanic neighborhoods in cities like San Antonio, Texas. Since these neighborhoods are much less affluent than Anglo or mixed neighborhoods, the word connotes poverty and substandard housing.

In the course of the debate preceding the signing of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), colonias became an English word meaning the new slums that have sprung up near the twin cities along the border as a consequence of the Maquiladora Program undertaken by Mexico in 1965.

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Colonias on the Mexican side of the border

The maquiladora program brought about a population boom of low wage workers on both sides of the border. Neither the U.S. nor Mexico made any provision for housing these workers. This failure supported suspicions about the environmental consequences of NAFTA. For this reason Economic and Environmental Conditions in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a report prepared for Congressman Gephardt by Texas Rural Legal Aid in 1993, included Alan Pogue's Photo Documentary of the colonias near Matamoros, Mexico and pointed out that Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas share one environment. The photo below was taken by OLLU student, Gilbert Cadena, on a field trip to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

 Mexican colonias like those shown in Pogue's and Cadena's photos are squatters' colonies, that is to say, the residents neither purchase nor rent the land; they simply construct their shelters on it. In Mexico, these squatters are often called paracaidistas or parachutists. That the word colonias is not Spanish for colonies is the take off point of a condemnation of Texas colonias by the Consul of Mexico in McAllen, Texas .

See: 1995 Symposium on colonias held at the LBJ School
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Colonias that count on the U.S. side of the border

Few Texas colonias, i.e., the new slums near the Mexico border, are squatters' colonies. Instead, they are constructed on tracts of newly subdivided land outside city limits which were purchased on contracts for deed. Most lots were offered at $100 down on a lot priced at about $10,000 to be paid off over 10 or 15 years at an interest rate of 14 to 16%. Until the passage of SB 336 last year, the purchaser on a contract for deed in Texas gained no ownership interest until the entire sum was paid off despite the his investment in the construction of a dwelling on the lot.

Concerns about the environmental consequences of NAFTA led the federal and state governments to an interest in U.S. colonias. For colonias are settlements in which important elements of infrastructure are lacking, most notably, piped and treated water, sewage disposal, and solid waste disposal services. While the Mexican government's policy is to regularize the land tenure of the paracaidistas and to plan for the construction of infrastructure in their colonies, the U.S. considers squatters as a part of the homeless population. Thus the only U.S. colonias which are counted are those in which the residents own, are purchasing, or rent the land. While the General Accounting Office was careful to title its November 1990 count and survey, Rural Development: Problems and Progress of Colonia Subdivisions Near Mexico Border, other agencies tend to omit the word subdivisions. One should not be misled by this omission, however.

The GAO survey found 872 colonia subdivisions in Texas, 14 in New Mexico, and none in Arizona and California. The explanation of these numbers is that the creation of residential subdivisions lacking infrastructure was legal in Texas, was possible through exploitation of a loophole in New Mexico law, and was not legally possible in Arizona or California. When Texas undertook its own survey of colonia subdivisions (see Water and Wastewater Needs of Texas Colonias, Texas Water Development Board, 1992), it found many more created after the GAO count and others in east Texas counties, which are not near the Mexico border. The current count of Texas colonias is 1471.

See: EPA Office of Water, Colonias Fact Sheet
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Colonias that count in Texas

In 1992 and 1995, the Texas legislature passed anti-colonia bills. Since the creation of subdivisions lacking infrastructure was outlawed only in areas near the Mexico border, in Texas colonias are defined as a) subdivisions, b) lacking essential elements of infrastructure, and c) near the Mexico border. (Agencies are not entirely consistent, however.  See the Texas Water Development Board's map of Texas colonias. and the Texas Department of Health's description of developments near Corpus Christi as colonias.

The more restricted definition of colonias is imposed by the unavailability of colonias aid funds to developments more than 150 miles from the border and was upheld indirectly by the Texas Supreme Court in the Elgin Bank case. (see "Rural land management under fire - Supreme Court ruling blasted as "disastrous public policy"" in San Antonio Express News, February 6, 1996.) The Court's ruling in the case was that no other Texas counties could regulate subdivisions outside city limits. In short, the Texas constitution does not give home rule powers to counties but regards them as subdivisions of the state exercising only the powers delegated to them by the state, which has chosen not to regulate rural subdivisions in counties which are not on Mexico border.
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Definitions, accounts, and photos of Texas colonias at other web sites:

 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Dallas Federal Reserve Bank Report on Colonias

Center for Housing and Urban Development- Texas A & M

CEED-COPC at University of Texas-Pan American

LANIC at University of Texas-Austin

Texas Low Income Housing Border Coalition

Borderlines 1998 Colonias issue
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Definitions and concepts
The irruption of the environmental justice issue in 1992
The 1994 executive order on environmental justice
Are Texas colonias a case of environmental injustice?
Some Background Readings at the U.S. Census Bureau Website


Definitions and concepts

Justice has to do with the equitable distribution of costs and benefits. Environmental justice has to do with the equitable distribution of environmental and economic costs and benefits. When landfills are disproportionately located in African-American neighborhoods, for instance, the environmental and economic costs of landfills are much greater for African-Americans than for other Americans, but the benefits are not. While a neighborhood with a landfill shares equally in the benefits of trash disposal, it pays a high cost in lowered property values, bad odors, bird shrieks and excrement, rodent infestation, and the health risks associated with these things.

Environmental injustice is linked to environmental racism and classism, an uncritical belief or feeling that an environmental problem is less a problem when the damage and risk is to a community or neighborhood composed of people of color (African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians) and/or is poverty stricken. Scientifically speaking, toxins and pathogens are equally toxic or pathogenic to all races, ethnic groups, and nations. Socially speaking, greater wealth provides greater access to the means for recognizing and protecting oneself from environmental hazards than do lesser wealth, education, and power.
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The irruption of the environmental justice issue in 1992

Although civil rights groups and some environmental activists had been raising the environmental justice issue since 1982, it first irrupted into mainstream political consciousness with the publication of a special investigation into the enforcement of U.S. environmental laws in the September 21, 1992 National Law Journal. One finding, based on an NLJ analysis of all civil court cases based on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, was that the courts have created an economic incentive to give the environmental risks of hazardous wastes to communities of color.


A second finding, based on an NLJ analysis of all civil cases during the years 1985 through 1991, was that less harm was perceived in damaging the environment of either low income or minority areas than in damaging the environment of white or high income areas.


A third finding, based on NLJ research and the Environmental Protection Agency report, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities, was that Hispanic-Americans are the most at risk from violations of the Clean Air Act standards.

Hispanic-Americans, however, were the least likely to reside in areas where Clean Air Act standards were enforced during the years 1985-1992.

A fourth NLJ finding was that minority and poor areas wait longer than white and wealthy areas to have abandoned hazardous waste sites placed on the Superfund national priority action list.


A fifth NLJ finding was that in some of the 10 E.P.A. regions the delay in designating Superfund sites in minority areas is compounded by a delay in accomplishing the cleanup.

A sixth NLJ finding was that application of the 1986 federal law that whenever possible, hazardous waste sites should be treated rather than contained seemed be biased in favor of white communities.
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In August, 1993 the American Bar Association urged Congress to act to establish environmental justice. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order making taking environmental justice considerations into account a federal policy. The E.P.A. now has an Office of Environmental Justice.

In Texas, the new federal environmental justice policies have added a new dimension to the controversy surrounding the nuclear waste site to be located in Hudspeth county, near Sierra Blanca, Texas. Several environmental justice organizations have formed in Texas, and a group in Corpus Christi has charged the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission with environmental racism.
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As the main purpose of these web pages is to present the materials for a case study to a class, this question will not be answered directly. Moreover, the question is complicated: a) the problems stem from policies of the U.S. government, the Mexican government, and the state of Texas, b) the environmental area is binational, and c) legal and illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. contribute to the problems.
See: Realpolitics in the Valley in Texas Observer, October 1997
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Some Background Readings at the U.S. Census Bureau Website:

Statistical Briefs:


The Nation's Hispanic Population - 1994

Poverty Areas


Who Could Afford to Buy a House in 1991

Poverty in the U.S.: Changes Between the Censuses

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