The Borderline
  La Linea Fronteriza
Houston Institute for Culture 

The Borderline
Health Issues
The Future

Colonias are unincorporated settlements, which usually lack water and sewer systems, as well as electricity. Housing is usually substandard and can even be described as crude and remedial. Poor construction cannot protect the houses from storms that often strike the Lower Rio Grande Valley, or from the short winter that may bring bitter cold, but without electricity the shabby construction serves to vent the homes in the extremely hot months of the long summers.

Colonias exist in Mexico and all bordering U.S. states. On the U.S. side, Texas has the most colonias of any U.S. state, with more than 1,400, predominately located near the border. Colonias often exist in floodplains and industrial areas, or on land with little agricultural value. Colonia residents in Texas sometimes own their plots, as developers have sold useless unimproved land to low-income families. They may not have title to their land until final payment is made. With limited property tax base, cities are reluctant to annex colonias.

In Mexico, colonias may have even less government assistance than those in the U.S. Household incomes in many Texas colonias (particularly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley) are under $10,000. (We presently do not have sufficient data on incomes in Mexican colonias, but we have interviewed people who earn 1/10th to 1/5th of the hourly wages of a U.S. worker earning minimum wage.)

If the picture of Texas colonias is grim, conditions in Mexico may even be much worse, or at least in a more rapidly deteriorating state with a rapidly growing population. Residents on both sides work in similar fields, seasonal farm work, construction, factory labor, and independent enterprises such as food vendors and product peddlers. On the Mexico side, residents of some colonias work as trash collectors, and sort and resell trash. Houses are sometimes built with recycled shipping pallets and cable spools.

Helpful resources:

The Texas Department of Human Services has produced "The Colonias Factbook: A Survey of Living Conditions in Rural Areas of South and West Texas Border Counties."

State Offices:

Texas Department of Health
Office of Border Health
1100 West 49th Street
Austin, TX 78756

Administers offices in Harlingen, Laredo, Uvalde, and El Paso.


Border Low Income Housing Coalition
20 Iturbide Street
Laredo, TX 78040


Ejidos are communities with a form of government and ownership that dates back to the Aztecs. Tribal elders (los huehuetque) typically governed the ejido, a village neighborhood with associated communal lands used for farming or other community work. Families produced crops for their own subsistence, and a surplus to meet community needs or for trade.

It was under Spanish rule that the ejidos emerged as Mexico's form of indigenous land ownership. Conquistadores were given large land grants, called encomiendas, by Spanish rulers. In the early encomienda period (1540 - 1650), the conquistadores governed all aspects of their land grant, including its indigenous population. Spain established laws to prevent severe exploitation of Indians, who were often forced to provide slave labor for mines and construction projects.

Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ejido lands were diminished, many stolen and others abandoned as Mexico's mestizo (mixed culture) population grew.

Through a variety of measures and reforms, such as Ley Lerdo (1857), which encouraged privatization of community and church property, indigenous people have struggled to survive and maintain their cultures. Barons claimed Indian lands to found their haciendas and private industries. Because the indigenous populations were poor and their rights rarely protected, mestizos also found the communal Indian lands easy to acquire, legally or illegally.

During the Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata, with his army of Zapatistas, rebelled against wealthy land owners who had stolen lands of peasant farmers in southern Mexico, including the heavily indigenous states of Guerrero, Morelos and Puebla. Zapata's Ayala Plan (November 25, 1911) called for redistribution of lands to Mexico's indigenous population.

The Mexican Revolution (Article 27 of the Constitution) returned ejido lands to idigenous communities and nationalized many of Mexico's natural resources, which were controlled by wealthy companies in the United States and Great Britain.

Though the ejido lands were placed under the responsibility of individual members, they were actually held in the trust of the Mexican government. Like many United States Indian Reservations, the ejido lands were useless as collateral for loans to make improvements or establish profitable enterprises. Even today, most of the nearly 20,000 ejidos exist on marginal lands with no source of water for consumption or crop irrigation outside of rainfall.

Ejido communities struggle to subsist as farmers, as mass production and import of subsidized U.S. agricultural products lower the value of the Indians' labor. Ejidos are typically impoverished, but they are a means for Mexico's poor to maintain ownership of an asset against the dominant wealthy class.

Carlos Salinas Gotari, president from 1988 - 1994, offered the ejido communities title to their lands. But Salinas' ammendmant to Article 27 of the Constitution, permitting sale of ejido lands, once again left the poor vulnerable to wealthy industrial interests. The controversy over the communal lands reached an international stage before the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as U.S. president George Bush believed the ejidos' unique and historical protection presented barriers to U.S. multinational corporations' access to Mexican markets, industries and land ownership.

The Zapatista rebellion that surfaced in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA is partly a continuation of the struggle of Mexico's indigenous populations to maintain their economic and cultural independence.

The modern ejido system is the mechanism for land ownership in many colonias, including many of those on Mexico's northern border with the United States.


In 2000, the Texas State Data Center reported 8.1 - 20.9 percent unemployment in nearly all border counties, two to three times higher than most other Texas counties.

According to a Texas A&M University study, unemployment in Lower Rio Grande Valley colonias has ranged as high as 60 percent(*). Much of the existing work is seasonal, or tenuous at best.

* Cinco Colonia Areas: Baseline Conditions in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Center for Housing and Urban Development, Texas A&M University, College Station, Nov. 1993

Recession in the United States led to job losses in the maquiladora industry, while increased border security following the attacks of September 11, 2001 has hurt cross-border trade between cities, such as Matamoros and Brownsville. Maquiladoras laid off an estimated 100,000 workers in 2001, and 400,000 more may have suffered job losses due to the U.S. economic downturn.

Loss of manufacturing jobs to China threatens to further hurt employment on Mexico's northern border. According to University of California-Davis Migration News, "China surpassed Mexico to become the second largest exporter to the United States in 2003, and China attracted far more foreign investments, $54 million, compared to $11 billion in Mexico."

According to the Commission for Northern Border Affairs (Comision para Asuntos de la Frontera Norte, CAFN) report, "Border Region Development Plan" (2001-2006 period), jobs in the border region account for 33 percent of all national employment. From 1994 - 2000, 30 percent of all direct foreign investment went to the border region

Mexico is undeniably tied to the U.S. economy and the whims of corporate managers seeking low-cost labor and high investment yields.

Even with the forecast of a growing Texas economy, several factors - increased jobs offering low wages, population growth and the continuing attraction of workers to the border region - are expected to negatively impact the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexican border cities are growing faster from immigration than from their birth rates. In the 1990 census, Reynosa's population was 280,000; ten years later it registered 420,000, and many of the growing number of migrants from southern Mexico and Central America are not counted.

Due to population growth and increasing migration to the border, unemployment is expected to continue to rise faster than available jobs throughout the region.




Copyright 2004 by Mark Lacy and Houston Institute for Culture.