Following World War II, demand for labor along the U.S.-Mexico border soared in Texas. These opportunities quickly attracted primarily Mexican workers without the financial means to buy a house but with aspirations to build a home.
They were greeted by predatory landowners who sold residential plots without basic infrastructure. Buyers built upon these properties piecemeal as money became available, forming what is now known as colonias, clusters of unregulated settlements with third-world conditions.
More than 70 years later, around a half-million Texans live in colonias. Many of these residents still endure substandard conditions, with some having to raft down the road during downpours, and others having to capture the little water that spurts from their faucets to clean dishes or wash clothes.
County and state governments don’t subsidize street lights, and colonia residents, especially those in rural areas, feel unsafe leaving their homes at night. While legislation facilitates counties’ ability to install street lights, costs are passed on to colonia residents in tight financial situations.
Efforts to circumvent laws made to stop the spread of colonias mean hundreds of new colonias have been built under new standards. A 2016 study identified nearly 800 new colonias in six Texas border counties. In these colonias, developers pass the costs of basic infrastructure to buyers, leaving these residents as or more financially vulnerable than older colonia residents.
In this series, Texas Public Radio explores the conditions that have led to the recent growth and expansion of colonias.