How South Texas became capitalism’s open air prison

How South Texas became capitalism’s open air prison

By Liam Wright

In 2014, Threshold organized a trip to the Rio Grande Valley in order to get a better sense of the people who live there and the conditions they live in. At the core of our project is investigation. Investigation in order to understand and participate in struggle – to be able to craft a strategy and help build a movement for liberation. One based on the life, economy, politics and people of today.

The purpose of this essay is to give revolutionaries in the US an early look at the state of the situation in the border communities called colonias. Rather than give a proposed line of march or suggest a political strategy, it is intended to give a basic breakdown of those aspects of the economy, politics, and people of the colonias which we have begun to explore. Any thoughts in this piece with regards to strategy and practice are by nature early and undeveloped.

FleaMarketOpenSky

Outdoor flea market in the Rio Grande Valley

 

Welcome to Texas

The drive from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley takes about a day; eight hours of long wide sky, flat land, brush, gas stations, and small towns. This trip–in many ways, a quite typical slice of semi-rural Americana–belies the deep and complex social contradictions present, especially as you draw closer to the border. The Rio Grande Valley is Texas’ southern-most region and one of the most distinct places internal to the US’ borders. The land was once stolen from Mexico, playing a formative role in the RGV’s history and contemporary existence.

When you walk down the sidewalks of McAllen– the RGV’s second most populated city–shopkeepers, street performers, and passersby all speak Spanish as their first language. The shop-signs and billboards are in Spanish. Quinceñera dresses hang in windows in retail stores next to shops playing Reggaeton or Cumbia music out their open doors. In the RGV a majority of people are of Mexican descent or at some point themselves emigrated from Mexico. The city feels like a developed, moderately-sized Mexican city.

But when we traveled outside the cities, toward the border, or west toward Starr County, that semi-urban, small city feel dissipates, and the open land seems to expand endlessly. This vastness matches the expansion of the militarization developing since the days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. From the highway, we see glistening border patrol vehicles in caravans of three or more. And, when we get close enough, we see the border wall cutting against the edge of the city and stretching across the border. Images of the late Berlin Wall come to mind: an omnipresent experience for residents.

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Border patrol vehicle along the border

At the border crossing, the noted ‘Welcome to Texas’ sign posted against the backdrop of painted one story buildings and open sky feels hollow. In the RGV there are over a million people, mostly Latino, who live under a highly developed paramilitary(1)From http://www.merriam-webster.com paramilitary is defined as: “of, relating to, being, or characteristic of a force formed on a military pattern especially as a potential auxiliary military force” presence maintaining US control. It is one of the places where many straddle the lines of legality and illegality, regulation and anarchy, integration and exclusion in US society, economy, and politics at large. With the swelling paramilitary presence, checkpoints, criminalization, and poverty here at the border–the sentiment is far from ‘welcoming.’

 

The Colonias

Outside of the boundaries of border cities like McAllen there are hundreds of thousands living in some of the worst poverty in the US, in settlements called colonias. A colonia is an impromptu, unincorporated neighborhood, without much of the infrastructure usually provided by local municipalities and which most have come to expect in the United States. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), defines a colonia as “an unincorporated community within 150 miles of the US-Mexico border that lacks one or more of the following: potable water, waste water, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.”(2)Dolhinow, Rebecca. A Jumble of Needs : Women’s Activism and Neoliberalism in the Colonias of the Southwest. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print. pp. 2-3. Colonias are settlements, or communities, where people, by definition, live without.

As a result of the economic situation and proximity to the border, the colonias are home to many undocumented immigrants. The counties in Texas which contain colonias have average incomes well below the national–and unemployment rates are much higher than the national. Poverty rates in US border counties as a whole in 2004 was at 22%, almost double the national average of 13%. Meanwhile the poverty rates in Cameron County are roughly 29%, 31% for Hidalgo, and 35% for Starr.(3)Martinez, Oscar J. “The U.S.-Mexico Border Economy.” The Colonias Reader: Economy, Housing, and Public Health in U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias. Ed. Angela J. Donelson and Adrian X. Esparza. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. 15-29. Print. p. 16.

We met up with Daniel, a native who is now an organizer for a non profit which provides support to the residents of the colonias. He explained to us:

“…There are also colonias… South Military Road goes along the border wall. So, you actually see the physical barrier there and you see colonias there. [They] are probably some of the poorest communities in the country. And people live there. And the majority of the people in those colonias are undocumented. So the oppression there just increases ten-fold I think.”

For many people in the US, the colonias along the Southern US border are entirely invisible. And the people living in them are unknown. And yet, as of 2010, just in Texas there were roughly 400,000 people living in colonias.(4)Dolhinow, 2010, p. 3.

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DIY fencing

Homes in the colonias can be built bit by bit over years and often do not follow building codes. When we traveled through the colonias, a close look revealed the piecemeal development of homes. Do it yourself plumbing and do it yourself irrigation on cracked, dry land or sometimes flood plains – livestock grazing behind self-installed fencing. Colonias are mostly built on land that can’t be sold for other uses. It might be that the land is disconnected from roadways or highways. Or sometimes because the land isn’t fertile enough for agriculture. But in general, colonias are partitioned from undesired land. Those partitions are then sold to poor and desperate people, often undocumented immigrants and migrant workers.

Colonias exist all along both sides of the US-Mexico border. On the US side, they are extremely concentrated, with Texas having the vast majority–roughly 1400 colonias in Texas versus the 80 in Arizona and 120 in New Mexico.(5)Parcher, Jean W., and Delbert G. Humberson. CHIPS: A New Way to Monitor Colonias Along the United States-Mexico Border. U.S. Geological Survey. Open-File Report 2007–1230. 2007. Web. 28 Dec. 2014. p.1 Of the Texas-based colonia residents, 369,000 are concentrated in six counties: Hidalgo, Cameron, El Paso, Maverick, Starr, and Webb, four of which are in the Rio Grande Valley.(6)Durst, Noah J. “The rise of renters and renting in Texas colonias.” Habitat International July 2014: 72-78. Print. p. 73. Nearly 70% of the people living in colonias are concentrated in the Valley.(7)Sharkey, Joseph R., Scott Horel, Daikwon Han, and John C. Huber Jr. “Association between neighborhood need and spatial access to food stores and fast food restaurants in neighborhoods of Colonias.” International Journal of Health Geographics 2009.8 (2009): 1-17. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

 

Rise of the Colonias

Colonias are a relatively new development, first coming into being in the 1950s.(8)Mukhija, Vinit and Paavo Monkkonen. “What’s in a Name? A Critique of ‘Colonias’ in the United States.” International Journal of Urban & Regional Research 31.2 (2007): 475-488. Print. p. 477. They are by definition outside city municipal limits. Few cities or towns annex colonias, because of how it would impact their tax base. When a city or town does annex a colonia, it means that it is responsible for infrastructure improvements. But the people living in colonias are usually bitterly poor, obviously not contributing much in the way of taxes. So, municipal governments, viewing annexation as a potential drain on their already limited resources, leave the people of the colonias to fend for themselves.

We can trace the development of the colonias into what they are today through three major policy decisions. The first, the Bracero program, was enacted during Word War II in order to help compensate for labor shortages caused by the war. It allowed workers to stay in the United States as guest workers. During the 22 years it was active, roughly 4.5 million people were sponsored to come from Mexico to the US for work.(9)Esparza, Adrian X. and Angela J. Donelson. Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico: Border Poverty and Community Development Solutions. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.

In 1964, after the Bracero program ended, there was an influx of newly unemployed into the country’s labor force. Simultaneously, there was a massive loss in money transfers from Mexican workers in the US to families and loved ones in Mexico. So, less than a year after the Bracero program ended, the Mexican government launched the Border Industrialization Program (commonly known as the Maquiladora Program). The BIP was intended as a stopgap to soften this economic blow. It planned to employ displaced workers in Mexico who could no longer work in the US by welcoming industry to the border. This led to a significant swelling of the population living along the Mexican side of the border. Eventually, many who moved north to work in the Mexican factories produced by the Maquiladora program would cross the nearby border to reside in the US.

In 1986, the US passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which allowed many of those workers who had immigrated to the United States to gain citizenship and, importantly, to bring their families from Mexico to live with them. In total, 2.7 million immigrants were able to use the IRCA to gain amnesty, most of them Mexican.(10)Martinez, 2010, p. 27

According to one researcher, before the IRCA came into effect, Mexican immigrant workers on the US side of the border were overwhelmingly male.(11)Dolhinow, 2010, 63-64 The rapid influx of family members and the housing shortages thereafter were key in the rapid growth of the population of the colonias.(12)Dolhinow, 2010, 53 Before the IRCA came into effect, many Mexican and Chicano workers lived on the farms where they worked. Bosses and owners did not want whole families living in the barracks-style, secret housing – it isn’t something they wanted to be responsible for. The informal, affordable, and semi-legal housing that the colonias offered became a more generally used option. At this point the number of colonia residents exploded. Before 1970, 10% of people living in the Valley were colonia residents; by 1990, just four years after the IRCA was passed, this figure had jumped to 26%.(13)Richardson, Chad and Michael J. Pisani. The Informal and Underground Economy of the South Texas Border. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Print. p. 172

Finally, the moves toward militarization which first began in the 90s made crossing the border much more dangerous. People who immigrated to U.S. side of the border “illegally” now had much more incentive to stay.

 

Key to the Colonias: Contract for Deed

Some properties have fresh pavement and beautiful, if humble, homes. We saw brightly painted houses, with pastels popping against the foliage or dry, dusty landscape. Some of the homes in the colonias have been developed by the people living in them for over a generation.

Alongside a more developed home might be a tilting shack or an abandoned home. Untamed land might sit next to a community road lined with houses. This all sits so close to the border; its specter looming ever in the back of your mind.

The lopsided, incremental, do-for-self development of the colonias is connected to the wide use of something called contract for deed (CFD). Similar to rent-to-own, CFD is a contract between buyer and seller. It enables someone to start renting a plot of land or a home for very little money down, sometimes as little as 25 dollars(14)Dolhinow, 2010, p. 77., and pay for the land over time. The problem however, is that CFDs are potentially highly parasitic.

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Goats grazing on a plot of land in the colonias.

Unlike a normal mortgage, the person buying and living in the home or on the land, does not own it until the contract is paid in full. Also, the seller can repossess the property rapidly. If there are any missed payments a seller can cancel the contract, taking all payments already made and the property without having to go through formal foreclosure hearings. CFD doesn’t have to involve any financing institutions, and is entirely financed by the seller. Zero bank involvement means greater privacy – something appealing to the undocumented living in the RGV.

While the low cost up front and the ability to build incrementally in unregulated ways is cheaper, a home or land buyer using CFD doesn’t have nearly the protections afforded to people with a mortgage, and they still have the same responsibilities for the property: maintaining the premises, paying taxes, and the like. Finally, either the seller or the buyer can sell their stake in the contract. A buyer could, overnight, have to correspond and give payment to an entirely new seller. At one point during our interview, Daniel, the non-profit organizer told us:

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You can see homemade structures just beyond the arid land in the foreground.

“There was very little enforcement from the state and county side to make sure these colonias were up to code. And [when] people are desperate to live somewhere and own a piece of land [..] they’re gonna buy it. People are crossing the border and that’s a little dream- to have a piece of land. We have a lot of members who live in that situation. [They would tell us,] ‘We didn’t know it flooded. We didn’t know that with a CFD if you didn’t make a payment one month you were in danger of losing [your] property and [your] home.’”

People buying with CFD are highly vulnerable, with low incomes and little legal protections, in many cases subject to the whims of a seller looking to turn a profit. Seeing these homes, and imagining the stories attached to them, I wondered: How many people have been taken advantage of, living in these settlements? How many people who smuggled themselves across the border or who simply were poor and needed options lost their homes because a landlord decided to call in debts? But then, the seller is only one enemy for people living in the colonias. The prospect of deportation, checkpoint, or round-up are always a possibility. Fear is ever present. Daniel elaborated on this point:

“I work with a lot of mothers, families, and kids who don’t have their dads or don’t have their mothers because one of them was deported… Just maybe a few months ago I was driving to a colonia and I saw border patrol trucks in the colonia where they had maybe a group of 4 or 5 people being arrested on the ground. That type of imagery… it creates this type of oppression that creates [..] fear all across those neighborhoods. Next thing you know you have families that don’t have documents who probably don’t even want to drive out of the neighborhood.”

There is clearly a relationship between CFD, the colonias’ underdeveloped infrastructure, and their shaky relationship to the law and regulation. Since colonias are unincorporated they typically fall under county jurisdiction. The enforcement powers of the counties in Texas are quite weak. According to one major, notorious colonia developer, if one wants to start a colonia:

“Find a willing attorney to research land development, septic tank, and water supply regulations. In the absence of those regulations, you have a good potential for developing a colonia.”(15)Dolhinow, 2010. 77

In some cases colonias are not connected to roads at all, and entering one colonia requires crossing another property. In New Mexico, the Federal Bureau of Land Management owned a part of the properties on which colonias were built, meaning the colonia developer (the seller) did not actually have the legal right to work or sell that land.(16)Dolhinow, 2010, p. 37 However, once colonias have been established, the general experience has been that governments– local, county, state, or federal– are quite hesitant to displace the residents.

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Some homes in the colonias have been built for over a decade or more. This is an older home near McAllen.

In older colonias, where a generation has already lived and established themselves, traditional renting as such has become a lot more common. While colonias are originally developed by large landowners who own the deed to many CFD properties, those who rent there do not typically have a single large landlord. According to one source, “Only 10% of renter-occupied units in colonias are located in multi-unit structures such as duplexes or larger complexes, compared with 28% in rural Texas and 61% throughout the state”.(17)Durst, 2014, p. 75 More often, a landlord is an individual family that bought a home via a CFD and is renting out that individual property. This renting structure is in part a response to the lack of banks and other institutions willing to finance the sale of colonia houses. It should also be noted that 27% of renters pay no rent at all – versus 17% in rural areas throughout Texas. This is likely due to the centrality of family and friend networks to life in the colonias.(18)Durst, 2014, p. 76 Though, it might also be due to the high levels of spontaneous cooperation in the colonias. Additionally, renting seems to be easier to manage for single mothers who head 39% of renter families, but only 18% of owner families.(19)Durst, 2014, p. 76

Lack of infrastructure and a fuzzy relationship with the law are fundamental to the colonias, historically and today. Starting in the 1980’s, Texas state legislation began dealing with infrastructure, housing, and deed. Some of the legislation passed included providing funding or loans for improving infrastructure and housing, legislation aimed at slowing or stopping the growth and new settlement of colonias, and empowering local and state governments to enforce those regulations that already existed. But the lack of regulation and enforcement appears to be preferred both by developers and residents. It allows the people living in the colonias to be able to afford their homes and stay relatively out of the eyes of the state and its enforcers. And of course, developers are most interested in their bottom-line: Having to be responsible for a reasonable, fully developed infrastructure would make the colonias far less profitable for them.

 

Concluding to Continue

The dry, open, sometimes desolate, sometimes lush beauty of the Valley is overlain with the complex history and reality of oppression, exploitation, and a highly bureaucratic, bloated paramilitary force. Because of this, and because of the ways in which the people have responded, real potential lies with the people of the colonias. When this system and its functions are frustrated and cannot find resolution–when many reside outside its calculations of risk and stability–there is the potential for cracks and fracture. Perhaps, even explosion.

The needs of life in the colonias has created a necessity of do-for-self, mutual support, and community. When one has no government or landlord to turn to for a grievance, for running water or an outhouse, where does one turn but to the person next to them? There are more things particular to the colonias which show real possibility for a radical politics: Women tend to be the community leaders – showing a modified relationship to the typical forms of patriarchy found inside US borders, with spontaneous forms of organization by women popping up among the colonias. In the face of repression the people have found creative ways to resist and avoid arrest as well as deportation. We heard from Daniel, the non-profit organizer, about how in the last year the border patrol was setting up checkpoints at the edges of the colonias making it so some of the inhabitants couldn’t go to work for weeks on end. In the face of that, their non-profit set up avenues through social media where they could alert people living in the colonias as to where the checkpoints were while they fought a legal battle in the state capital. And there are struggles of working people against their employer we should understand more deeply. While we were in the Valley were heard stories about construction workers fighting for stolen wages and union drives among hospital workers. Finally, there is the important role students from the universities have played in the Valley, against deportations and in support of the many seeking refuge by crossing the US border. Whether that be through putting water in the desert for those who are crossing, holding protests demanding that refugees be able to stay, or offering refugees clothes, food, and help before sending them off to their next destination.

In initially examining life and struggle in the colonias, it becomes clear that they are places worth exploring and understanding. These are places which might contain an important social base for a radical, egalitarian politic. Determining whether or not this is the case requires a much deeper and more thorough investigation than is possible in this piece. Threshold has just started to scratch the surface in looking at infrastructure and housing in the colonias. These, of course, make up a part of the layered understanding we would need in order to proscribe a political strategy based on or including the colonias. But, any conclusions we can draw are by nature tentative and initial.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. From http://www.merriam-webster.com paramilitary is defined as: “of, relating to, being, or characteristic of a force formed on a military pattern especially as a potential auxiliary military force”
2. Dolhinow, Rebecca. A Jumble of Needs : Women’s Activism and Neoliberalism in the Colonias of the Southwest. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print. pp. 2-3.
3. Martinez, Oscar J. “The U.S.-Mexico Border Economy.” The Colonias Reader: Economy, Housing, and Public Health in U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias. Ed. Angela J. Donelson and Adrian X. Esparza. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. 15-29. Print. p. 16.
4. Dolhinow, 2010, p. 3.
5. Parcher, Jean W., and Delbert G. Humberson. CHIPS: A New Way to Monitor Colonias Along the United States-Mexico Border. U.S. Geological Survey. Open-File Report 2007–1230. 2007. Web. 28 Dec. 2014. p.1
6. Durst, Noah J. “The rise of renters and renting in Texas colonias.” Habitat International July 2014: 72-78. Print. p. 73.
7. Sharkey, Joseph R., Scott Horel, Daikwon Han, and John C. Huber Jr. “Association between neighborhood need and spatial access to food stores and fast food restaurants in neighborhoods of Colonias.” International Journal of Health Geographics 2009.8 (2009): 1-17. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.
8. Mukhija, Vinit and Paavo Monkkonen. “What’s in a Name? A Critique of ‘Colonias’ in the United States.” International Journal of Urban & Regional Research 31.2 (2007): 475-488. Print. p. 477.
9. Esparza, Adrian X. and Angela J. Donelson. Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico: Border Poverty and Community Development Solutions. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.
10. Martinez, 2010, p. 27
11. Dolhinow, 2010, 63-64
12. Dolhinow, 2010, 53
13. Richardson, Chad and Michael J. Pisani. The Informal and Underground Economy of the South Texas Border. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Print. p. 172
14. Dolhinow, 2010, p. 77.
15. Dolhinow, 2010. 77
16. Dolhinow, 2010, p. 37
17. Durst, 2014, p. 75
18, 19. Durst, 2014, p. 76