Destitution North of the Border

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In the "colonias" communities of South Texas, thousands live without running water, sanitation, or electricity

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. -- The sun is low in the sky and an icy wind whips across the cotton field. The trailer has been empty a couple of months now. A tortured strip of aluminum bent into a 'V' sits like a spire on what's left of the roof, and the back end of the home is now a wooden skeleton after a tornado ripped it apart late last year. Santos Marines, 62, stands on her stoop next door and shakes her head. "I don't know where they went. He came by yesterday to get some of his stuff, but they had to move out. It's so sad. They have nothing."

The irony is that while Marines's trailer was spared the tornado, she has very little herself. The tiny heater in the front room is barely enough to keep it warm and Marines has resorted to turning two burners up high on the stove; the other two are broken. Several gallon-bottles of water are stacked up near the door. There is no running water -- any that she needs for cooking or bathing is pumped from a neighbor's well half a mile down the road, and drinking water has to come from the supermarket.

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Colonias -- impoverished communities along the United States' southern border -- date back to the 1950s when ruthless property developers created unincorporated subdivisions on agriculturally useless land that usually lay in floodplains. They failed to put in any infrastructure and then sold the plots to people seeking affordable housing at hugely inflated rates of interest.

"Miss one payment," says Lionel Lopez who runs the South Texas Colonia Initiative, an advocacy group for residents, "and you have to start all over again."

Colonias didn't really hit the headlines until 20 years ago. It was incredible then that people in the United States were living without running water, electricity or sanitation. It's even more incredible that it's still happening in 2011.

Texas is home to more colonias than any other state. According to official state records, around 500,000 people -- predominantly Hispanic -- live in 2,300 of these communities along a 1,248-mile stretch of the border. Housing is usually in shacks made of wood, plywood and cardboard, or in trailers. But it's not just the border that is home to the colonias: Primavera, the one in which Marines lives, is just a few miles outside of Corpus Christi in Nueces County, 150 miles or so from Mexico.

There have been some improvements. According to a report by the Texas Secretary of State Colonia Initiatives Program which co-ordinates the various federal, state and local agencies and officials helping address the challenges, in 2006 there were an estimated 62,675 residents living in 442 colonias that lacked basic infrastructure such as potable water and wastewater disposal. In 2010, this had dropped to 44,526 living in 353 colonias.

Herein lies the problem: Critics say there are so many agencies involved in "helping address the challenges" that deciding who does what, where funding will come from, and which community will receive it, is a mess. And some, including Lopez, question the official number of colonias.

"How sad to be born here, live here all your life, die here and not know what it is like to be an American."
Lopez, a retired firefighter, turns 68 this year. He first learned of the plight of colonias residents more than 30 years ago. Shocked, he and his wife began going to county meetings and used their own money to install septic tanks and provide blankets and other necessities. Finally, an attorney friend told them to form a non-profit otherwise nobody would pay them any attention. "So we did it and they still ignored us," he says, laughing. "But we're still here."

Santos Marines was born in Texas and lives on widows benefits. She was in social housing but after her son was sent to prison in San Antonio she had to give up the house so she could visit him. When he was moved to a unit in Dayton, Texas, she couldn't afford another move and ended up living here in Primavera with her friend, Dionicio Castillo, the trailer's owner. They have tried to fix the place up -- Marines shows me where she's used insulating foam under the base boards and in the cracks to keep the cold from coming in -- but she admits she's fighting a losing battle.

Just down the road, 61-year-old Arturo Mungia, who brings water to Marines and Castillo's trailer twice a week, lives in the house he built on rented land 16 years ago. It's bitterly cold inside the dark kitchen. "My stove broke so I was using a hot plate," Mungia says, pointing to a small electric appliance on a stool at the side of the room. "But now that's broken, too." He used to love making menudo (a Mexican soup) but he hasn't had a hot meal for weeks. He used to drink the well water until Lopez warned him not to -- run-off from the fields can poison it with pesticides, and if it's a private well, like Mungia's, it is not regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

We turn down a potholed road that leads to a small wooden shack. Antonia Lopez (no relation to Lionel) says her family built the house in 1986. It has no running water and no drainage. It's also in the flood plain and she has seen her sitting room submerged too many times than she'd care to remember.

Lopez is in a wheelchair after having her leg amputated due to complications with diabetes. She is waiting for a prosthetic limb to be fitted but when it is, she wants to work again. "For now, I get $137 a month in food stamps," she says.

At nearby Banquette colonia, Lionel Lopez points out the sheer number of wheelchair ramps leading up to one dilapidated house after the other. "They're all in dialysis," he says. "There are also predominantly women living here; all the men have died of heart attacks."

Four years ago the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 99 which it says will help stop the proliferation of colonias and improve the health, safety and quality of life for residents in existing ones. That legislation requires the Texas Secretary of State to compile information from the various agencies that aid those residents.

The latest report came out in December and recommended undertaking a survey of the basic services available in each colonia, tracking the progress of state-funded projects and prioritizing funding. The report's introduction read: "Count on our continued leadership to help ensure that all colonia residents have quality roads, reliable water and wastewater infrastructure, and excellent public health services."

Critics say that's easier said than done; that there are so many agencies involved -- including the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, Texas Water Development Board, the state's department of transportation and department of housing and community affairs -- that it's become a minefield.

I ask Carola Serrato of the South Texas Water Authority what is stopping all colonias in her county getting water connections. There are a number of factors, she says. It depends where the colonia is and when it was developed (if it's an unrecorded subdivision that hasn't been plotted, as is often the case, connecting to the mains water supply can be tricky, apparently), whether the person requesting water connection actually owns the property, and whether indeed there is even a water line anywhere close. "Water supply corporations are non-profit organizations," Serrato says. "They are owned by the members and if we need to run a line 10,000 feet to a house it would add up to quite a lot of money. We typically can't let members pay for that and so that's usually what hinders someone from getting water."

Tyner Little agrees. He works in governmental affairs for Nueces County and says some people choose to live in such remote areas that they simply can't afford to pay for the length of the water line needed to cover the distance.

For those colonias that are in the worst state, Little says the county deals with them one project at a time. "We can handle two or three a year, but a lot of times it just doesn't make sense," he says. "We did a water project this past year and after all was said and done we spent $1.6m getting water into this old subdivision just outside of Corpus. The lot sizes were small and had houses stacked four, five to a lot, sharing a driveway. We had to move one house and to get roads and drainage into that subdivision of 117 people we spent just under $14,000 per person."

The money for that project came from the Office of Rural and Community Affairs, Little says. Other funding comes from the water development board and from the state. "But we just don't have resources. We can get grants to help but we're not in the water business and we're not in the sewer business, and nor do we want to be."

Colonias issues are some of the most complicated the various agencies have to deal with: houses not built to code, no proper easements, no right of way for utilities or emergency vehicles and bad drainage. Then there's the fact that most are built in floodplains -- and so finding agencies even willing to fund projects can be hard. Progress is being made, but it's slow.

Eleven years ago, respected Hispanic filmmaker Hector Galan made a documentary about the colonias. One resident told him then: "How sad to be born here, live here all your life, die here and not know what it is like to be an American."

The sentiments of colonias residents today haven't much changed.
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Alex Hannaford is a British journalist based in Texas, where he writes about human interest and political issues, religion, crime and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @AlHannaford and read more of his work at his website and blog.

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