Sensing Change: U.S. Census Skips Many Texas Border Colonias
Boys ride horses down a street in a "colonia" in Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Hernán Rozemberg
March 29, 2011

ALTON, TX - When census figures for Texas were released last month, they revealed that Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of the state’s growth in the last decade. They now comprise nearly 40 percent of the Texas population. The number of ramshackle neighborhoods along the border called "colonias" grew, but many were not counted in the census.

It’s early morning at Colonia El Flaco outside Alton, Texas, an underdeveloped neighborhood with ramshackle homes. It’s about 10 miles from the Mexico border in this region known as the Rio Grande Valley, the southern-most point of Texas. Longtime resident Francisco Martínez recalls this area used to be one citrus orchard after another.

"When I was here in 1969, it was only 11 houses. No schools, no church, no police department, no nothing," Martinez said.

"The Valley", as it’s called here, is mired in poverty. Yet the population is growing. Unincorporated county land is being gobbled up by developers looking to cash in. They split their properties into small, inexpensive lots popular with illegal immigrants. Developers face few regulations creating these cheap subdivisions that generally don’t include basic services such as sewer lines. But buyers will deal with septic tanks if it means having a place of their own. State officials estimate there are 1,800 colonias home to 376,000 people along the Texas-Mexico border.

"These colonias are springing up like mushrooms in a field," said Javier Parra, an organizer with La Union del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a local activist group. "They’re being allowed as long as you meet the basic prerequisites. None are following what is needed in the area of transportation, what is needed in the area of parks." 

Parra helps form colonia associations. He encouraged colonia residents to participate in the census. But the government count skipped most colonias. It’s not a first. The U.S. Census Bureau has always had problems conducting accurate counts here. In part, it’s because illegal immigrants fear contact with any governmental agency will get them deported.

Pure determination got Jesus García where he is today. He’s a known entity around Colonia Pueblo de Palmas, with about 8,000 residents. García chased away street gangs from the colonia’s only soccer field and set up adult and children’s leagues. Other colonias followed suit with leagues of their own.

That park was left to rot, used by kids on drugs, but he’s proud to have turned it into a family park, García says. But increased state and federal funding is funneled to local communities based on their population. So without an accurate census count, colonias like this one will miss out on more and better services. It also lessens the political clout of colonia residents who already feel forgotten by local politicians, says Francisco Martinez of Colonia Basham.

 "We need attention too because we’re human people. I notice the difference because we’re not rich, we don’t have the same amount of money. But we pay taxes, too," Martinez said.

As if the pulsating cumbia beat blasting from a house stereo wasn’t enough of a giveaway, stroll down Colonia Abram and you feel transported to a ranching community in the Mexican countryside. Everyone speaks Spanish. The houses are built brick by brick. Horses, cows and other animals roam freely. It’s precisely why the Peña family moved here.

"We’ve essentially set up our little ranch here," says Damiana Peña. "We might be up here but it’s like we’re back home."  

Yet as much as they follow a Mexican lifestyle, they’re still striving for the American Dream. For 65-year-old Carlos Galindo at Colonia Western Palm, there’s nothing like being the king of his castle.

 "Nobody can tell me where to go or what to do. I put my feet up on that couch and end of story," laughs Galindo. His wooden-plank home looks like it might collapse any second. But he built it on his own from scratch after buying this half-acre lot eight years ago for $250.

And nobody can take that away from him.