Colonia (United States)

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Near the U.S.-Mexico border, a colonia is a rural shantytown characterized by poor housing stock, inadequate physical infrastructure, and a weak social infrastructure. Colonias are a form of irregular, largely self-help housing settlement.[1]

Colonias are usually found in rural areas. Subdivisions are usually created out of cheap farmland. Usually it is not in a city's interest to annex a colonia because it would subsequently be required to provide city services such as water, electricity, and sewage; the tax revenue from annexed colonias would probably not cover the cost of installation and use of these services. Counties, under whose jurisdiction colonias tend to be, are usually not required to render such services.

In contrast to shantytowns in other parts of the world, most residents legally own the land on which they reside.


The Spanish word colonia means a 'colony' or 'community'; in Mexican Spanish, it is specifically a 'residential quarter (of a city)', and a colonia proletaria is a shantytown.[2] In Spanglish, the English-Spanish mix, colonia began to be used to refer primarily to Mexican neighborhoods about thirty years ago. A 1977 study uses the term "colonia" to describe rural desert settlements with inadequate infrastructure and unsafe housing stock.[3] Since these Hispanic neighborhoods were less affluent, the word also connoted poverty and substandard housing.[4]

In the 1990s, colonias became a common American English name for the slums that developed on both sides of the U.S.–Mexican border. Colonias have existed along the border for decades, but since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the number of people living in colonias has increased significantly, due, in part, to the increase in low-skilled jobs created on both sides of the border through the maquiladora industry.[4]

Legal and administrative definitions[edit]

The Farm Housing provisions of the United States Code define a colonia as a community that (1) is in the state of Arizona, California, New Mexico, or Texas; (2) is within 150 miles (240 km) of the U.S.-Mexico border, except for any metropolitan area exceeding one million people; (3) on the basis of objective criteria, lacks adequate sewage systems and lacks decent, safe, and sanitary housing; and (4) existed as a colonia before November 28, 1990.[5] Other definitions are used by specific governmental agencies.[6]

Various federal agencies have similar though not identical definitions, emphasizing the lack of adequate infrastructure and basic services, with low to very low income.[7]

Similarly, the Texas legislature has defined colonias as subdivisions lacking essential elements of infrastructure near the Mexican border.[8]


Public works and utilities are frequently absent for a number of reasons. Lots are usually acquired informally: no subdivisions are recorded, financing is provided by the selling party (if the lots are sold, not squatted), and there is generally no community planning office involvement. Some settlements, particularly irregular settlements in Mexico, eventually acquire essential infrastructure as the government recognizes these settlements, utility companies invest, or residents pool sufficient money to purchase infrastructure for services themselves.

Colonias by state[edit]

Colonias in Texas[edit]

Around the 1950s developers began creating subdivisions along the U.S.-Mexico border on agriculturally poor properties, divided land in small parcels, and provided few services; the development of the properties, intended for low income buyers, was the beginning of the Texas colonias. By 1995 the state passed laws against developing subdivisions without services. From 1995 and 2011, the office of the Texas Attorney General had 87 judgments against developers who created properties without services. The office of the Texas Attorney General said by 2011 that Texas had about 2,294 colonias and estimates that about 500,000 lived in the colonias. In Texas, Hidalgo County, as of 2011, has the largest number of colonias, though estimating their population is difficult: "Getting an accurate count of the population in any of" the state's colonias "is notoriously difficult, due to geographic isolation, shared addresses, swiftly changing development and mistrust of government data collectors."[9]

Colonias in New Mexico[edit]

In New Mexico, it has been found that there are about 150 colonias that have been identified as being qualified for colonia funding sources such as HUD, USDA, etc. In New Mexico there are two types of colonias, one is small towns and the other is sub divisional level colonias. Although many of New Mexico’s colonias consist of rural small towns, they were considered colonias because of the absence of resources. Conflicts with acceptable water, sewer, and/or safe and clean housing that the colonias would face, bought on the requirement of Section 916 of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1992, which was found useful to continue using the descriptions as a method to evaluate whether or not those colonias met the other requirements of Section 916. In New Mexico, land was sold contract for deed, however before 1990 New Mexicans were allowed to divide their property in 4 parcels without violating the law. Within a couple of years, land owner were than allowed to split their land in 2 parcels, but after some time the subdivision law was “amended to be applicable to land divisions into two or more parcels, thus closing the loophole utilized by colonia developers”.[10]


Divergent state subdivision regulations have influenced the historic development of colonias. Independent historical accounts would be appropriate by state.[11]

As of 2007, Texas has the largest concentration of people (approximately 400,000) living in over 2,000 colonias on the U.S. side of the border.[12] New Mexico has the second largest, followed by Arizona and California.[13] However, remote location and stealthy development characterize many colonias. It is therefore unlikely that an exact count is valid for an extended period of time.

Advocacy groups[edit]

Housing and community advocacy organizations such as the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS), an affordable housing advocacy nonprofit organization,[14] and the Colonias Development Council[15] in New Mexico, work to alleviate poverty in colonias by promoting self-help housing programs that provide colonia residents with resources to build their own homes, fostering community empowerment and raising public awareness.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ward, Peter M. 1989. A Critique of Self-Help Housing.
  2. ^ Collins Spanish-English Dictionary, online, s.v.
  3. ^ Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. 1997. Colonia Housing and Infrastructure 1 "Current Characteristics and Future Needs"; 2 "Water and Wastewater"; Policy Research Report no. 124; vol 3, Regulatory Issues and Policy Analysis. Austin: University of Texas.
  4. ^ a b 404
  5. ^ 42 U.S.C. § 1479 (f)(8)
  6. ^ Texas Code, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, United States Department of Agriculture[page needed]
  7. ^ Czerniak, Robert. 2000. "Colonia Boundary Delineation Using Aerial Photography." Powerpoint Presentation: Las Cruces, New Mexico
  8. ^ Pepin, Madeleine. "TEXAS COLONIAS: AN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE CASE STUDY," Our Lady of the Lake University
  9. ^ Grinberg, Emmanuella, "Impoverished border town grows from shacks into community". CNN. July 8, 2011. Retrieved on July 9, 2011.
  10. ^ "U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development". Retrieved February 14, 2014. 
  11. ^ Simmons, Nancy. 1997. “Memories and Miracles; Housing the Rural Poor along the United States-Mexico Border: A Comparative Discussion of Colonia Formation in El Paso County, Texas and Doña Ana County, New Mexico.” New Mexico Law Review. 27: 33-75.
  12. ^ "Colonias FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)," Texas Secretary of State.
  13. ^ "Designated Colonias in New Mexico," Homes and Communities United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  14. ^ Home
  15. ^ Colonias Development Council - Welcome / Concilio para el Desarrollo de las Colonias - Bienvenidos


  • Ganster, Paul and David E. Lorey, 2008. The US-Mexican Border into the Twentieth Century
  • Mangin, William and John F.C. Turner. 1968. "Barrida Movement", Progressive Architecture, 37:56:154-62.
  • Mangin, William. 1967. "Latin American Squatter Settlements: A Problem and a Solution." Latin American Research Review. 2:3: 65-98 (Summer, 1967)
  • Peach, J., and J. Williams. 2003. Population and Economic Dynamics on the U.S.-Mexican Border: Past, Present, and Future. Southwest Consortium of Environmental Research and Policy Monograph 1: "The U.S.-Mexico Border Region: A Road Map to a Sustainable 2020" (27 May 2008),
  • Turner, John F.C. 1963. "Dwelling Resources in South America." Architectural Design 37:360-93.
  • Turner, John F.C. 1972. "Housing as a Verb." in Freedom to Build. Ed Robert Fichter and John F. C. Turner. New York: The MacMillan Company.
  • Turner, John F.C. 1976. Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. London: Marion Boyars.
  • Turner, John F.C. 1982. "Issues in Self-Help and Self-Managed Housing." in Self-Help Housing: A Critique. ed. Peter M. Ward London: Mansell Press. 99-113.
  • Turner, John F.C. 1991. "Foreword." in Beyond Self-Help Housing. Ed. Mathéy, K. London: Mansell Press.
  • United Nations Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS) 2007. Enhancing Urban Safety and Security: Global Report on Human Settlements. London: Earthscan.
  • Ward, Peter M. 1978. "Self-help housing in Mexico City: Social and Economic Determinants of Success," Town Planning Review. 49:38-50.
  • Ward, Peter M. 1999. Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico; Urbanization by Stealth. Austin: University of Texas Press (27 May 2008).
  • Ward, Peter M. 2005. "The Lack of Cursive Thinking in Social Theory and Public Policy: Four Decades of Marginality and Rationality in the So-Called 'Slum.'" in Rethinking Development in Latin America. ed B. Roberts and C. Wood. University Park, PA: Penn State U Press 271-296.
  • Ward, Peter M. 2007. "Colonias, Informal Homestead Subdivisions, and Self-Help Care for the Elderly Among Mexican Populations in the United States." in The Health of Aging Hispanics; The Mexican-Origin Population. Ed. Jacqueline L Angel and Keith E Whitfield. New York: Springer. 141-162.
  • Ward, Peter M. and J. Carew. 2000. "Absentee Lot Owners in Texas Colonias: Who Are They and What Do They Want?" Habitat International. 24:327-345.
  • Ward, Peter M. and Paul A. Peters. 2007. "Self-Help Housing and Informal Homesteading in Peri-Urban America: Settlement Identification Using Digital Imagery and GIS." Habitat International 31:205-218.
  • Ward, Peter M., E. Jimenez, and G. Jones. 1993. "Residential land price changes in Mexican cities and the affordability of land for low-income groups". Urban Studies 30:9:1521-1542.
  • Ward, Peter M., Flavio de Souza, and Cecilia Guisti. 2004. "'Colonia' Land Housing Market Performance and the Impact of Lot Title Regularization in Texas." Urban Studies 41:13:2621-2646.
  • Ward, Peter ed. 1982. Self-Help Housing: A Critique. London: Mansell Press.
  • Ward, Peter. 2004. "Informality of Housing Production at the Urban-Rural Interface: the Not-So-Strange Case of Colonias in the U.S., Texas, the Border and Beyond." in Urban Informality, ed. Anaya Roy and Nezar AlSayyad 243-270. Berkeley, California: Lexington Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
  • Wilson R. and Menzies P 1997. The colonias water bill: communities demanding change.
  • Wilson, Robert Hines. 1997. "Public policy and community: activism and governance in Texas". Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 229–274.

Additional sources[edit]

  • Pepin, Madeleine, "Texas Colonias: An Environmental Justice Case Study" [1]
  • Huntoon, Laura and Becker, Barbara, 2001, "Colonias in Arizona: A Changing Definition with Changing Location" [2]

External links[edit]