Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions often asked about colonias, the Valley, and the people who live here.

Where are we located?

The Lower Rio Grande Valley (Valley) is located on the Texas Mexico border near the Gulf of Mexico. We are approximately 4 hours South of San Antonio.

What are Colonias and how did they develop?

Colonias began to spring up in the 1950’s in rural areas as farm worker housing. Later, they became rural un-incorporated communities that were developed as a result of the lack of affordable housing in the cities. Developers took advantage of the affordable housing needs of colonia families and began to sell undeveloped plots of land under a contract for deed, a real estate document financed by the developer that does not give title to colonia resident, but remains under the name of the developer until debt is paid off. These Colonia communities often lack even the most basic services, including potable water, sewer connections, electricity, fire and police protection, and are associated with extreme poverty. While the media and government officials have focused on scrupulous developers as the cause of the colonia problem, in reality, the root causes of colonias is poverty and the failure of local government to enforce regulations and monitor growth, and the lack of any effort to provide affordable housing for colonia families not eligible for traditional mortgage from the banking institutions. The Texas Water Development Board has categorized area colonias as severely distressed non-metropolitan areas and Enterprise Communities.

What did George Bush do about colonias when he was governor of Texas?

When Bush was governor, there was some effort to address colonia issues. Most of the effort was focused on code enforcement relating to Senate Bill 1001 that required developer to provide the basic infrastructure and made it illegal to sell land that was not plotted. There was some minimum funding provided to address the contract foe deed and housing. For the most part, the issue of affordable housing remains a problem for colonia residents and has actually become more difficult because of the price of the land. A typical colonia lot is now $20,000, approximately four times more than it used to be, and families are having a more difficult time in building, and the level of land foreclosures have increased.

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What about NAFTA and how has it affected the border (globalization)?

Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994; the Valley has been transformed from an isolated agricultural community to a retail economy. The Valley has become a mecca for large retail corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and national restaurants chains that are thriving due to new markets that open to affluent Mexicans, and Mexican businesses. In addition, there are over a million workers on the Mexican side of the border working in the maquilas (assembly plants). The managers, engineers, and othe technical help associated with these maquilas live on the US side of the border driving an increase in the real estate market. The retail industry in the US side has created new jobs that are part-time, minimum wage pay and with no benefits. The State Comptroller, in the 1998 Bordering the Future issue, called it “Growth without Prosperity” The level of poverty in the area remains the highest in the Country despite the effects of NAFTA. Prior to NAFTA, most of the businesses were locally owned, but most have closed up because they were unable to compete with the corporations. Prior to NAFTA, the valley had a large apparel manufacturing industry, employing thousands of people (Levy, Haggard, and Converse) which have all relocated to Mexico.

Do the people in the Valley cross to Mexico to work in the maquiladoras?

No, the typical worker employed by the maquilas are Mexicans who are paid an average wage of $7 a day. A worker on the US side will earn more even the minimum wage. However, the managers, engineers and other technical personnel live in the US side, but work in Mexico.

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What kind of people live in colonias?

Historically, the people living in colonias were seasonal farm workers that migrated to other parts of the country. The Valley is home to the largest migrant farm worker community in the country. Since NAFTA, the extremely poor earning minimum wage was also priced-out of the real estate market in the cities and move to colonias. According to a survey conducted by the Texas Department of Human Services, the average annual income of colonia residents is less than $10,000. Colonia residents have refused to give up on their dream to become homeowners despite their economic challenges. They dare to believe that through methodical self-help approach they can succeed. They are modern day pioneers who believe that through their hard work they can succeed. This trait it has also passed out to their children who have also beginning to see that education their way out of poverty.

Do the people in colonia work or do they live off the government?

The Valley has the highest level of poverty in the nation; according to the US Census Bureau in 2006 survey is about 40%. The Valley has an unemployment rate of 16 %. Given the unemployment rate, and the fact that we have the highest number of people in the nation who are paid minimum wage, many families do qualify to receive government assistance. For example, a person working full time receiving minimum $5.85 hr. will earned less than $10,000, and most people don’t work full time – they work part-time and seasonally, which are the jobs available. People in the Valley are the working poor who have been priced-out and the colonia represents an opportunity for them to become homeowners.

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What is their level of education and do they speak English?

According to the US Census Bureau , 2006 Survey, the Valley has a low level of educational attainment, with only 25 % graduation rate from high school. Is not until 1993 that the Valley got its first Community College and a technical college. The regions has had only two Universities. The level of education is beginning to improve because of new opportunities created by the community college, and jobs being created by the retail industry. People in the valley are bilingual and speak both English and Spanish.

Are the people in colonias legal residents?

According to a survey conducted by the Texas Department of Human Services, 75 % of colonia residents are US citizens. Because of proximity and trade with Mexico, most people speak Spanish which often gives visitors the false impression that they must be from Mexico and possibly undocumented. A historical point about the Rio Grande Valley is the fact that it was not part of the Republic of Texas, but later became part of the US after the US / Mexican war that resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1850.

How rural are we, and do we have the regular major cities?

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA is one of the growing metropolitan areas in the country. The explosive growth is being fueled by the trade between Mexico and the U.S. and the maquilas (assembly plants) on the Mexican side of the border. We have two major airports in McAllen and Harlingen with direct flight to Mexico City, Monterrey, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Las Vegas, with airlines like Continental, American, and Southwest. There is an ongoing construction of freeways and roads to accommodate commerce. Specifically the transportation of goods and products to and from Mexico, US, and Canada.

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Given the level of poverty, why is there no visible homeless problem?

Outsiders coming to the Valley expect to find a high level of homeless on the streets given the 40 % poverty rate. They are surprised when the homeless do not appear to be visible on the streets. It’s not that there are no homeless families, but because the Mexican culture will not allow family members to be homeless. No matter how overcrowded the home might be, family members, including relatives and friends are taken in. There is a dicho “Donde come uno, comen dos..” Where one eats, two can eat” What we do have is multiple families living together in the same home with major overcrowding. Although we have many families which we consider homeless, the Valley does not get much homeless funding because the formula is based on counting people living on the streets.

Do parents in colonias value education and encourage their kids to go to college?

Colonia families’ energy are usually focused on meeting their basic needs and are usually on a survival mode, leaving very little time to reflect on the future. However, colonia residents are fully aware of the importance of education in determining their children’s future. Under these circumstances, parents can only be supportive of the idea and encourage their children to do better, but not necessarily assist them because they often lack the necessary skills, requiring the students to fend for themselves. This leaves the school system as the only academic support mechanism available to the students.

Texas ranks at the bottom of the teacher salary, and many schools in the Valley do not have sufficient number of certified teachers, leaving many classrooms to be taught by unqualified personnel. In some school districts, the only full time teacher is substitute teacher which are not required to have college degree.

In Texas, the school district is funded by local property taxes, resulting in poor neighborhoods with low values in property not having adequate funding to serve the needs of the students. To compound this problem, the schools are rated according to State’s standardized tests results causing many of the school districts to focus, not on teaching, but on teaching for the tests. This is causing a high level of frustration for students and teachers, and it is contributing to the high school drop-out rate. In addition, the economic pressure of the family also forces the older siblings to quit school and get a job to help support the family.

In spite of these challenges, the youth have become fully aware that education is the key to their future, and are making the necessary sacrifice to go to college, and escape poverty. Because of the new community college (STC) there are now twice as many students going to college than they were five years ago and increasing every year.

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We have come to understand that poverty is not about the lack of material goods, but about how you see yourself and about your vision of the future. We invest in the success of those who believe in a better future and through their example mentor others to believe in themselves.