Colonias, underserved, poverty-riddled communities along America’s southern border populated mostly by American citizens of Mexican descent, have long remained uncomfortably disconnected from mainstream government and social services. In a two-part series in the Texas Tribune, Emily Ramshaw takes stock of life in the colonias, then focuses on the health issues created by their unique circumstances.
Ramshaw paints a vivid picture of these forgotten settlements, home to at least 400,000 folks in Texas alone, and no summary would do her writing justice. Here’s an excerpt from the first installment.
In Del Mar Heights, on the outskirts of Cameron County, residents live on a devastated stretch of scrubland littered with dilapidated trailers and dotted with listing telephone poles. There are no paved streets or sewers, basic infrastructure that developers promised the Mexican immigrants who purchased land here 30 years ago and often live three families — and several bleating goats — to a lot. Floodwaters and wayward hurricanes routinely sweep through the area, battering roofs patched with tarps and campaign signs.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars of local, state and federal investment in infrastructure and services in the colonias, they still clearly lag behind much of the country. As a curious aside, some of the areas Ramshaw profiles happen to sit just miles from the notorious health care consumers of McAllen, Texas, yet the care they are offered could hardly be any more different.
At last count, nearly 45,000 people lived in the 350 Texas colonias classified by the state as at the “highest health risk,” meaning residents of these often unincorporated subdivisions have no running water, no wastewater treatment, no paved roads or solid waste disposal. Water- and mosquito-borne illnesses are rampant, the result of poor drainage, pooling sewage and water contaminated by leaking septic tanks. Burning garbage, cockroaches, vermin and mold lead to high rates of asthma, rashes and lice infestations. And the poor diet so intrinsically linked to poverty contributes to dental problems, diabetes and other chronic conditions, which residents of the colonias rarely have the health insurance, money or access to regular health care to treat.
Ramshaw writes that cultural and geographic barriers, as well as a general distrust of the federal government in a community where not all residents are legal migrants, have hampered adoption of available programs, but there have been signs of improvement in recent years.
The series was made possible by a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, and produced as part of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.