JUSTICIAS: Nuway/Mayfair Colonia Survey

FINAL REPORT - Social Work in Colonias - April 22, 2008
By Patty Cano, Sharon Cornet, Terri Garay, Kathleen Harris, Alex Lom,
Lisa Mora, Naomi Orona, Maribel Perez, Maria Prater, and Karina Salvio

Introduction | Methods | "Get out the vote" | Survey Questions | History of Colonias: Putting Colonias in Perspective
Nuway & Mayfair Colonias (includes pictures) | Chronology of TX Colonia Laws | Survey Results | Conclusion | Sources


Definition of Colonias:           

The term “colonia” has a negative connotation in the U.S., whereas it does not in Mexico (there, it simply means “neighborhood”).  A colonia in the U.S. brings images of filth, disease, people drinking their own excrement (via shallow wells near septic tanks), a high Hispanic percentage and low-income status according to current demographics.  Stated in more technical terms a colonia is an unincorporated community within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and lacks infrastructure.  There are other definitions as well.

What is a Colonia?

Here is a list of different definitions listed on the Attorney General of Texas web page:

            Colonias are “...unincorporated border communities that often lack adequate water and sewer systems, paved roads, and safe, sanitary housing.”

                           Office of the Governor

            "Colonia’ is a Spanish term for neighborhood or community. In Texas, colonia refers to an unincorporated settlement along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack basic water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing. Most colonias are outside city limits or in isolated areas of the county.  Many have a very limited property tax base and are either isolated in a rural area or outside city limits.”

                           Office of the Secretary of State

            “...colonias are defined as primarily residential subdivisions in which water or wastewater services are inadequate to meet the minimal needs of residential users; financial resources are inadequate to satisfy minimal water and wastewater service needs; and there are five or more housing units.”

                           Texas Water Development Board, Water and Wastewater Needs of Texas Colonias: 1995 Update

            “An economically distressed area [or colonia] is one in which water supply or wastewater systems do not meet minimal state standards, financial resources are inadequate to provide services to meet those needs, and 80 percent of dwellings in the area were occupied on June 1, 1989. Affected counties are counties adjacent to the Texas-Mexico border or with per capita income 25 percent below the state average and unemployment rates 25 percent above the state average for the most recent three consecutive years for which statistics are available ....”

                           Texas Water Development Board’s Water and Wastewater Survey of Economically Distressed Areas – December 1996                                                                                                              

            “The term Colonia is a Spanish term for neighborhood or community. A colonia is further defined as an unincorporated community located within 150 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, or a city or town within said 150 mile region with a population of less than 10,000 according to the latest U.S. Census, that has a majority population composed of individuals and families of low and very low income, who lack safe, sanitary and sound housing, together with basic services such as potable water, adequate sewage systems, drainage, streets and utilities.”

                              Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Office of Colonia Initiatives

            “Colonias are unincorporated communities along the U.S./Mexico border, generally characterized by lack of physical infrastructure such as sewers, running water, storm drainage and paved streets.”

                            Center for Housing and Urban Development

                            College of Architecture - Texas A&M University

                            Colonias Program (2008)

Our own group definition of colonias is:

Colonias are poor, rural communities, where home ownership is a privilege.  Colonias have no formal ties with the government, cities and towns.  So often they do not have the services that are available to urban areas like running water, treated sewerage and street maintenance.  Residents do not pay high property taxes, nor have restrictions as zoning ordinances and building codes.

Our group (one of three within our entire class), which we named “Justicias” (meaning ‘Justice’), surveyed the Nuway and Mayfair colonias, that sit side by side,

without any delineating visual divisions between them, so we counted them as one area.  This is where we did our study. 

TXoagNuwayMayfairMAP.jpg (87749 bytes)

Colonia Location:
      Nuway/Mayfair Colonias

                                    (Mayfair Subd #3,4,5, and Nuway addition)

                                    Northern area of Canutillo, TX, south of Village of Vinton

                                    Greater area: NW side of El Paso county, west of the Franklin Mountains,

just east of the Rio Grande river.


Survey Group:            Group Name: “Justicias” (Justice)

            Patty Cano                    Sharon Cornet               Terri Garay                    Kathleen Harris
            Alex Lom                      Lisa Mora                     Naomi Orona                Maribel Perez
            Maria Prater                  Karina Salvio


Colonia walks:           

Group: “Justicia” (Justice)

Trip 1: Voting






Sharon Cornet

Training & Precinct






Terri Garay







Alex Lom







Lisa Mora







Maria Prater







Patty Cano







Kathleen Harris







Naomi Orona

Training & Precinct






Maribel Perez

Training & Precinct






Karina Salvio

Colonia results














Trip 2: Survey






Alex Lom

Red1       Hours






Lisa Mora







Maria Prater







Patty Cano







Maribel Perez







Kathleen Harris







Naomi Orona







Sharon Cornet







Karina Salvio







Terri Garay















Trip 3: Survey






Karina Salvio

Blue2      Hours






Terri Garay







Maribel Perez







(with her mom)







Naomi Orona

Colonia definitions








The methods we used as a group to serving the colonias were various. First we began by forming a group, which gathered a total of ten members. Once the group was established we interchanged contact information in order to keep in touch with one another outside the classroom.

The next step was to decide on what colonia we were going to visit. Since there are many colonias near the El Paso area, it was hard to make a decision. One of our members mentioned she had knowledge on certain colonias and one of them was Nuway (combined with the Mayfair colonia since they were within the same community group area). The group agreed that Nuway/Mayfair would be the colonia(s) we were going to survey. Once we obtained a map of the colonia, our group leader divided the area into five different sections. Those five sections were then color-coded. The sections were then referred to as; red, green, blue, orange, or purple areas. Once Nuway/Mayfair was divided into five sections, the group members were then paired off in order to have two or three members per section.

While this was going on within the group, the class as a whole was discussing and deciding on what questions would be asked to the residents of the colonias that we were planning to visit. Once the six questions of the survey were decided on, our group set up different dates and times to go and visit the colonias. We would set up a certain time and then we would all meet at the Outlet Mall of El Paso (near Canutillo at Interstate-10).  

The first visit included a “colonia walk” in which we took flyers on “get the vote out” to colonia residents to see how many people were registered voters, and to inform them of where they could go to vote or become registered voters, if they chose.  This gave our class a chance to get to know some of the people within the colonias we chose to work in, as well as familiarize ourselves with the area itself, and to scope out which utility services and other things like roads, curbs, etc. were available.  The rest of the colonia walks were strictly for introducing our survey and gathering information from the residents as they responded.  The goal was to ask some open-ended questions such as “What are your needs?” as well as gather information on some basic demographics.  The survey was semi-structured and we were to take notes.   Each pair that went out was to have at least one bilingual person since some of the homes had only Spanish speaking people living there.

When we arrived to the Outlet Mall near the colonia, we would find our parking spot (which was also our meeting point). We carpooled to the colonias, and the group would go with their partners to their assigned color area. In order for the residents to identify us, our group leader bought us clipboards and nametag holders. The holders were clear plastic casings in which we could slide our UTEP I.D. cards inside, and then pin them to our shirts in order for the Nuway/Mayfair colonia residents to be able to identify us and to dispel any fears that we might be with Immigration, or with any religious group(s) that proselytizes the area occasionally, etc.

When we arrived to the houses within the colonia, we would begin by introducing ourselves and would explain the motive of our visit and ask them if they wanted to participate in the survey. When all the five sets of pairs obtained their information after the various visits we made, our group leader told us to e-mail all of the responses we gathered to her and that she would use a coding system (a system she had previously learned in her previously taken “Methods of Research” Sociology courses) in order to get accurate results from the qualitative (detailed) data and produce quantitative (numerical) data via percentages and rates of the responses in the survey.  The results were formed into graphs, which are shown later in this report.

After all the information was gathered, our group then assigned different sections of the report to all of the members. Each member was to work on the assigned section and turn in to the group leader. Once the group leader received everyone’s part in the report, she put the sections in order and the report with everyone’s part was created. The survey results that were coded were also turned in to another member of our group who agreed to do the PowerPoint presentation as a supplement to the report.    

NuwayColorMAP.jpg (27271 bytes)
Color-coded Map - Source: www.mapquest.com 


Results of “Get out the Vote” initial colonia walk:

Our first visits were to introduce ourselves as UTEP students to the residents so they would get to know us.  We had flyers to “Get out the vote,” which we passed around at each house.  Some homes had dogs, so we didn’t enter, and others had locked gates, or were just abandoned (very few).   Others had gates and dogs but the dogs were small and let us pet them so we came in. 

We walked the neighborhood in small groups of 2-3 for each section we had marked on our map.  We talked with the people about voting, gave them a flyer, and began asking if they were registered voters, telling them how they could become registered if they were not already, writing down phone numbers for them, giving them information to ensure they knew where to go to vote, and casually asking about the community when appropriate.  Most people were very welcoming, but some people, whom we knew were home, refused to answer the door. 


Of the 28 homes that 2 people in our group went to for “Get out the vote,” we found these situations (others in our group also found similar results):

  1. Non-registered
  2. 1 registered voter
  3. Vacant
  4. Vacant
  5. Out
  6. Out
  7. 1 registered voter
  8. Vacant
  9. 1 registered
  10. Out
  11. Out
  12. 1 registered voter, 1 non-registered
  13. 2 registered voters
  14. Out (not there)
  15. Out
  16. Out
  17. Out
  18. Vacant or construction
  19. Out
  20. 3 registered voters
  21. Out
  22. Out
  23. Out
  24. Out
  25. Gate locked – Out
  26. Out
  27. Large barking dogs inside fence – did not go in
  28. 1 registered voter, 1 non-registered


Out of the 28 homes on 4 streets:

57% were out/away from the home (1 of them had dogs that kept us from entering the yard)

14% were vacant or was in mid-construction phase 

4% had no registered voters

25% had registered voters


Out of the 25% of homes (7 homes total) that had registered voters:

71% had 1 registered voter (and 2 of the 7 homes had 1 non-registered voter as well)

29% had 2 or 3 registered voters in the household

Both women and men were registered voters, young-medium-aged adults to the elderly.


One person claimed his wife was a voter but that he “did not qualify” to vote (he spoke perfect English and appeared semi-Caucasian and we didn’t ask why he did not qualify).  One man, who was not a registered voter, said he owned frontage on Doniphan street, as well as the 5 houses perpendicular to it (along McArthur Dr.).   His house was located behind his business (which was on Doniphan) and he had, many years ago, bought the water rights and paid to purchase and install water lines himself for those 5 homes.  The city water goes to all 5 homes, and they split one bill, which averages about $100/mo ($20/home).  The man, who was up in years, also had a well on his own property, which he used to water his lawn and trees and plants.  He said the city water tasted fine, and that he didn’t drink the well water (no reason given).

One man, who was not a registered voter, was very open and talkative.  After giving him information on how to become registered voter, we asked him about the community and water system.  He didn’t seem to know where his water came from but said that he did receive a water bill.  He was unaware of the old water system that is currently in place that feeds the homes in the community.  

The water system for the area is toward the back of the subdivision, and several galvanized metal water tanks are clumped near the end of Joy St and Selva.  The system is maintained but some people think the water tastes bad, and others think it tastes fine.  Still others don’t know because they buy bottled water and only drink that.  No one has any real complaints about the water or the price of their water bill.


On a later SURVEY visit to Nuway/Mayfair our group went walked the Nuway/Mayfair streets again.  This time we took the survey that was created by the class.  The Q&A is below is what we used:

1)       What do you feel your needs are?

2)       What transportation do you have?

3)       Do you receive any government/social services?

4)       How many people live in the household?

5)       What in your community do you think needs the most improvement?

6)       How long have you been living here?


We will be covering the results of this survey shortly, but first we felt it was imperative to give a history of the “conditions” that people live in within colonias, as compared to other comparable areas throughout history.  To put colonias in perspective we must be able to see the bigger picture.


History of Colonias: Putting Colonias in Perspective


Based on the definitions (given earlier) of what a “colonia” is, there is no doubt that there are issues within colonias that are of peak interest to the state of Texas.  We will be covering the colonia laws shortly, but first there must be some background given.  Colonias exist all along the U.S.-Mexico border, but we will only be covering Texas colonias here.  It was in 1995 when the most obvious colonia laws were enacted, but prior to that colonias were really beginning to be developed and identified in the mid-1980’s.  Before that many older colonias had sprung up, especially since the 1950’s.  Historically, however, colonias must be not only compared and contrasted with other “poor” areas within the United States, but it helps to keep this ethnocentric view of colonias within the larger context of societies around the globe, since urban sprawl and poverty are prevalent worldwide. 

Historically, humankind has created settlements that grew as naturally as the families and children that made them up.  Eventually these settlements transformed into small to medium populations, and were more like villages and towns.  When overcrowding became a problem, the periphery of the village or town was the natural area of expansion.   Some groups broke off and went elsewhere, repeating the process as they settled into a new area.  This has been the natural and foundational process of civilizations expanding throughout every continent and island known today.  One could say that this has been happening for hundreds of years, but in reality it has been occurring far longer. 

Native Americans were originally small bands or tribes that spread throughout the Americas, coming across the Bering Strait land bridge from what is now Siberia .   The Mound Builders were some of the many groups and descendants of those original travelers, becoming sedentary farming communities.   They built great mounds (some used for burials) and temples that are found for hundreds of miles on both sides of the Mississippi river, some as early as the 6th century.  There is some information now known about their societal structure, thanks to archaeology, but it is important to note that they did have “riches” that they considered valuable, such as artifacts made of copper, stone, mica, and obsidian.  They also made pottery, pipes, and played sporting games as well as gambled.  This Mississippian culture spread and was greatly varied.  At 13th century Cahokia (located today at Collinsville, IL) their central plaza and population of 30,000 wasn’t surpassed until Philadelphia’s periphery expanded in the late 18th century.  It would be well to note that the great Cahokia lacked “city water” that was plumbed in, or paved roads, sewer lines, and many other modern amenities, and could quite well be considered colonia-like in its definition regarding such services.  Stratification and “the rich” or “the poor” is less known, since bartering predated our current paper money, but even the most prominent of leaders at Cahokia would have lacked these basic “necessities” that our modern age takes for granted.

During the Renaissance period in northern Europe the Commons were areas of public land use, where people could graze their cattle or sheep, or utilize the area for other traditional uses such as communal water, fishing, and other resources.  Roads crossed into these areas and although the Monarchy of the times would usually control the land use (monitor it so that it was not overgrazed or misused), it was an area typically used only by commoners (those lacking nobility)… generally meaning “the poor.”  Certainly, the lack of infrastructure during these times could be compared to colonia-like circumstances such as we have today.

It was the 9th Century B.C. ancient Roman times that were closest to the technology of our modern age of the 19th and 20th centuries.  They had vast aqueducts that brought clean water into the cities, and ran separate channels to bring the toilet sewage out of the city.  Water was also brought into agricultural and industrial sites.   Bridges, roads, baths, architecture, and other engineering feats were prevalent in ancient Rome.  This great civilization included stratification and specialization in manufacturing as well as agriculture.  Commerce and banking were part of the peoples’ daily lives, and international trade rose up via smaller communities outside of ancient Rome.  Supply of water from the aqueducts sometimes ran short due to illegal piping of water from them to other areas.  This example is not unlike the small piping of water from a single source to a number of homes along streets in colonias near Brownsville, TX.  The demand for the water was greater than the supply, causing shortages and occasional sanitation problems.

Prior to ancient Rome human settlements were typically around areas of water, including rivers, lakes, streams, and at the edges of oceans.  Temporary handmade dwellings, small one-room huts, many-roomed dwellings for multiple families, or other indigenous home construction types were (and still are today) found worldwide, and within many varied societies and cultures.  These were typically associated with agricultural societies, such as Meso-Americans and other cultures throughout what is now called Asia, Indonesia, Australia, Africa, Europe, etc. 

Paleo-Indians, archaic peoples, and other smaller societies were made up of one to many family-sized groups, such as tribes, or bands.  Many of these groups were hunter-gatherers, and often did not stay in one place for very long at a time.  These Nomadic peoples were on the move, collecting food at different locations according to the seasons, and where the animals being hunted were found.  Being nomadic, these peoples were not settled in one place like colonias are, but they still dealt with the same circumstances of no indoor plumbing, no “city water,” no electricity or other amenities, etc.  

Modern Native American tribes now live on reservations, and because of the poor conditions, many of them have left the “rez” permanently, or go back and forth between the reservation and cities.  Casinos have brought a lot of money to some of the tribes (such as the Mescalero Apaches in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico) so that living conditions have improved dramatically (at least for some tribes).  Rarely do you find modern Indians, such as the Lakota/Dakota (Sioux), living in tee pees or other non-permanent dwellings, although it is not unheard of, and it is certainly not considered unusual, or “substandard,” or “wrong” by people within these cultures.  City living, or “civilized” living is a concept adopted by the modernization and industrialization of our current American culture (as well as other nations), which has vastly changed since the original native “Americans’” (Indians’) style of life.  Our enculturation (what we’ve been taught to believe) has biased us today regarding anything outside of our own set of values and beliefs, including the “American Dream” of owning a house, with a dog and/or cat, a garage, appliances, full utilities, and 2.3 kids per household.  Anything less than that is now considered substandard.  This ethnocentric view stands alone when it is compared to the equal or perhaps even greater quality of life that others have obtained outside of that paradigm.

There are even people today - from all backgrounds - who consider living in caves as “better” than the stick-and-brick, stamp ‘em out houses that contractors and developers promote in TV commercials and billboard signs at the edges of cities or other subdivision-zoned areas.  Historically, cave dwellers in North America knew the seasons, the heavens (celestial sphere/stellar constellations), and were in touch with their environment.  They understood what we now call “passive solar design” regarding the caves they chose.  Not too unlike Stonehenge (used for religious and astronomical purposes), which is based on the summer and winter solstices (longest and shortest days of the year, due to the precession of Earth’s orbit), there were approximately a dozen Pueblo Indian families who lived in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.   They understood the cycles of the sun in the sky and how it affected them during different seasons.  In the summer the sun is highest in the sky, and the Gila cliff dwellings (a cave in a cliff side) had an overhang that would keep the sun out, and so the cave would be cool (almost like air conditioning).  In the winter, when the sun was very low in the sky, it would shine into the cave, warming the rock, and would slowly radiate that heat back out into the cave during the night.   Fires assisted in cooking as well as heating these living areas, but it was only the caves or cliff dwellings that faced solar south (not magnetic south) that had this natural passive solar design built in to the dwelling.  Even the prehistoric peoples who used these kinds of caves as shelters/homes understood these ages-old and simple but effective technologies. 

Today, with modern civilization growing and swallowing up different areas of the world, acculturation (cultures dying off) has become a severe problem.  The pre-colonial cultures, such as the San of South Africa (remember the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” where this peaceful tribal people discovered a coke bottle that changed their lives?), have nearly all been removed completely from their heritage and culture and lifestyle.  This heritage could be completely lost, forever, due to what Western cultures consider “progress.” 

Progress is not always superior.  Modern “civilized” people typically know very little about their surroundings, the natural processes of the earth and the heavens, and do not often utilize simple passive solar aspects in their home designs (running up very high A/C-heating electric bills instead) because knowledge of these things has been overshadowed by modern technological advances, therefore promoting ignorance of indigenous knowledge.  Native Americans in the Midwest U.S.A utilized astronomy and navigation.  One of the archaeological sites where an earthen lodge used to stand is now located at Dancing Leaf Earth Lodge, in Wellfleet, NE.  Based on the archaeological evidence of the Indians who originally lived there, and traveled through there, a reconstruction of an earthen lodge and medicine wheel have more recently been built.  People today are able to spend the night in such a lodge, made of large wooden poles, and covered over with earth, except for a doorway and single opening at the top for light, and to let smoke from a fire out.  From the outside it merely looks like a mound of earth, but inside these homes are very cozy and are a downright decent shelter from the cold and bitter winter winds, as well as the scorching heat of summer.  The Native Americans who built the original earthen lodges did so at each location they traveled to (and obviously stayed a while).  Their knowledge and usage of what is presently termed in anthropology as archaeoastronomy, or ethnoastronomy, is not typically known to people today, because when plotted on a map, these earthen lodges run in absolutely straight lines on the map, and are located up to hundreds of miles apart from each other.  Certainly these people knew more than they have been given credit for, since their dwellings were easily located via the knowledge of the ever-moving but also ever-predictable constellations in the night sky.

In accordance with current Texas colonia laws, living in such earthen lodges would be considered “backwards” and something only “ignorant” or “poor” people would do, simply based on the criteria of services that are required in order for people to live in the counties along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Texas legislators, although having good intent, have made it so that the properties owned in colonias cannot be sold without having the proper utility services.  This is based on Chapter 232, Subchapter B, C, & E of the LGC (Local Government Code), including HB 1001.  Electric service, even if available at the site, cannot be provided to colonia dwellers (unless they are grandfathered in) until after they receive city water.  This loss of electricity actually produces, creates, and propogates 3rd world situations, when prior to that colonia dwellers might have had running water (albeit not from the monopoly-promoted city water supply) and a higher quality of life for the parents and children and elderly grandparents of these families.  Electricity service loss not only drops peoples’ property values significantly (without adequate compensation by the state), but causes people to abandon their homes/investments, creating a low density problem so that incorporating these areas into the city, in the long run, is that much harder. 

According to Peter Ward’s book Colonia and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by Stealth these types of laws need to be rescinded so that penalties to the land owners can end, with property codes allowing minimum norms, so that density levels will increase by self-help programs, development of social infrastructure, and policies that will allow smart growth in colonia areas.  Without people in these areas, there is a lack of services that follows (or vice versa), and so bringing services such as city water to rural areas is a mighty feat since funds are not typically available to populated areas of such extreme low density.   The cost is prohibitive, and so the colonia laws that were intended to protect colonia dwellers, has caused the state to shoot themselves in the foot, while at the same time punishing the people they were claiming to help. 

The human rights and property rights that are being violated by the state of Texas, and perpetrated via those state laws onto the colonia dwellers themselves (via loss of electricity, which would otherwise bring them quality of life; and loss of property value, which has still yet to be compensated), are by far the most devastating of consequences to date.  It is obvious that Texas state legislators were not thinking things through prior to these colonia laws being created and accepted as policy.  Perhaps they were listening to what they were told, and believed because of their own enculturation, rather than asking the colonia dwellers themselves what they needed, or wanted, or didn’t need, or didn’t want?    As Dr. G. Gina Nunez-Mchiri, and anthropology professor at UTEP once said, “Community development, without the ‘community,’ is not community development at all.”  It has become obvious that the voice of the people in Texas colonias have not been heard effectively, and that statehood has prevailed.

Additionally, the highly researched and excellent advice from Peter Ward has been devastatingly ignored (available now for nearly a decade).  Local El Paso County families are being turned a way for a Certificate of Compliance (needed in order to receive electricity without having city water service) or an exemption, at the rate of 2-3 people per week.  These are the people who speak out and actually make it down to the El Paso County Attorney or County Roads and Bridges offices, and don’t include the families who just give up or don’t know where to turn.  Many people in colonias are not even aware of their rights, or how the colonia laws can hurt them if they decide to temporarily move away from their homes, or try to sell them or rent them out.  It is a financial loss that can be devastating to the very poorest of the poor, who often have no recourse.  

With families and homeownership being more prevalent in colonias compared to the cities, the conservative number of 2-3 people per week turning to the county for inadequate help could very well represent 2-3 families (easily 3-10 people per household depending on if extended families, the elderly, and/or a large number of children are in the home).  Sticking within this range of numbers, this equates to 6-30 people who are being affected weekly, in El Paso County alone.  That amount equals 312-1,560 people per year, and since the laws affecting these people have been in effect since 1995, that is 13 years worth of damage done to families.  This could equal 4,056-20,280 people in all, or 1,352-2,028 families, provided the rate of 2-3 people/families per week has been consistent all of these years (a study needs to be done here).

Realize this does not include the other border counties along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The full amount of counties affected by the 50-200 mile range covered in various colonia laws are Bee, Brewster, Brooks, Cameron, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, El Paso, Frio, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kinney, La Salle, Maverick, Nueces, Pecos, Presidio, Reeves, San Patricio, Starr, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and Zavala.  The counties listed in bold indicate higher populations due to urban areas.  The counties listed in italics represent counties with targeted colonias, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.  When the numbers are summed up for ALL of these border counties, in regards to colonias, and families affected, the damages done to these families might easily run into the tens of thousands.  Currently, Texas colonias have approximately 400,000 people living in them.   

The map below shows the 1,248-mile long “border area” with the Rio Grande (the river that separates Texas, U.S.A. from Mexico) running down the center.  El Paso is at the top left (most western) corner of Texas.

TxMexBorder.jpg (58931 bytes)


Specific counties in Texas (along the U.S.-Mexico border) are shown below.

 TXoagBorderMap.jpg (13628 bytes)

Kathy Staudt, in her book, “Free Trade?” also covers the issues of the lack of services and compared Juarez, Mexico with El Paso, Texas – with Juarez leading over El Paso in providing some services, and El Paso leading in others (p.117).  The breakdown is here (1992 statistics) for service provisions in the new peripheries (most rural areas):






Paved Roads

Indoor Toilets





14% more

18% more

15% more

  9% more

56% total lead






Trash Collection

Street Lights







43% more

11% more

67% more

121% total lead


* Note that these 1992 statistics were prior to the 1995 colonia laws that STOPPED electricity service in Texas colonias, so the percentage today (2008) would be much lower in Texas


65% difference in services provided in Juarez colonias MORE than El Paso colonias



Clearly El Paso was behind in 1992 in providing overall services to its border colonias compared to Juarez.  Especially in water (nearly half of what Juarez provided their citizens), and streetlights (a whopping 67% difference).  Streetlights, were in fact, one of the main concerns of the Nuway/Mayfair colonias in El Paso county.   Electricity in 1992 was the highest (at 100%) provided service, and now it serves far less than that, since up to tens of thousands of families have had to go off-grid, and either live without electricity, or abandon their property and dreams and investment permanently.  So much for the “American Dream” for those who choose it, but cannot attain it solely based on their rural location.

In light of how poorly the state of Texas has dealt with the provision of services to its citizens by privatizing them, we would add the supporting quote from Kathy Staudt, “The political process privatized many public services, turning residents into customers… A privately owned monopoly [emphasis added] provides electricity in El Paso, with people’s interests ostensibly represented at the state commission level.” (pp. 112-113)  The way the colonia laws are presently written forces the electric companies to stand in the frontlines, and to act as the “enforcers” of the laws, while at the same time negligently overlooking any requirements to these same utility companies to inform their colonia customers of what could happen if their electricity got turned off for ANY reason – it would not be allowed back on, by law.  They wait until the damage is done before citizens are able to figure out what has happened, and usually cannot be reversed.  When asked why the El Paso Electric Company could not make any exceptions to these circumstances they simply made reference to the fact that they “have to follow the rules set by the county.”  The county attorney in El Paso is very strict regarding these laws, and colonia residents find themselves hard pressed to qualify for the Certificate of Compliance, or an exemption, in order to get their electricity turned back on.  When asked why the county could not make any exceptions they simply made reference to the fact that they “have to follow the rules set by the state.”  If policy is going to be changed, and people in colonias are going to be helped, it will have to end where it began… at the state level.    Most importantly, any changes made will need to include the voices of the colonia dwellers themselves, lest any further damage be done.

One has to ask if state legislators are even aware of the damage that has been caused to families because of these laws that were supposed to protect the families by going after crooked developers (assuming wrongly that ALL developers who use CFD’s (contract for deeds) are actually crooked, since the laws are all-inclusive).  And if the legislators are aware of what is happening and not doing anything about it then we must question why they are in office, and vote them out next time around.  Grassroots level community action and participation is one of the key elements in creating a horizontal network of social power, mentioned by Peter Ward.  This would allow a smoother collective-based vertical linkage to services and funds available to help colonias receive the water they need, so that they can get the electricity they need. 

Canutillo colonias: Nuway & Mayfair

Right now, there are people in the Canutillo area (although not in the Nuway/Mayfair colonias) who have said they do not have services, and their family lives in 3rd world conditions because of being denied these services (both water and electricity).  This was not their choice, but is a condition forced upon them because of the colonia laws that have been enacted.  Denying the right for colonia residents to have what Texas is requiring urban areas to have (utility services) is not only paradoxical, but ironically brutal.  The United States Declaration of Independence states that citizens have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but where is any of that for colonia dwellers who are seeking the American Dream of owning their own home/property, and want to improve their quality of life?  Homeownership is actually higher in colonias than it is in the cities, but instead of receiving water, they are now being denied electricity with the promise of water that has yet to reach them (some people have been waiting 20 or more years to get water, and some will have to wait 20+ more).  Texas, where are you when your people are in need?  Punishing the most-needy people is hardly something to be proud of.

Keep in mind the definitions of what a “colonia” is, which we covered earlier, but based on what we’ve seen, experienced, and taken personal stories from colonia residents on, a more true definition might be:

A colonia is any community that does not fit the description of what western/modern ethnocentrism says it should be, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, living conditions, home value, or services acquired, and then is denied the same rights and services that those in urban areas have, while at the same time claiming it is those very services that the colonias need most.” 

Here are some pictures from the Nuway/Mayfair colonia, which show the vast differences between homes and living conditions/quality that can be not only compared, but also contrasted.  Pictures like these are often used by the state of Texas (and other U.S.-Mexico border states) that enhance the negative connotation of what colonia homes and living is all about:


Mobile home with no skirting
NuMayHome1.jpg (86356 bytes)

Older mobile home, no paved driveway
NuMayHome7.jpg (75239 bytes)

Unfinished construction
NuMayHome10.jpg (61010 bytes)


Ongoing construction at house site
NuMayHome5.jpg (66087 bytes)

Junk in yards, substandard construction (a shed)
NuMayHomeYard.jpg (58701 bytes)

Trash caught in brush from wind
NuwayMayfairTRASH.jpg (63053 bytes)


Tagging on walls
NuwayMayfairTAGGING2.jpg (67013 bytes)

Mix of mobile homes and small trailers
NuMayHome17.jpg (57331 bytes)

Please notice in the last photo titled “Mix of mobile homes and small trailers” that there is a blue concrete block fence on the far left.  Below is the house that this wall/fence belongs to.  Please note other homes in the same community, which are far from being considered “substandard.”

House with blue wall/fence
NuMayHome20.jpg (64499 bytes)

House under construction next door (this will be BEAUTIFUL once completed)
NuMayHome18.jpg (66432 bytes)

 Completed 2-story house, with driveway, iron fence, double-car garage, front porch, and landscaping
NuMayHome2.jpg (66650 bytes)


Modern, large to-code built home with blocks for additional construction (likely for a front fence/wall)
NuMayHome11.jpg (86679 bytes)

Large home complete with driveway gate (note the voting promotion sign on front fence)
NuMayHome13.jpg (51743 bytes)

 Other half of the same house, with large balcony on the 2nd story level
NuMayHome14.jpg (55120 bytes)


2-story home with huge square footage, veranda, fence, paved driveway, and Spanish tile roof
NuMayHome16.jpg (74155 bytes)

Nice completed home – note the expensive and tall palm trees in their landscaping design
NuMayHome15.jpg (72604 bytes)

 House on left has been crashed into 4 times due to cars going around the corner, and a lack of speed & warning signs
CornerHouseCrash2.jpg (52366 bytes)


The old well & tanks, a privately run water system that will be replaced by city water around 2009
NuwayMayfair_WATERsystem.jpg (47602 bytes)

The local Church: Iglesia La Luz De Mundo
NuwayMayfairCHURCH.jpg (62516 bytes)


As you can see, it defies common sense to assume all colonias are alike (or at least treated as if they are) across the entire 1,248 mile long strip of homes and communities “within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border,” and it is even more ridiculous to assume that all living conditions and circumstances, quality/standards of homes, quality of life, etc. are the same/alike within the same colonia!  If the people within these beautiful and expensive homes above lost their electric service, and could not get it back on simply because they were on a privately maintained water system, rather than “city water,” then you can bet there might very well be a lawsuit if they lost their ability to live in their own home(s).  You can also make a very safe bet in knowing that this kind of thing would NEVER happen within any city in the entire state of Texas.  It seems that colonias are the only areas being so severely stereotyped in this way, even with the admission that some health hazards and substandard housing issues are higher in some colonias.  It is this lack of particular attention to the colonia dwellers’/families’ input, and the individual colonias themselves (as communities) that together make up the cornerstone to this problem, not just the handful of greedy developers or the inattention to smart growth efforts.

Texas allows property value to be reduced down to $10/acre if a house in a colonia has lost its value and is abandoned.  We must think that certainly a reduction of value to that degree would be a substantial loss in property value!  This $10/acre “remedy” to appease taxpayers in colonias is the way Texas state laws are set up to deal with this problem, since they are not technically claiming eminent domain.   Eminent domain requires the state of Texas to compensate owners if there is a 25% or more loss in their property value due to taking over their land for public use (such as for the Wall that is planned along the border between the U.S. and Mexico).  Inverse condemnation is the only way homeowners would be able to recoup this loss at their property, and would require at least one or more attorneys to represent them and go up against the state of Texas.  If only a mere 40 (or more) of the thousands of people along the TX-Mexico border who have been damaged by these colonia laws got together and proposed a class action lawsuit, with proof of such property value loss, then Texas would be hopping to change policy to actually help colonia dwellers rather than punish them.

Texas laws promote not just the PREVENTION of colonias, but also the ELIMINATION OF COLONIAS.  It is the goal of every governmental entity that is subject to Texas state law to reduce the number of people living in colonias, to remove the rights to sell or rent property in colonias (not just developers but the colonia dwellers themselves), to prevent colonias (meaning, the people who live in these designated areas) from proliferating, and to disallow electric service if city water is not provided.  This includes people who have had electricity for years, but no longer are allowed because it was shut off for one reason or another, and they do not qualify for the Certificate of Compliance or an exemption or the new House Bill 2096 to get their electricity turned back on.   Without city water, they have no rights to obtain/reobtain electric service.  Water is not even the main concern for the Nuway/Mayfair colonias.  Streetlights are the #1 concern.  Safety issues, sidewalks, low speed signs (especially at corners), and even city bus services were other real concerns of the residents, almost equal with water and sewage.  Electricity was not an issue at all, but it would be if a family decided to go away for the summer, turning off their electric service for those 3 months, and then coming back to find out that the home they’ve had and invested in and added rooms onto, and upgraded the kitchen or other rooms in, etc. had become unlivable because they suddenly weren’t allowed to run any of their appliances, the heater or A/C during extreme seasonal weather, or even turn on the lights. 

The way the laws are structured are violating peoples’ rights to a quality life, and stripping them of their property values by making their homes practically worthless and definitely SUBSTANDARD.  There are many beautiful homes in colonias, some of them owned by rich people (yes, even middle-class or above middle-class people personally choose to live in colonias!).  Preventing colonias is not preventing a PLACE from growing, but preventing a PEOPLE from living, or from having the right to choose where they live, or how they live.  We are including some of the history of the colonia laws next so you can see how these laws developed in the state of Texas.


Chronology on Texas State Colonia Laws


Various laws have been enacted in order to solve some issues colonias face and other laws were formed in order to prevent any future colonias from developing.

SB = Senate Bill

HB = House Bill

1987:   SB 585 Water and wastewater grants made available by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).
            Chapter 42 The ETJ (Extra Territorial Jurisdiction) was defined as up to 5 miles outside the city limits, into the county (county regulation is via
            Chapter 232).

1989:   SB 2 Created the EDAP (Economically Distressed Areas Program) for the issuance of bonds for water and wastewater.

1991:   SB 818 Water quality standards set through the Colonia Plumbing Loan Program (low-interest loans).

            SB 1198 Regulation of local water and sewer in the EDA

1993:   HB 2079 Office of Attorney General (OAG) enforces health and safety laws regarding “nuisance violations and on-site sewage facilities.”

1995:   HB 1001 County level regulation and enforcement (civil/criminal penalties) on platting and services for people selling land.  Legislation that made selling land within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border "illegal" if they are 5 acres or less.  Subdividers of property cannot sell or lease land platted (or replatted) after July 1, 1995 without approval by Commissioner’s Court.  People purchasing lots under 5 acres may void the sale and recover expenses.   Applies to EDAP and unincorporated areas of the county. 

            SB 336 Amendment to Subchapter D, and new Subchapter E regarding executory contracts within 200 miles of the border, in 25% below average state per capita income with unemployment rate 25% above the state average.  Section 5.094 requires seller to disclose information on executory contracts (or sale can be voided and expenses recovered) including: water/sewer service, if subdivision is recorded, if there’s a septic tank, electric service availability, if in a floodplain, road maintenance responsibility, ownership, filed liens, back taxes, encumbrances that don’t allow house construction, advice on obtaining an attorney reviewed abstract/commitment, and advice on obtaining a title policy.  Section 5.099 seller must file the contract and disclosure statement to the county records office.

            SB 450 El Paso city given authority for planning water and wastewater (regional).

            SB 542 Removed grandfathered exemptions for certain platted subdivisions that had not been developed.

            SB 1509 Financing for septic system installations and self-help centers.

            Appropriations Rider 11 Contract for Deed (CFD) Conversion Program to the Fair Land Sales Act so that CFD’s can be converted to traditional mortgages.

1997:   HB 540 Educational programs for colonias by the TDHCA (TX Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs)

            HB 2252 Funding for social service programs in colonias

1999:  SB 1287 (amended in 2001 under SB 322) Texas Bootstrap Loan Program, for owner-built home loans.

            HB 1982 State funds for colonias, for up to 5 years, to alleviate costs associated with municipal annexation.

            SB 1421 Regulation of subdivision and development of land in EDA’s (Economically Depressed Areas) with penalties for violations, including colonias.

2001:   SB 1 Texas Bootstrap Loan Program continuance to purchase/refinance property for low-income families.

            SB 198 Written information/disclosures by sellers to buyers when using CFD’s, with copies in English and Spanish (if buyer speaks Spanish).

            SB 312 Water/wastewater loans and colonia self-help funding.

2003:   HB 1875 Enhancement projects for water quality and rural water funds.

2005:   SB 425 Amendment to prevent development of residential subdivisions that are substandard, for counties within 100 miles of the border, near cities of 250,000+.

2007:   HB 2096 Amendment to LGC (Local Government Code) allowing families to retain electric service if they meet certain conditions.



Survey Results


Our Justicias (Justice) group surveyed the Nuway/Mayfair colonias in north Canutillo, TX in March and April 2008.  Here are some results of the needs of the residents at Nuway/Mayfair colonia.   They felt that the colonia was in great need of street lighting. Many of the residents said that once the sun goes down it is very dark in the area. They said it is very dangerous mainly because the children in the area like to play outside until the sun goes down. They also mentioned that the area needs more security and sheriff patrolling the area. They would like to see more sheriffs around patrolling the area not just on the weekends. Other needs the residents felt that they needed were sidewalks and city water.
Below is a graph showing the needs of the residents:
NuMayUrNeeds.jpg (40478 bytes)

Other findings also consist of they type of transportation the residents have. Many complained that they had no city transportation. Plenty of the residents had their own transportation. However others didn’t and many of the residents mentioned that their children would be picked up by a school bus in order for them to get to and from school.
NuMayTransportation.jpg (20887 bytes)


        The interviews also consisted of asking residents about any government and social services they received. The majority of the people who were interviewed

answered that they didn’t qualify for anything. Only a couple of residents answered that they received food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, and etc. 

Below is a graph showing the results on government and social services.

 NuMayGovSocServices.jpg (27494 bytes) 

We also asked the residents what they thought that needed the most improvement in the area. Streetlights were a major concern; therefore, they hope streetlights can be installed soon in the area.  Twenty percent of the population interviewed felt that is what needs the most improvement.

See graph below:

 NuMayNeedsImprovmnt.jpg (63832 bytes)

The residents surveyed in the colonia were very helpful. The number of people in the homes we interviewed was 141. The number if adults were 58. That varied in both female and male gender. The total number of kids at all the interviewd homes was 83. The gender also varied in boys and girls.  Below is the graph with the results on the number of people survey in Nuway/ Mayfair:

NuMayPplSurveyed.jpg (28449 bytes)
            Lastly, we asked how many years the residents lived there in the Nuway/Mayfair colonias.  Of those that responded, the graph below shows how many years they have been there.


NuMayYrsLived.jpg (36437 bytes)

            One of the last things that came out in some of the surveys (location-dependent) was about the 2006 flood that filled the arroyo (natural drainage ditch for

rain runoff, which in this case comes as far away as the Franklin mountains), and then overflowed the arroyo into the yards and homes and streets of

Nuway/Mayfair.  Below are some of the pictures of the arroyo and the surrounding area.


Arroyo coming from the area of the Franklin mountains
ArroyoFromMtn_sm.jpg (31664 bytes)

Note the depth of the arroyo in comparison to the local homes
ArroyoByHouse3_sm.jpg (36131 bytes)

A side channel/arroyo that meets the larger arroyo
Arroyo1_sm.jpg (34738 bytes)

Baby stroller that got caught in the arroyo during the 2006 flood
ArroyoStroller2_sm.jpg (44654 bytes)

Arroyo water overflowed the dirt berm and ran like a river toward their home
ArroyoFloodBerm_sm.jpg (23052 bytes)



With names such as Mayfair, Buena Vista, Sunny Skies, and Tierra Linda, the colonias seem to be an ideal place for pioneering families seeking to establish roots. Unfortunately, the names are often misleading. The development of Texas colonias dates back to at least the 1950’s. Developers have made use of land that lacks agricultural value, sometimes even land that lays in floodplains or other rural properties, thus creating unincorporated subdivisions. They divide the land into small lots, put in little or no infrastructure, and then sell them to low-income individuals seeking affordable housing.

            Colonias can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.  Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. The colonia population is predominately Hispanic, ranging from 64% to 71%. 85% of colonia residents under the age of 18 were born in the United States. There are more than 1,400 Texas colonias, located primarily along the state’s 1,248 mile border with Mexico.  Many have a very limited property tax base and are either isolated in a rural area or outside city limits. Cities are often hesitant to annex colonias because city residents do not want to share the financial burden of providing services to colonia residents.

The lack of access to utilities such as electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater make living conditions substandard and greatly complicate the lives of colonia residents. It is important to point out the fact that one of the largest concerns for most colonias is the lack of wastewater infrastructure and potable water. Many colonias do not have sewer systems. Instead, residents must rely on alternative, often inadequate wastewater disposal methods, which pose a great health risk to the residents. Septic tank systems, which in some circumstances may provide adequate wastewater disposal, often pose problems because they are too small or improperly installed and can overflow. The problem is made worse by the poor quality of colonia roads, which are often unpaved and covered with caliche and/or materials that prevent proper drainage.  During heavy rains, water collects because of problems such as inadequate drainage systems, elevation and topography.  These conditions, combined with inadequate septic tanks, often result in sewage pooling on the ground.

Since the 1950’s, the contract for deed has been the most frequently used method of financing in the colonias because many individuals have neither a credit history nor the resources to qualify for traditional bank or credit union financing. A contract for deed is a financing arrangement, often at high interest rates, whereby land ownership often remains with the seller until the total purchase price is paid.  This financial aspect of the colonias is another major concern facing most residents.

Traditionally, contracts for deed, unlike deeds of trust, were not recorded with the county clerk. This makes it easy for the developer to reclaim the property and also makes it difficult to enforce any commitment on the developers' part to provide infrastructure. If the buyer fell behind in payments, the developer could repossess the property, often within 45 days, without going through the traditional foreclosure process. Although recent legislation sets a minimum standard for contract for deed land sales, other problems with this method of financing remain. Contracts for deed make it difficult for homeowners to secure financing to build a house or make home improvements. Because title to the land often does not transfer to the buyer until it is fully paid for, an applicant cannot use the property as collateral when applying for a loan. Therefore, financial institutions are reluctant to lend money to improve the property.

            Although there are new pieces of legislature aimed at the issues faced by colonia residents, progress is slow and living conditions remain severely inadequate. 

When compared to the standards of living within the city neighboring any given colonia, quality of life and living conditions within the colonia can be inferior. 

Although city and state funding is limited to tax revenues, new efforts must be exercised by special interest groups and charitable organizations to raise funds for road

and utility improvements in the colonias. 

            Our group, Justicias, walked the Nuway/Mayfair colonias of Canutillo, TX and we went by a total of 89 homes.  Many people were not home, the homes were abandoned, or they did not want to answer the door.   Sometimes there were dogs in the yard that prevents us from entering to knock on their doors.  A total of 39 of the homes participated in the survey.

            Some of the comments by the residents included:

Water tastes salty

The flood in 2006 moved the cars in her yard; it looked like an arroyo, and "In Mexico that never happens."

People speed around the curves and have smashed into the house and pole a few times

The flooding looked like a rio (river), estimated about 3' of water

Spends about $2-$3/wk at the windmill machines for drinking water

The city wants to come in but not build anything, they just want to charge money

Neighbor has had car drive into her house four times since they have lived there

Politics in the city have a major influence in the future of his community.

10 yrs. ago she obtained all utilities in her house. She mentioned that there had been a meeting in the community in which they were asked if they wanted the utilities installed for a certain price, and some of the neighbors said yes while others said no.

During the summer the pressure is too low so very little water comes out.

The city buses only go up to Borderland, which is about 2-3 miles away.

The waste disposal charges too much. First it was 2 companies that came in offering their services. The cost was from $40 - $45 per month. But now they became one company and are charging $70 per month

Waste Disposal is needed because some residents leave there trash on their property unattended (not a lot of them, but 1 or 2) because they don’t want or don’t have money to pay the high fee of having their trash removed.

One problem of owning a vehicle is that city stickers (vehicle registration sticker and inspection sticker) are too high.

I have Medicare but need Medicaid because I just had an operation on my heart and the bill from about 5 different doctors range from $700-$900 dollars each!!! I got into Bravo Insurance because of no Medicaid, but insurances don’t do much.

How can someone in a wheelchair go around our community with no sidewalks?  The only way would be to go through the street which is dangerous during the day; now imagine during the night with not many light on the streets.

It is very dangerous during the night due to the lack of light.

There are independently owned buses, which are from Anthony, but I have heard comments that they are not very reliable because they come once every hour or so.

Some of the positive reporting we got about the community included:

Natural gas was there around the same time as the water system

Dirt roads and cotton fields in 1989, but now paved roads

Water system was in before people started living there

Water is good

Have seen improvements in the subdivision

Have natural gas

Improvements on the streets

Do good job cleaning and maintaining the streets

Very safe neighborhood

Street improvements, used to have a lot of holes

Property not damaged by flood, only gravel in parkway washed away

Built his own light pole in his yard for safety and parties

Have water, natural gas, and septic tank

Things were worse but they are getting better

Has drinking water, natural gas, loves where she lives & wouldn't move for anything!

Has water, gas, and septic

Loves where he lives!

            There are both good points and definite needs of the community, with city water being a need (due to the salts, or water pressure), but paling in comparison to the request for streetlights for the safety of the homes and the children who play in the streets.  Sidewalks and speed limit signs and/or speed bumps, or other “curve ahead” signs were also suggested.  Some people liked the water (from a private community water system), and others didn’t.    One man liked buying bottled water to drink no matter where he lives because he just didn’t want to drink any other kind of water, regardless of its source (city, or not). 

            Texas state colonia laws require any unincorporated community to have city water FIRST in order to get or keep electricity (unless one qualifies for an exemption, or the certificate of compliance), but in this particular colonia the residents defined their greatest need as street lights, rather than water.  A community that diminishes in density, due to the colonia laws, will have even less of a chance to have electricity at some of the homes, and therefore reduces the amount of lights in the area, including home-provided pole lights. 

            Our group learned, based on this survey, that the needs of the colonias must be defined by the colonia dwellers themselves rather than across-the-board rules imposed on these communities at the state level without studying each area first.  Each colonia is unique, just as each home and family and person is unique, and has special needs, requests, concerns, and very likely their own unique solutions.

            ~ end



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