Reading Synthesis

The Making of "Colonias", Sarah Hill

Synthesis by Sharon Cornet

Spring 2007, Dr. G.G. Nunez - Urban Anthropology


Sarah Hill’s research into colonias began in 1994 when she first moved to El Paso.  She begins the main part of the chapter with visual imagery that leans toward morbid and disgusting in her discussions about colonias, although at the same time brings to light that these negative connotations and descriptions of colonias are not necessarily her own view, nor her own words.  In fact, some of her first sentences includes, “I encountered a dark side of the U.S.-Mexico border’s celebrated porosity: colonias.  One county official after another described colonias to me as ‘Mexico north of the border.’”  Indeed, she continues with phrases and quotes of health officials, newspapers, etc. (in their views of colonias) such as “colonia residents ‘literally drink their own excrement,’” Or that “El Paso’s 10,000: ‘Third World’ lurks on outskirts of Sun City,” and that colonia descriptions included, “‘cesspools,’ as being ‘green,’ ‘foul smelling,’ and full of ‘human waste.’”

As the topic of colonias – in 1983 – being located on the periphery and classed as “illegal subdivisions” moved on in time, the focus lifted from the blame being on the land developers’ contract for deeds that they exploited their customers with (along with the lack of running water, sewage, etc.), to the apparent health concerns of the residents themselves and the “illegal” activities they were supposedly engaging in simply by living there.  By January 3, 1987 a health official spoke up saying, “All of the waste that those people are generating is in the groundwater – all of it.  Those people there all have septic systems.  These people down here are drinking their own waste.”   Note the qualifier “all” that the health official used… surely, since a health official stated it, it must be true, no?  Further comments were made by judge Luther Jones that colonia residents “could be transmitting diseases to people throughout the county.”  Hill did not mention any studies that had been done (or not) to verify whether the statement made by Jones was adequately supported. 

Changes were implemented, however, on the uneven development within colonias.  County health officials, and governmental and nongovernmental agencies created new zoning laws and raised monies toward the construction of infrastructure, worked toward eradicating old cesspools, and promoted household hygiene.  By April 2001 the Texas Water Development Board had figures that said, “close to three-quarters of the county’s estimated 74,600 colonia residents now have city water (”  Hill contends that while much has been “fixed” in colonias, “it has made descriptions of uneven development accomplices to more general patterns of class dynamics.”  Now locality of residency fuses a class distinction for colonia residents regardless of who they are or why they are there. 

NAFTA’s “Operation Blockade” (1994) to help secure the border began to set in motion the “increasing criminalization of unlicensed migration” and made colonia residents’ en masse class distinction and delineation all the more solid (as static spaces) in the public’s collective mind.  People like the retired director of the City-County Health District, Dr. Lawrence Nickey, continued to proliferate that view long after many changes had ensued, bringing an air of false homogeneity to the social aspects of colonia dwellers.  Anyone who moved there, or had electricity and city water trucked into potable water tanks, and who did not have self-drilled shallow wells, or “homemade excreta disposal systems” now fell automatically under the negative connotation of the term “colonia” and all that it entailed.  Colonia residents’ opinions and views did not matter; they were ignored.   Surveys that followed up on hygienic education of families showed flawed results (that less than of them followed the intervention rules); Hill reported that colonia residents had not drunk the water from on-site wells to begin with – that they used it for nonpotable purposes.  So there was no need to follow an intervention that was not applicable to their situation.  It became evident that colonia residents were not so “nave” or “ignorant,” or that the view that they “do not fully understand… hygiene” was in gross error.   Some of the results to this infringement on the private lives/spaces of periphery dwellers was described by Hill as what “explained some residents’ open hostility” regarding the matter.  Some of these hostile remarks made by colonia dwellers included, “People think we are poor because we live in colonias, and in Mexico only poor people do not have water or plumbing,” and “to be poor in Mexico ‘is one thing, to be dirty is another,’” and “You people don’t know how we live here.  You just think you do.”  Those who promoted intervention techniques had assumed the worst without knowing or understanding the best about colonias and their inhabitants. 

Generalizations and assumptions by officials had taken a diverse and dynamic space along the border and had forcibly converted it (and those who live within its imaginary boundaries) by a mere whim into a hoard of faulty descriptions (via a lack of qualitative information), and inhumane titles.  Hill states “they engaged in what Bakhtin (1968) called displaced abjection – the appropriation of oppressive discourse for subversive political ends.”  What was once considered homesteading and something that residents took pride in (their homes, their land, their lives, etc.) was now a shameful colonia, and they were labeled forever as dejected colonia residents.  Monies allocated to help colonia situations were now being taken advantage of, so that places (i.e. Sunland Park, NM) were desirous of the “colonia” title to obtain federal funds to “close down a polluting agent”… a local waste management company.  In the meantime developers in Sparks renamed the land as “minifarms” until people claimed “colonia” status on them, therefore repropagating the term and the bureaucratic connotation that went with it.

Where modernity is not seen as dirt-ridden, or unable “to separate oneself from one’s bodily waste,” it is what keeps those within its grasp as cohorts with material power.  Spatially labeling colonias will only perpetuate this chasm between the culture of modernity and truly understanding colonias and those who dwell within its “borders”…. but as the people speak louder, so will their power grow.