By Shaghayegh Tajvidi
Visual Journalist Shaghayegh Tajvidi documents her journey through the heart of America’s Colonias — the land where undocumented migrants band together to survive.
It’s early September and we are driving on a highway in the Rio Grande Valley in the very south of southern Texas, en route to a colonia for the first time. The word colonia literally translates into colony, though in Spanish it simply refers to a neighbourhood.
We wanted to speak with those residing in these neighbourhoods, which dot the harsh, isolated terrain between two states.
Cacti and abundant palm trees make for easy window gazing – until we cross a massive regional surveillance blimp and soon after, the windshield collides audibly with thousands of butterflies migrating to Mexico. My colleague’s expression is composed, but I feel an instant jolt. It’s a juxtaposition that invokes the violence of borders, one splattering monarch after the next.
I promise, this is not a story about powerlessness.
Our political discourse speaks endlessly about immigration, and undocumented peoples, but rarely from undocumented peoples themselves. So, we set out to hear testimonies from those indigenous to the land, who are forced to live in squalor in America. This contrast depicts life in the colonias, except they are fighting back.
Texas has the highest concentration of these settlements, which began to pop up in the 1950s. To this day the relationships between residents and developers remain complex and unstable. Think: (often) white landowners renting substandard housing and infertile land to migrant populations living in extreme poverty. Family incomes are far below the average of Texas’ border counties ($16,717 in 2015) and unemployment levels are eight times the state rate, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve.
Homes are built in violation of codes, out of cheap and DIY materials, meanwhile developers can repossess properties with ease. Thousands of colonias exist in Texas alone, and are, like their 500 000 residents, off the grid.
Often, there is no sewage, electricity and they lack basic services like garbage collection. For waste management, families band together to commission trash collection with little or no assistance from local governments. Similarly, they’ve organized for street lamps, which some communities have been successful in gaining, while others continue to mobilize.
Colonias sit on the very fringes of counties, and outside municipalities. They are impossible to get to without a vehicle, and with many neighbourhoods still pushing for paved roads, it is only a matter of time before the vehicle hits a ditch. Calling for assistance can be risky business, as being caught without documents can be far more consequential than dealing with a flat tire.
But with this despair comes a determined set of women leaders who are are strategizing, organizing meetings and demanding justice.
As several of these organizers tell me,“we are stepping now into the light.”
“I hope to God I can find a more permanent place for my trailer,” Rosa Garcia tells me, on the drive to her home in Donna Lake.
“I’d prefer to find somewhere close to Alamo or Donna, because that’s where I know I can help the most people.”
She moved to colonia La Frontera just over a year ago and has been a community organizer for the last 16 years. Throughout this time, much of the organizing has been with ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) though Rosa’s mobilization efforts began not long after her arrival to the US from Reynosa, Mexico, 24 years ago.
“I’ve gone knocking on the doors of 350 families to see what services they need and if they want to participate in programs. Wherever I live, I get involved with the community.”
Rosita never quits. She cleans homes, bakes and sells goods, finds odd jobs in schools and community centres, and when nothing works, puts up garage sales.
“The real story here,” she leans in, “is that I’m a single mother of five.” She points to the neighbouring trailer, in which her daughter’s family lives.
“I’ve raised these five children without [support from the state] and yet I pay my taxes.”
Bingo night in Colonia Mi Sueño brings everyone out.
The dense heat of the afternoon has finally subsided, allowing families to gather around picnic tables in the yard. Hot nachos are in high demand among participants of all ages, who are absorbed in both conversation and play.
This night is not just about recreation. Through modest game fees, the community is raising funds for their LUPE membership (La Union del Pueblo Entero), which they believe has been transformative for their empowerment. A total game changer for morale.
I settle at the back of the yard, where a few women graciously pause from their boards to speak about their lives.
Among them is Flor Martinez.
In a calming cadence, she recounts how residents of Mi Sueño fought years for street light installation – a major victory after a grueling five-year struggle.
“The darkness brought a lot of problems. We couldn’t see. Robberies happened, children couldn’t play or be outside freely. They couldn’t see the school bus arriving. It was dangerous.”
Having won light fixtures, they are now pushing for drainage.
The urgency for sewage could not be more evident in colonias that lack it. Even light rain culminates in disproportionate flooding around the neighbourhood, never mind the aftermath of torrential downpours Hidalgo county is sometimes subject to.
The lack of basic infrastructure means kids get sicker here, Flor says.
“They can’t exercise because there isn’t green space close by. All these issues, they’re connected with each other.”
Flor and her children live in a house with two other families to keep housing costs at a minimum; her annual income of three thousand dollars doesn’t stretch far. Despite the difficulties, she could not be prouder of her community’s resilience.
She’s certain the pressure is finally putting the people of colonias on the radar of public officials.
It is 104-degree heat when Emma Alaniz invites me into her home.
She has lived in Curry Estates for nearly two decades. It is where she raised her four kids.
All but Roberto, now aged 28, have moved away.
“They had a happy childhood, they would run outside with their dogs. The entire colonia was their playground. We were the first ones here.”
From a distance, Curry Estates could be a neighbourhood in any corner of the country. It has paved roads and some beautiful abodes, such as Emma’s. What we are looking at, she tells us, represents years of struggles, which are ongoing.
When Hurricane Dolly hit southern Texas in 2008, colonia residents bore the most extreme brunt of the flooding.
“[In its aftermath] I saw kids playing outside and realized that the contents of our septic tanks were also rising and mixing into the flood water… where the kids were playing. It worried me,” she recounts.
The disaster brought some members of the community, including Emma and her husband, to their first meeting to discuss drainage systems. “For me, mobilization started that day.”
She turned her home into an organizing space. Six people showed up to the first house gathering – a triumph. Over the next four years, meeting attendance grew. They rallied relentlessly in front of the commissioner’s court.
Eventually the commissioner caved. The county would move forward with sewerage plans for the colonia. For Emma, the accomplishment also served as a big epiphany.
“This work has taught me that we should have the same rights and same access to services as people do in cities. We’re stepping out of the shadows now.”