In South Texas, tens of thousands live in border enclaves without water, power or certainty of their future

In South Texas, tens of thousands live in border enclaves without water, power or certainty of their future

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Photos by Salwan Georges

A ragged American flag flutters outside Rosa Castro’s trailer near the U.S.-Mexico border. She has no electricity, no running water, and little hope that she ever will.

Castro is one of about 500,000 people residing in hundreds of unincorporated towns in south Texas, places with quirky names such as Little Mexico, Radar Base, Betty Acres and Mike’s that were created when developers carved up ranchland that was unprepared for human habitation and sold the parcels at bargain prices, mostly to low-income immigrants and Mexican Americans.

Buyers plunked down double-wide trailers or wood-and-cinder-block houses and waited for the paved roads, electricity, and water and sewer systems to arrive.

For thousands of people, they never did.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas says the enclaves, known in Spanish as colonias, represent one of the largest concentrations of poverty in the United States. Texas outlawed their creation and expansion in 1989. The state and federal government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve some of the outposts, but have done little in others, for reasons that include the high costs and questions about who owns which land.

Rosa Castro, right, chats with her sons girlfriend, Isabel Lopez, who is carrying Raul Castro Jr., in La Presa last year.

Critics of colonias say people frustrated by the lack of services should move to established cities and towns, but residents refuse to abandon their land after years of trying to make it work. They are irked that the state government recently cut funding for health care, water and other services for colonias, and that President Trump is pushing a $25 billion border wall and security upgrades at a time when illegal border crossings are low and colonias could use a federal boost.

“We can’t move away from here. We want Washington to do something,” said Castro, a 70-year-old grandmother. “We’re in the United States after all.”

Jesse Gonzalez, an elected commissioner in Webb County, says he has made it his priority to bring a park and a water pump to La Presa. The county has applied for state grants to finance both projects.

“We don’t live in a Third World country,” Gonzalez said.

Boots hang on a front porch along Mangana-Hein Road in La Presa, one of the hundreds of unincorporated towns that dot the U.S. border with Mexico. For decades, La Presa residents have traveled to nearby Laredo to buy water and are also forced to use power generators to run the air conditioners in the triple-digit heat.

Water tanks and tubs

About 330 colonias — and nearly 38,000 people — are stuck in the most extreme conditions, without clean running water, sewers, or even clear boundaries needed to develop the land, according to the state. Another 115,000 people live in enclaves without paved roads, drainage or solid-waste disposal.

Residents of La Presa, a community of 300 surrounding a bluish lake at the center of town that is hidden by mesquite and sweet acacia trees, buy bottled water for drinking. Two or three times a week, they hitch empty water tanks to pickup trucks and drive about a dozen miles to Laredo to pump water for their washing machines, sinks, toilets and tubs.

Carlos Salas, a U.S. military veteran, fills his mothers tank after bringing water from Laredo last June. Salas is unemployed and still grappling with the trauma of serving in Iraq. The water allows his mother to bathe and clean in a community without running water.

The cost is nominal, about $1.25 each filling, but the supply dwindles fast.

Sylvia Zuazua, a flea market cashier, has lived without running water for decades. She and her husband paid $5,200 for an acre of land in the 1970s, dreaming of raising their family on a small farm. They bought chickens, cows and a pony, but they eventually sold them all because they had no water.

“Supposedly the United States is the richest country,” she said with a shake of her head. “I tell my husband, he’s going to be buried and we won’t see water.”

The improvements that have trickled into La Presa over the years have made a big difference, residents say. Electrical hookups arrived over a decade ago for residents who could prove they owned the land. Around the same time, the government built an adobe-tinted community center where elderly residents play loteria, the Mexican version of bingo, pick up bags of donated sweet bread and ham sandwiches, and gather for meetings.

Rosa Castro, of La Presa, right, plays loteria, the Mexican version of bingo, with other elderly residents at La Presa Community Center last year.
Jose Hernandez, who is in his 80s, rests on his cane outside La Presa Community Center in June. Daily activities and meals draw residents of La Presa and nearby colonias to the center.
Rosa Castro, of La Presa, right, plays loteria, the Mexican version of bingo, with other elderly residents at La Presa Community Center last year. Jose Hernandez, who is in his 80s, rests on his cane outside La Presa Community Center in June. Daily activities and meals draw residents of La Presa and nearby colonias to the center.

But for those, like Castro, who cannot prove they own their land, electricity was not an option. And for county officials, some improvements are simply too expensive — extending water and sewer service to La Presa, for example, would cost more than $120,000 per family, which is more expensive than housing in Laredo.

The rightful homeowners in colonias are often unclear because many paid for their land in cash and did not have the land formally mapped out and deeded with the county government. Others illegally carved up existing plots and sold them. And in other cases, the owners died without having a will that would indicate who owns the property.

“Those property owners who have chosen to live in the subdivision without basic services are also free to choose to relocate to an area where those services are available,” Webb County spokesman Larry Sanchez said in an email. “Until there is a significant reduction in the cost per connection or other funding resources are generated, this subdivision will remain without water and sewer service or other utility services.”

‘They’re asking for water’

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) this summer eliminated an $860,000 state ombudsman program for colonias, which allowed them to seek help from an array of state agencies through a single point of entry.

The Associated Press reported that some of those agencies lost funding they had used to provide water and other services to colonias.

State officials say the settlements will continue to receive funding and can seek help directly at each government agency.

But some Texas politicians say the state and federal governments should find a way to bring colonias up to basic standards. Most residents of colonias are U.S. citizens, they note. Many served in the U.S. military.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), a former secretary of state in Texas who represents La Presa and the surrounding area, has suggested diverting border-wall funding to improve the colonias.

A member of the military, part of a crew with Texas A&M University and Webb County, uses a steamroller to smooth out a dirt road in La Presa.

Carlos Cascos, a Republican and another former secretary of state, under Abbott, said the state and federal governments should invest $100 million a year for the next 15 years to modernize colonias.

“These are basic necessities,” said Cascos, who lives in the border city of Brownsville and is running for a judgeship in Cameron County. “They’re not asking for curbs and gutters and sidewalks. They’re asking for water.”

Castro said she moved to La Presa more than a dozen years ago, after she lost her house in Laredo to foreclosure. County officials say they can do little to provide Castro access to utilities for her trailer, because it’s unclear who owns the property where she lives, and only a court can resolve the issue.

Officials tried to help her apply for public housing in Laredo, but Castro says she wants to pay her own way.

She says she also did not want to burden her relatives. But as temperatures sank this winter, she sought refuge with a brother who has heat and hot water.

“They’re going to build a park,” Castro said. “We don’t need a park. We need water.”

A dog crosses Mangana-Hein Road at dusk in La Presa.
Credits: Story by Maria Sacchetti. Photos by Salwan Georges. Designed by Courtney Kan.