Fidel Pérez made his way from Durango, Mexico, to Juárez and then to Chaparral, New Mexico, in 1970. He was cleaning yards and working in the agricultural fields of nearby Anthony when border patrol officials arrested him. When they asked why he had come to the United States, he replied, “Because I’m hungry! And it’s easier here to make money for tortillas than it is back in Mexico.”
Later, after he’d married an American, he returned to Chaparral. It was one of many informal communities known as colonias, a word that, in the Southwest borderlands, connotes just the kind of place where he’d landed: a rural unincorporated settlement populated almost entirely by Mexican immigrants and lacking such amenities as paved roads, electricity, water systems, wastewater treatment and decent housing.
Pérez is one of the thousands of laborers who’ve traveled north of the border in search of work. Squeezed out of established housing markets by price — and by overt racism — these low-wage workers have sought new places to settle. Landowners and real estate developers in New Mexico, seeing an opportunity, have found ways to offer what the newcomers wanted: cheap land. And the lax laws outside of established municipalities allowed landowners to subdivide property without providing basic infrastructure.
The resulting small, poorly designed subdivisions started as little more than clusters of makeshift houses and mobile homes — often with only a few dozen residents. They grew rapidly, offering people like Pérez the possibility of land and homeownership. Hundreds of colonias soon sprang up along the Mexican border from Texas to California, and today there are more than 2,000 of them. In New Mexico alone, there are more than 140 colonias, home to some 135,000 people.
Lots were often sold using unscrupulous contract-for-deed arrangements and other predatory lending practices. Buyers — who often didn’t speak or read or write in English — had to navigate through loosely regulated real estate contracts in a legal system they may not have understood well. A purchase often left them without a legal title for their small, unimproved lots of land without electricity, gas, a sewage system and indoor plumbing. Some buyers wound up locked into a cycle of debt that exacerbated their poverty.
Appalling conditions in New Mexico colonias prompted local and regional governments to reckon with them in the 1990s. The state attorney general attempted a crackdown and subdivision laws were amended to close loopholes, but by then the colonias were well established.
Today, it’s easy to drive right by a colonia and not even see it. In New Mexico, they are typically situated between towns within a couple hours’ drive of the border — the majority within striking distance of the Interstate 10 and Interstate 25 corridors and smaller feeder roads. Amid the rush of semis bouncing between urban centers, commuter cars carry laborers from the colonias to their jobs in farm fields, factories and service industries in El Paso and around Las Cruces.
Immigrants chasing home ownership can still find relatively inexpensive land in the colonias. Infrastructure has improved for the most part, thanks to local activism and government and nonprofit programs. A few colonias have incorporated and grown to include a few thousand or more residents. Some have gained a measure of status as bona fide towns. But despite their ubiquity and the large numbers of people who live in them, they remain largely invisible to most New Mexicans. I traveled to southern New Mexico this year to bring them into view.
Don J. Usner was born in Embudo, N.M., and has written and provided photos for several books, including The Natural History of Big Sur; Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza; Benigna’s Chimayó:...
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