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Border Facts

History:With the exception of a small number of minor Rio Grande border disputes, since settled, the current course of the border was finalized by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. Whether the border between Mexico and the breakaway Republic of Texas followed the Rio Grande or the Nueces River further north was an issue never settled during the existence of that Republic, and the uncertainty was one of the direct causes of the Mexican-American War between 1846 to 1848. An earlier agreement, signed during the Mexican War of Independence by the United States and Imperial Spain, was the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, which defined the border between the republic and the colonial empire following the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

Location: The international border between Mexico and the United States runs from San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Baja California, in the west to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Brownsville, Texas, in the east. It traverses a variety of terrains, ranging from major urban areas to inhospitable deserts. From the Gulf of Mexico it follows the course of the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) to the border crossing at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; westward from that binational conurbation it crosses vast tracts of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, the Colorado River Delta, and the northernmost tip of the Baja California peninsula before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

Size: The border's total length is 1,969 miles and is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, with about 250 million legal crossings every year. The region along the boundary is characterized by deserts, rugged mountains, abundant sunshine and by two major rivers — the Colorado and the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) — which provide life-giving waters to the largely arid but fertile lands along the rivers in both countries.

The U.S. states along the border, from west to east, are: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The Mexican states are: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas.

In the United States, Texas has the longest stretch of the border of any state, while California has the shortest.

Population: The total population of the borderlands — defined as those counties and municipios lining the border on either side — stands at some 12 million people.

Border Health:  With the border populations and the environmental conditions of each country being similar to each other, similarities in priority health issues also exist. Eight of the top ten causes of death are the same in both countries: cardiovascular disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, diabetes mellitus, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia and influenza combined, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. The border regions of both countries also have high rates of certain infectious diseases. Tuberculosis and water and food-borne illnesses are the primary infectious diseases of public health significance on the border.

Ethnic Groups: Hispanic Americans, Anglos, Mexican Meztizos and Indigenous groups that have migrated to the border, Central American immigrants

Languages: Spanish, English, and “Spanglish”

Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant

Literacy: 58%

Unemployment rate: 32%

Population below poverty line: More than one third of families on the U.S. side of the border have incomes at or below the Federal poverty levels. Average household income for the 32 border county area varied from a low of $18,553 in Zavala County to a high of $41,283 in Sutton County.

In 1999, about one in three border residents (29%) lived in poverty. During 2003, one in four border residents lived in poverty compared to 1 out of every 6 residents in the state. Thirty-two percent (32%) of Texas school children ages 5-17 lived in poverty in the 32 Texas border counties compared to 21% of school children in Texas for this same period.

Labor force: There are over 3,000 maquiladoras (American Twin Factories) along the 2,000 mile-long United States–Mexico border, providing employment for approximately one million workers, and importing more than $51 billion in supplies into Mexico. Significant numbers of borderlanders survive by providing services for the tourist industry.

Both the U.S. side and the Mexican side replicate the political, economic, social, and cultural systems of their respective nation-states. At the same time, the borderlanders have blended the structures, institutions, and life expressions of the two societies to create something novel and entirely theirs—the ambiente fronterizo, or borderlands milieu. Today the area stands as a prime example of binational interdependence, providing striking evidence of the trend toward closer ties among the world's nations and societies.

Transborder interdependence is rooted in the economic interaction that has existed between the United States and Mexico for several generations. In a functional sense, two systems have combined to produce one order that is quite distinct from those of the two parent societies, and a population whose lifestyles differ considerably from what is found in heartland zones.

Out of economic necessity, as well as personal desire to venture into "other worlds," border Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans intermingle at close range, borrowing from and contributing to each other's way of life. That three-way association, ranging from superficial contact to intimate relations, has produced unique patterns which comprise key components of what is commonly referred to as "border culture."

Fundamentally, border culture, or the border "way of life," is rooted in the influences that the boundary exerts on fronterizos. First, borderlanders are surrounded by internationality; they go from one nation to the other frequently on shopping trips, on business, or for leisure. Transnational interaction is normal and routine. Second, they are accustomed to dealing with conflicts spawned by the border itself or by larger international controversies. Fronterizos know the border is a flash point and they are used to putting out fires. Third, border people are adept at ethnic interaction; over several generations they have learned how to transcend group differences. These experiences then are central elements in the values, thinking, and behavior of border people.

But other factors play a significant role, as well. Regionalism, an important variable in the configuration of the borderlands, is evidenced in the expression of U.S. Southwestern and Mexican norteño cultural styles. We can identify distinct sub regions, each with its own characteristics shaped by local environmental factors and contact with the outside world. Above all, the singularity of the border population rests on the many traits that derive from its sub-groups, including cross-borrowing of such things as language, religion, customs, traditions, holidays, foods, clothing, and architecture. In short, U.S.-Mexico border culture may be said to be the sum product of forces and influences generated by the boundary itself, by regional phenomena, and by the transculturation shared by Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans.

Few who reside on the Mexican side of the border are able to escape the overwhelming influence of the United States, and consequently, most Mexican borderlanders have direct or indirect ties to Americans. Such links have resulted in heavy consumption of U.S. products and popular culture, but that does not necessarily imply a corresponding loss of national identity; Mexicanness, as a rule, remains strongly embedded among all Mexican fronterizos, regardless of their external orientations.

On the U.S. side, vast numbers of Mexican Americans maintain substantial bonds with Mexico, and they live bicultural and transnational lifestyles to a far greater degree than any other sector of the borderlands population. Out of economic necessity and by the sheer force of the U.S. "melting pot" phenomenon, most Mexican American borderlanders, including many first-generation immigrants, have learned the English language and have absorbed large doses of American culture. At the same time, the proximity to Mexico has assured strong adherence to the Spanish language and Mexican culture. Generally speaking then, with some exceptions, Mexican American borderlanders are transnational in outlook and behavior.

Food: Tex-Mex is a term for a type of American food which is used primarily in Texas and the Southwestern United States to describe a regional cuisine which blends food products available in the United States and the culinary creations of Mexican-Americans that are influenced by the cuisines of Mexico. A given Tex-Mex food may or may not be similar to Mexican cuisine, although it is common for all of these foods to be referred to as "Mexican food" in Texas, the United States and in some other countries. In many parts of the country outside of Texas this term is synonymous with Southwestern cuisine.

Impoverished communities without most basic services

Colonias are basically illegal subdivisions created by rural settlers and are found near the U.S. - Mexico border. The lack of clean water and proper plumbing infrastructure is due primarily to the fact that the settlements were established spontaneously without the approval or assistance of the proper government authorities. The population of a colonia will usually grow rapidly well before its infrastructure needs are realized by the closest established towns or government officials.
The Texas legislature has defined colonias as: a) subdivisions, b) lacking essential elements of infrastructure, and c) near the Mexico border.

Where are colonias found?
Colonias can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. Approximately 400,000 Texans live in colonias. Overall, the colonia population is predominately Hispanic; 64.4 percent of all colonia residents and 85 percent of those residents under 18 were born in the United States. There are more than 2,294 Texas colonias, located primarily along the state's 1,248 mile border with Mexico.

How were colonias developed?
The development of Texas colonias dates back to at least the 1950s. Using agriculturally worthless land, land that lay in floodplains or other rural properties, developers created unincorporated subdivisions. They divided the land into small lots, put in little or no infrastructure, then sold them to low-income individuals seeking affordable housing. Colonia residents generally have very low incomes. Per capita annual income for all Texas counties bordering Mexico-where most of the colonias are located-tends to be much lower than the state average of $16,717. In border counties such as Starr, Maverick and Hidalgo, per capita annual incomes in 1994 were $5,559, $7,631 and $8,899, respectively.

Why do people buy land in colonias?
A limited supply of adequate, affordable housing in cities and rural areas along the Texas- Mexico border, coupled with the rising need for such housing has contributed to the development of new colonias and the expansion of existing ones. People with low-incomes often buy the lots through a contract for deed, a property financing method whereby developers typically offer a low down payment and low monthly payments but no title to the property until the final payment is made. Houses in colonias are generally constructed in phases by their owners and may lack electricity, plumbing and other basic amenities. Colonia residents build homes as they can afford materials.

Why isn’t more done to improve conditions in the colonias?
The colonias' growth has challenged residents, as well as county, state and federal governments and others, to seek ways to provide basic water and sewer services and to improve the quality of life in the colonias. Local public funds and other resources are often limited and unable to provide service to the current and growing colonia population. Hidalgo County, which has the most colonias and largest number of colonia residents in Texas, is typical of many border counties. For basic health and human services, environmental services and capital improvements, colonia residents must rely on an often confusing combination of local, state and federal programs, many of which come and go, depending on the political and economic climate.

What are some of the issues and challenges facing colonias?
Access to Water and Sewer Service.  Because of the potentially serious consequences for public health and its effect on quality of life, one of the greatest concerns regarding the 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. 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 exacerbated by the poor quality of colonia roads, which are often unpaved and covered with caliche or their materials that prevent thorough drainage.  During heavy rains, water collects because of inadequate drainage systems, elevation and topography.  These conditions, combined with inadequate septic tanks, often result in sewage pooling on the ground.

Even if the colonias had adequate sewer systems, the border area lacks sufficient facilities to treat wastewater. In many places, there are no treatment facilities at all. Consequently, border communities often discharge untreated or inadequately treated wastewater into canals and arroyos (a creek or stream), which then flow into Rio Grande River or the Gulf of Mexico.

Securing potable water also presents a challenge to colonia residents.  Many must buy water by the bucket or drum to meet their daily needs or use wells that may be contaminated.

Colonia residents often find themselves in a catch-22 situation. Even when water lines and sewer systems are in place, many cannot access the services because their homes do not meet county building codes. Many homes, built without regard for indoor bathrooms or plumbing, are treated as substandard or dilapidated by housing inspectors. These homes cannot pass inspection to qualify for hook up to water lines, and residents cannot afford the repairs or improvements necessary to bring them up to code.

Housing.  Housing in the colonias is primarily constructed by residents little by little, using available materials. Professional builders are rarely used. Residents frequently start with tents or makeshift structures of wood, cardboard or other materials and, as their financial situation allows, continue to improve their homes. Housing in older colonias tends to be better developed because residents have had more time to make improvements.

Health.  Dilapidated homes, a lack of potable water and sewer and drainage systems, and floodplain locations make many colonias an ideal place for the proliferation of disease. Texas Department of Health data show that hepatitis A, salmonellosis, dysentery, cholera and other diseases occur at much higher rates in colonias than in Texas as a whole. Tuberculosis is also a common health threat, occurring almost twice as frequently along the border than in Texas as a whole. A lack of medical services compounds health problems in the colonias. In addition to a shortage of primary care providers, colonia residents' difficulty in accessing health care is compounded by other factors, including having to travel long distances to health care facilities, fear of losing wages for time spent away from work, inconvenient health care facility hours, lack of awareness of available health care programs and no health insurance. As a result, many colonia residents' health care problems go unreported and untreated. For children, these barriers can be devastating and may result in slow growth and lower educational development rates.

Unemployment.  The unemployment rate in some colonias is more than eight times the state rate. A 1993 Texas A&M study discovered that unemployment in five Lower Rio Grande Valley colonias ranged from 20 percent to 60 percent, compared with the overall Texas unemployment rate of 7 percent. In addition, many colonia residents often cannot find year-round work due to the seasonal nature of their primary occupations. Fieldwork represents 29.5 percent of their jobs, construction work, 24.4 percent, and factory work, 14.9 percent.

Buckner on the Border
Buckner began to minister in the Texas “colonias” in the Rio Grande Valley in 2002 and hired a coordinator to coordinate the efforts of volunteer mission groups for Buckner Border Ministries.  A couple of years later, in collaboration with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Kid’s Heart was launched which significantly increased the number of mission groups responding to colonia needs. Buckner’s ministry in the colonias of the Rio Grande valley grew from a few mission groups the first year to close to 200 mission groups by 2007. In 2007, Buckner expanded the colonia program to El Paso and hired a missions coordinator for the work of volunteer groups for El Paso colonias. On April 25, a tornado destroyed a four mile path of homes in Rosita Valley of the border community of Eagle Pass and Buckner responded with humanitarian aid for the tornado victims in that border region. A construction coordinator was then hired, with the help of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to coordinate the efforts of volunteer groups to rebuild the houses of families that lost their homes in the tornado. In August of 2007, Buckner expanded its ministry into the Mexico interior and began to explore ministry opportunities on the Arizona and California borders with Mexico. Doors have now opened for mission groups to minister in Nogales, Arizona/Mexico, San Diego CA/Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, CA/Tecate, Mexico.

Buckner services and border support include:
• On-going humanitarian aid through colonia community centers along the U.S. side of the border.
• On-going mission trips throughout the year ministering to the children in orphanages in Camargo and Juarez (Texas border), Nogales, Sonora, (Arizona border) and Tecate, Baja California. (California border).
• Construction groups to repair and build new houses to improve the living conditions of impoverished families living in colonias on the U.S. side of the border.      
• Evangelism projects such as VBS, Backyard Bible Clubs, Block Parties, Sports Clinics, Payer Walking, and Evangelistic films in border communities on both sides of the border.
• Build and help develop day care program for at-risk children of single working moms in Juarez.
• Healthcare volunteers for Medical and Dental Clinics on both sides of the border.

Typical mission trips include
• Church Group Trips
• Shoes for Orphan Souls Trips
• Medical/Dental Mission Trips
• Construction Trips
• Community Ministry Activities
• Border Children’s Homes

From west to east, the border city twin cities and border crossings include the following:

  • San Diego, California (San Ysidro) – Tijuana, Baja California (San Diego-Tijuana Metro.)
  • Otay Mesa, California – Tijuana, Baja California
  • Tecate, California – Tecate, Baja California
  • Calexico, California – Mexicali, Baja California
  • Andrade, California – Los Algodones, Baja California
  • San Luis, Arizona – San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora
  • Lukeville, Arizona – Sonoita, Sonora
  • Sasabe, Arizona – Altar, Sonora
  • Nogales, Arizona – Nogales, Sonora
  • Naco, Arizona – Naco, Sonora
  • Douglas, Arizona – Agua Prieta, Sonora
  • Antelope Wells, New Mexico – Berrendo, Chihuahua
  • Columbus, New Mexico – Palomas, Chihuahua
  • Santa Teresa, New Mexico – San Gerónimo, Chihuahua
  • El Paso, Texas – Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua
  • Presidio, Texas – Ojinaga, Chihuahua
  • Del Rio, Texas – Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila
  • Eagle Pass, Texas – Piedras Negras, Coahuila
  • Laredo, Texas – Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
  • McAllen, Texas – Reynosa, Tamaulipas
  • Progreso Lakes, Texas – Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas
  • Brownsville, Texas – Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

New Mexico Colonias


Wiki Border
Border History Culture
Colonias FAQs
Border Colonia Geography
Texas Colonias Map
Southwest Border Map
TX A&M Colonias Urban Development
Texas & New Mexico Colonias
Mexican American Culture & History
Border Counties Coalition
Mexico Border Crossing Records
Border Health Commission
Texas Border Health
Spanish Language Shift Reversal

Contact us at: bordermissions@buckner.org

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