What is a Colonia?
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Imagine a home without access to water, sewers, electricity or gas. Imagine a community where emergency workers can’t find and help your family because your home has no legal address. Imagine your child walking seven miles to school because a lack of legal roads means school buses will not enter your neighborhood. Imagine having to haul every drop of water used in your home from a shared community spigot. You may be imagining a village in the developing world, but these conditions exist right here in New Mexico. The people of Pajarito Mesa, a “colonia” located just outside of Albuquerque, live under the conditions described above. Pajarito Mesa is a community that has long been ignored by government officials and policymakers, but its proud residents persevere despite the obstacles they face every day. Pajarito Mesa is just one of New Mexico’s many colonias.
According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, a colonia is a community within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border which lacks essential infrastructure such as a potable water supply, an adequate sewage system, and safe and sanitary housing. New Mexico has 141 federally recognized colonias, which collectively house at least 135,000 people. However, the true number of New Mexicans living in colonia conditions is even higher, as not all communities lacking essential infrastructure are within 150 miles of the U.S-Mexico border. While every colonia is unique in size, demographics, and level of development, four characteristics can be used to identify these communities in New Mexico: (1) exceedingly high rates of poverty; (2) high numbers of immigrants or descendants of immigrants, regardless of proximity to the border; (3) a largely rural nature; and (4) lack of infrastructure and essential services.
In recent years many of New Mexico’s colonias have seen important infrastructure improvements. All New Mexico colonias that meet HUD’s definition now have piped, running water, though some of these systems are in dire need of improvement. Despite these strides, however, colonia residents still live in conditions that should be unacceptable in our state. Many colonias are located in areas that are inadequately protected from floods, have no electric or gas service, and lack dedicated roads that are maintained by any governmental body. These conditions have largely been ignored simply because colonias are low-income communities. Although the state has taken some affirmative steps to improve infrastructure in our colonias over the past several years, there is much work to be done.
In 2008, the Center initiated a project to assess the legal needs of New Mexico’s colonias, to prioritize those needs and to determine the most effective way of addressing them. Center staff met with numerous colonia advocates, stakeholders, policymakers and community members, all of whom are intimately involved with the communities and knowledgeable about the challenges they face. Center staff then conducted further legal research and ultimately produced a report which serves as an overview of the predominant legal issues facing colonias in New Mexico. We found that there is a severe shortage of free or low-cost legal services available to colonia residents. Advocates and community members indicated that the greatest legal needs include assistance with the regulation of real estate contracts, the primary method by which colonia residents buy (and too often eventually lose) their land; immigration issues; predatory lending; and environmental justice issues.