Twenty years ago, the Colonias Development Council (CDC) emerged as a local, grassroots group in cooperation with the Office of Catholic Social Ministry to help farmworkers. The CDC became an independent 501(c)3 non-profit in 1994 to develop multi-issue, self-help community-based organizations to respond to common needs in colonia communities. Our work is characterized by a long-term commitment to facilitating the processes for community organizing and leadership development in order to achieve social change.
We work to address:
- Social Justice: civil rights, cooperative organization, education, human rights, immigration, infrastructure development, public health, policy change, youth engagement
- Environmental Justice: civic engagement for policy change, community and environmental health, school-based and community gardens and green spaces
- Economic Justice: job and skill training, micro-enterprise initiatives, sustainability projects, technical assistance
The CDC promotes leadership development by engaging communities in civic processes. We work with residents to develop community-based solutions to common needs by using a community organizing approach that focuses on developing grassroots strategies to address resident-identified issues of concern. Civic engagement activities offer opportunities for colonia residents to learn about the decision-making processes that affect their lives, providing hands-on experience through negotiation, advocacy, research, and organizing.
Why was the Colonias Development Council formed?
In the late 1980s the colonia phenomenon exploded in southern New Mexico. A housing shortage had caused numerous developers to create illegal subdivisions to serve farmworkers and other low-income workers unable to afford other housing. The Office of Catholic Social Ministries of the Diocese of Las Cruces responded to this need by starting the Farmworker Organizing Project, which in 1994 became incorporated as the Doña Ana County Colonias Development Council (CDC), an independent non-profit organization. CDC was created to address the concerns of southern New Mexico's colonia residents. These concerns included gaining access to infrastructure and services such as water and wastewater systems, natural gas services and paved roads. Many colonias were also situated in flood plains, increasing the risk of flood damage, surfacing raw sewage due to flooded septic tanks or cesspools, and trash carried in from other areas. In addition to infrastructure needs, residents also faced economic development and educational issues, environmental health concerns, and problems related to immigration and civil rights. CDC's mandate was to work with these residents to develop community-based solutions to common needs. CDC' uses a community organizing approach that focuses on developing grassroots strategies to address resident-identified issues of concern. This approach builds leadership among colonia residents and develops the capacity of communities to build on their assets to bring about change. Over its eleven-year history, The Colonias Development Council has successfully worked with colonia leaders to bring about improvements in all identified areas of concern.
Overview of Colonia Communities
What are colonias?
The word ‘colonia’ means neighborhood in Spanish. However, in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico,
the word has a legalistic connotation, referring to the rural, unincorporated settlements along the
U.S.-Mexico border characterized by substandard housing, inadequate roads, poor drainage, and
substandard or no water and sewer facilities. Colonias are small communities where families are
striving to improve the quality of life for themselves and those around them. The designation of ‘colonia’
is characterized by a complex array of factors, including: economic, geographic, political, cultural,
social, linguistic, familial, and racial characteristics. This complex set of characteristics necessitates
localized solutions. For the CDC, what began as an attempt to address the plight of farmworkers
has ended as a need to address basic housing and infrastructure issues in the region. The growth
of colonias reflects a combination of immigration trends, lack of affordable housing, inadequate
government regulation, and violation of consumer protection by many developers, but also the dream of
building equity through home-ownership.
Why are there colonias in New Mexico?
Prior to 1996, land developers in the state of New Mexico used loopholes in the 1973 Subdivision Act
that allowed a 4-lot split without any attendant infrastructure improvements. These land-splits resulted
in parcels that did not have access to roads, utilities, and many times, no recourse for compensation for
those who bought the land. Around 1992, Senator Mary Jane García attempted to pass a subdivision
reform bill to stop the further spread of colonias. As was expected, this attempt was threatened by
realtors, developers, and homebuilders who would try to impeach Senator Garcia. She retreated for a
few years before attempting to introduce the bill again.
In 1995, Senator García introduced another senate bill which was intentionally a very weak bill on
subdivision reform. She had already formed an alliance during the interim period since 1992 with the
Attorney General Tom Udall, his staff, Anita Miller, land use expert Sally Rodgers, Lynda Taylor, Border
Economic Cooperation Commission (BECC) members appointed by former President Bill Clinton,
Gregory Green, County Commissioners from various northern counties, and an array of very committed
people who recognized the exploitative nature of land use policies that favored many developers at the
cost of the buyers.
Typical Patterns of Land Divisions
Doña Ana County
Doña Ana County is home to 37 designated colonia communities, more than any other county in the state of New Mexico (which has a total of 141 colonias). Colonias exist all along the border, and conditions vary from community to community, depending on their location and history. It is difficult to obtain specific data about colonia communities because they are often not geographically defined and not isolated in broad data collection efforts such as the U.S. Census. The majority of residents (63%) in Doña Ana County are Latinos, primarily of Mexican descent. In colonias, the percentage is even higher. Colonia residents are primarily engaged in agricultural labor (including fieldwork and processing), but also in construction, landscaping, truck driving, and other professions. Most families own their own homes. Colonia communities tend to be unincorporated, lacking a village or community government.
The facts below demonstrate how critical the situation is for colonia residents in terms of social and economic justice. Yet, despite the grim statistics, there is hope in the efforts of colonia residents and advocacy agencies working for positive change. The Colonias Development Council is only one small force among many community organizations, government entities, universities, housing and economic development organizations, and other non-profit organizations working to improve the quality of life for the border's colonia residents.
- New Mexico has the highest rate of children in poverty in the country (based on 2000 data).
- The median household income in Doña Ana County is 69% of the national median household income.
- 32% of the population of Doña Ana County has an income below the poverty line.
- Doña Ana County is the fifth poorest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States.
- 30% of the county population has completed less than eight years of school.
For more statistical information about colonia communities, see the following: