After two decades focused on improving the quality of life for residents of the impoverished, relatively undeveloped villages, or “colonias,” clumped near population centers on the U.S. side of the Texas-Mexico border, the Texas A&M University Colonias Program is celebrating its myriad achievements by honoring its staff and the host of volunteers and community partners who have contributed to its success.
On Jan. 20, Colonias Program administrators from College Station gathered for lunch with their Lower Rio Grande Region staff, partners and community leaders at the historic Villa de Cortez in Weslaco, Texas for the first of three planned 20th anniversary celebrations.
Future observances are planned for regional offices in El Paso and Laredo.
The Weslaco event provided an opportunity to present awards to dozens of volunteers who have assisted the program throughout the years. Also recognized were the substantial contributions of the Colonias Program’s “promotoras,” specially trained colonia residents who work door-to-door throughout their communities, disseminating useful knowledge to help bridge language and cultural communication barriers that exist between their often-isolated neighbors in need and social service providers.
“Promotoras are the heart and soul of what we do,” said Jorge Vanegas, dean of the Texas A&M College of Architecture, which oversees the Colonias Program for the state.
“This is a celebration of 20 years of programs, projects, events and activities planned, organized, executed and delivered with more than 100 regional partners, 50 of whom are represented here today,” Vanegas, who also heads the Colonias Program, told the Weslaco crowd. “One thread that has forged a solid bond among us all,” he added, “is an unwavering commitment to serve the needs of people who live in the colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.”
Also at the event, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, the keynote speaker, presented a congressional proclamation honoring the program’s “outstanding service in the most vulnerable communities” and commending its “efforts to build stronger Texas communities through partnerships and to provide a better quality of life for their residents.”
“It is amazing what you have all achieved,” Hinojosa told the celebrants.
There are currently 2,333 colonias in the United States, home to half a million people, and most are located throughout the Texas borderland between El Paso and Brownsville, said Oscar Muñoz, director of the Colonias Program. Though characteristics of these small, rural, unincorporated communities vary, they all generally lack one or more of the physical infrastructure amenities most take for granted: running water, sewer systems, paved roads and storm drainage. Because of their remote locations, poor economic conditions and cultural segregation, colonia residents tend to be isolated from government services and the various social safety nets that provide education, job training and placement, health care, and programs for the young and elderly.
Recognizing the problem, the Texas Legislature chartered the Colonias Program in 1991 and asked the College of Architecture at Texas A&M to oversee it. In the ensuing 20 years, the program, aimed at catalyzing “community self-development,” has grown to include 22 community resource centers and 18 service centers, with five new centers in the works, said Muñoz.
From the beginning, the program has worked closely with and relied upon the colonia residents, themselves. It has orchestrated a wide range of programs aimed at involving neighbors in activities that help them become connected to the larger community outside of the colonia, while strengthening the social infrastructure within.
“In short,” said Muñoz, “the Colonias Program gives residents a hand up — not a handout.”
Aiming to reduce isolation, increase self-sufficiency and enhance the quality of life in these communities, the Colonias Program has partnered with more than 400 agencies to provide educational services, GED instruction, economic and community development assistance, and programs addressing literacy, job training, dropout prevention, job referral, health education, youth and the elderly.
Many of these services are provided at the program’s community centers, which are tailored to meet the unique needs of each service area. Made possible by partnerships with local entities and mostly operated by county governments or local school districts, they provide classrooms, libraries, medical examination rooms, auditoriums and fully equipped playgrounds. The centers offer colonia residents a place to exchange information, identify problems and develop solutions while serving as a platform for the delivery of a wide range of services and as a community hub and meeting place.
Additionally, aided by a partnership between the program and the Texas Transportation Institute, many of the community centers provide a fleet of vans to assist colonia residents in need of transportation for such things as health care, employment services and day care.
Connecting the colonia residents with available services are more than 80 promotoras, the outreach arm of the Colonias Program. These neighborhood advocates undergo a six-month training program certified by the Texas Department of State Health Services that sharpens their skills in interpersonal communications, capacity building, service coordination, advocacy, organization and teaching. Because they are also colonia residents, they have a unique ability to quickly gain the trust of their client neighbors and connect them with services aimed at elevating their condition.
In Starr County, for example, a team of 22 promotoras accompanied by three supervisors and five van drivers, made 3200 home visits to colonia residents during a two-month period, recounted a former program director. From that effort, he said, the local Texas Workforce Commission, which provides workforce development services to job seekers and employers, reported receiving 800 new clients.
“We attract, nurture and develop a wide base of talented men and women and unleash them to respond, impact and transform,” Vanegas said. “Thanks to their hard work and the crucial support of more than 400 community partners, for two decades the Colonias Program, through its community self-development initiatives, has made great strides in helping families realize their dreams of self-sufficiency and better lives for their children. What counts now are the next 20 years,” he continued, “but I have unwavering hope that the future we want and need will come.”