No water. No heat. No electricity.
Those were the conditions millions of Texans were thrown into when a snowstorm barreled through the state last week. But for tens of thousands of people living along the border with Mexico, losing these services didn’t just mean struggling through a few cold nights. Their lives were already so precarious that the freezing temperatures made even survival a challenge.
For Nohemí, who lives in a community of informal settlements known as a colonia in South Texas, government neglect has long been a fact of life. When she arrived in the Rio Grande Valley from the Mexican city of Reynosa just on the other side of the border in 1994, her neighborhood initially lacked running water, electricity, and trash services. The homes where she and her neighbors lived were simple and often at the mercy of the elements, presenting a daily challenge even in the best of times.
“The storm made everything worse,” said Nohemí, a 54-year-old mother of seven, who asked to only be identified by her first name.
She lives with her husband and three of her children in a wooden one-story house. When the lights went out early Monday, she was immediately worried about her 16-year-old daughter, who has achalasia — a condition that closes off the esophagus from the stomach and requires a machine to get food into her body.
She considered checking her family into a nearby hotel that usually charged $45 a night, only to find that demand for somewhere warm to ride out the storm had sent the rate up to $110, much more than they could dream of paying. She usually earned money buying and reselling jewelry, perfume, and other items at a flea market, but the pandemic made that impossible. Her husband, who remodels homes, hadn’t been called into a shift for two weeks.
Unsure where else to turn for help, her daughter asked a friend who lives in the city of Mission, about 6 miles away. So she piled into their green Ford van with her husband and daughter and rushed over.
Like the 400,000 or so others who live in colonias along the borderland of Texas, Nohemí and her family have come to rely on a network of assistance from neighbors to overcome the lack of infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, folks are used to being abandoned by their government, so they have found ways to support each other,” said Deyanira Nevárez Martínez, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the colonias. “If anybody is pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps it's this community.”
But this was a support system forged in a vacuum of government services unheard of in most parts of the US. While Texans in more stable circumstances hunkered down under blankets or left to join relatives in other states, waiting for a return to normalcy, Nohemí and other colonia residents struggled to keep from sliding deeper into a hole.
When she dropped off her daughter at her friend’s house, which sits on a track of land next to other mobile homes, she promised to return every four hours to administer the medication and feed her. But as Nohemí drove back to her freezing home, the van broke down. The cold had busted its water pump.
She called every mechanic she could find, but nobody could come to fix it anytime soon. Any hope she and her husband could get the vehicle running themselves dissolved once she discovered that all the auto parts stores in the area were closed. They had no way of shuttling back and forth between their home and their daughter.
“That’s when I broke down,” said Nohemí. “It just felt like it was one thing after the other.”
Again, she turned to her neighbors for help. A friend drove her to her daughter.
The snowstorm was beyond anything she could’ve prepared for, Nohemí said. She knew how to handle summer heat that soared beyond 100 degrees, but her wood and cinder block house had no insulation and couldn’t do much to shield her family from the frigid temperatures that tore through the region. After the pipes froze across South Texas, colonia residents scrambled to find water at the few stores that were still open.
Many who live in the colonias dotting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were part of the wave of immigration that took place in the 1990s and 2000s. They landed in unincorporated territories just over the border that mostly began forming in the 1950s, when the Bracero Program brought a circular flow of over 2 million Mexican workers to farmlands because of a shortage of US workers during World War II.
For years, most, if not all, colonias lacked sewer systems, electricity, sidewalks, and paved roads. Though most now have access to public infrastructure, like the one where Nohemí lives, connecting to water and power supplies is too expensive for some residents. By the 1990s, conditions in these communities remained so difficult that the federal government passed regulations to stop their growth. But hundreds continued to grow in areas away from the border and on the outskirts of cities, said Noah Durst, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University. There are two distinct types of colonias in Texas: those that are recognized by the government and those that aren’t. The government only recognizes those located near the border that were developed before 1990. Those that aren’t recognized have the most severe problems because they don’t qualify for government funding.
Texas, home to most of the country’s colonias, has largely left the communities to fend for themselves, declining to set any policies for private construction standards, develop public utilities, or provide the government services locals have called for — a stark contrast from the multibillion-dollar federal investment visible just a few miles away, where former president Donald Trump’s border wall was being built.
The storm was “simply another crisis in a series of devastating health and safety crises that are in large part attributable to the state’s failure to adequately plan for, regulate, and invest in safe and affordable housing and basic infrastructure,” Durst said.
There are similarities between the crisis caused by the record low temperatures last week, the failure of the state’s electrical grid, and the myriad crises that colonias have faced over the past half-century. “Both highlight the risks posed by a deregulatory approach,” Durst said.
The people living in South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, including Nohemí and her family, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. After the pandemic was declared and children were forced to study at home, her three teenage girls’ schools provided them with laptops and a router, but the equipment often didn't work. One daughter has had to replace her laptop three times because of technical issues.
Then, last summer, Hurricane Hanna hit the region, flooded the low-lying colonias, and smashed through people’s homes. Nohemí said their entire bathroom was destroyed; the wind tore off the roof and damaged their pipes, leaving only the toilet seat in place.
“There’s never enough money or supplies for the colonias,” said Yadira Gonzalez, a resident of a colonia and organizer with the advocacy group La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), which translates to “the Union of the Entire People.” “We’re always forgotten.”
Whatever services residents receive tend to come from volunteers like Gonzalez, who has been trying to get the county to help clear out trash, mattresses, and other items swept up from people’s properties during Hurricane Hanna’s devastation.
After the storm last week, it was up to Gonzalez to get heaters, food, and water to her neighbors.
Since freezing temperatures swept through South Texas, colonia residents would call her cell and ask for information on where they could get supplies like blankets, food, and heaters. She made a list of those who needed help and headed to LUPE’s office to sort through donations.
“It makes me angry. I see the needs of the community all the time and I gladly help out,” Gonzalez said, “but our elected officials also need to come into the community to see the needs themselves and not just sit in their offices.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to Hidalgo County commissioners for comment, but they did not respond.
Like many before her, Nohemí immigrated to the US in search of a better life. She was living in Reynosa with her ex-husband, who was a state police officer in Tamaulipas, and their two children. But, she said, the family was always being targeted by organized crime because of her husband’s work and received death threats. Once, she added, someone rammed her car, leaving her in a neck brace. Nohemí told her then-husband they should move to the US. He refused, not wanting to leave his job, but told her to go. Pregnant with their third child, Nohemí took her two children and crossed the border with a travel visa, starting a new life in a colonia, where she eventually remarried.
Unlike her home in Reynosa, Nohemí said, they didn’t have a sewage system or streetlights for years. It wasn’t until residents and LUPE organized and the local government installed these services.
The dangers that plague Mexico would eventually catch up to her. Her eldest daughter, Jazmine Morales, was deported from the US in January 2016 to Reynosa, where she then lived with two aunts for a few months. In May 2016, Nohemí said, a family friend said a group of men forced her daughter and a friend into a truck while walking on a street in Reynosa. Since then, Nohemí has never stopped looking for her daughter in both countries. She’s joined search groups created by family members of the thousands who have disappeared in Mexico.
“I haven’t been the same since,” Nohemí said. “I think people are tired of me talking about it, but it helps me to talk about Jazmine. To me, she’s alive. She’s alive until I’m told otherwise, and my heart won’t rest until then.”
Nohemí spent most of Wednesday building wooden walls to make a room for her father, who was moving in with her family after her sister could no longer house him. It’s not uncommon for colonia residents to build rooms as needed, though it can take time because supplies cost money, which is scarce.
Today, Nohemí thought back on last week’s freezing temperatures. How, despite layers of clothes and gloves, her limbs would hurt. How a water bottle she kept at her bedside almost froze overnight. She hopes she and her neighbors will be better prepared next time.
Nohemí laughed as she described how her family, with their bare hands, had cut down dry branches from a nearby mesquite tree to fuel a bonfire they had gathered around. They made tea and coffee to stay warm.
“We need to be prepared among ourselves so the next time the freeze comes we’re ready,” Nohemí said. “We have to support ourselves and our communities because no one, including the government, is coming to save us.”