Inside the Colonias of the Rio Grande Valley
Colonia is a Spanish term used to describe a predominantly Hispanic community that is unincorporated and unregulated thus allowing lower-income families to build and own their own homes. Colonias are often associated with having a lack of public services, such as water, roads, electricity or other basics being that some of them are located outside of city limits. Homes within a colonia vary from small shelters made with salvaged materials, to trailers, and solid one or two-story homes. Colonias remain one of the only options for low-income residents unable to secure traditional mortgages or to pass credit checks and provide security deposits for rentals.
Many colonias lack proper infrastructures like paved roads and street signs. This makes it hard for outside individuals to navigate the area.
Community Health Workers are experts when it comes to outreach in these communities. They know how to bring information directly to where people live, work, learn, and worship.
The Rio Grande Valley alone is home to more than 2,000 colonias and it makes up the bulk of the Texas colonia population.4 The conditions here present the perfect opportunity to implement Community Health Workers Programs. CHWs will know what outreach methods work best in these areas and understand how to navigate the community to help them gain access to more services.
Nonetheless, there are factors still at play that still present challenges for this community to this day. For example, the Rio Grande Valley region has substantially higher poverty rates than Texas or the United States as a whole.(5)(6)Nearly 30% of Texas border residents have incomes below the poverty level, compared to 12 percent nationwide.7 Further, unemployment rates in the Valley regions range from 7% – 9% compared to 3.5% for the state.8 In addition, colonia residents report that year-round work is difficult to find; many primary occupations in the colonias are seasonal, such as construction jobs, factory work, and farm and fieldwork.
Field and Farm work is a huge part of life in the colonias. In fact, the Rio Grande Valley is the permanent home of one of the largest concentrations of farmworkers in the United States; roughly one-third of the Valley population depends on employment in agriculture.10 The dominance of this industry might suggest that its residents would have direct access to the crops they produce, however, this is not the case in the colonias. Residents here live in what has been described as a food desert.
An individual living in a food desert has to travel ten or more miles in a rural area or more than 1 mile in an urban area to access fresh fruits and vegetables.2 In addition, many are low-income and don’t have access to a car or adequate public transportation services. This makes it especially difficult for them to leave their neighborhoods for alternative food choices.
For individuals living within these border regions, there are many social factors that can have a direct and indirect impact on an individual’s health. Often referred to as the social determinants of health, issues like lack of available employment, low wages, cultural barriers, and access to health and food resources has resulted in numerous health challenges. In colonias, health problems occur at higher rates than in other areas of Texas or the United States. Other issues commonly seen in these particular communities are water treatment problems, pollution, crowding, difficulties receiving health care services and a shortage of health resources. As a result, this population suffers from higher rates of chronic disease and obesity, particularly amongst children.
An MHP Salud CHW hands a flyer to a field worker for our program, Vivir una Vida Plena. The program focuses on addressing individuals diagnosed with or at high risk for chronic diabetic kidney disease.
In fact, diabetes is the single biggest health concern in the RGV. More than 50% of the Mexican American population in these southern Texas regions has diabetes or pre-diabetes.11 The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is about 20% higher in the RGV than that of Texas as a whole.12 Moreover, Community Health Workers leading diabetes interventions with MHP Salud have documented that over 50% of program participants in the colonias are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
This is why many of our programs have a large nutritional and fitness component to them. For example, our program Vivir una Vida Plena targets diabetic and pre-diabetic individuals to educate them on steps they can take to maintain their health and avoid complications. And programs such as Juntos Podemos, teach parents and children how to adopt healthy habits with the resources available to them.
Community Health Workers pose with a group of participants who just taught the benefits of healthy snacking through our Healthy Living Initiative Program.
MHP Salud CHWs teach health education to a group of parents at a local community center.
Addressing mental health challenges is another issue that disproportionately impacts these communities. One major deterrent is the fact that only 1% of all U.S. psychologist practitioners identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic.13 The lack of identifiable support is most evident for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. For many Spanish-speaking survivors, social support from individuals they are comfortable with plays an important role in their recovery. Informal help-seeking from family and friends occurs more frequently with this population than formal help-seeking.12