The following is based on the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service report titled “A Regional Approach to the Assessment of Fair Housing For Hidalgo County.”

April is National Fair Housing month. It is a time to reflect on the past, and think of how housing choice has improved in the Rio Grande Valley, and where and how the region and its leaders can strive to make the Valley a more inclusive and equitable place for all.

What is Fair Housing?

First, what is “fair housing” and why does it matter?

In simple terms, fair housing describes the right every person has to live where they want and to receive equal treatment from landlords, mortgage lenders, and their government. Specifically, it requires protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and/or familial status.

Fair housing matters because it is designed to give all people in this country the benefits and access to services associated with home ownership in thriving neighborhoods. It matters because low-income renters should be able to live in places with great schools, good jobs, as well as commercial and community services.

The notion of fair housing arises from an understanding that key opportunities have been systematically denied to people of color. Historically, federal and local governments have used a variety of oppressive systems and practices to segregate communities. Over time, some of these practices have diminished. However, many have evolved or transformed and still exist. They continue to shape our landscape and lived experiences. Furthering fair housing means working to dismantle these systems and to create a more equitable and just society.

A quick history

In the RGV, the long legacy of inequality stretches back to the Spanish conquest, continues through the Mexican American War, and is then cemented in the latter half of the 19th century through violence perpetuated by white American land speculators/farmers assisted and supported by the State. Anglo migration to the region brought along with it the migration of ideas and social norms, which at the time were explicitly racist and rooted in segregation.

Photo from “The Lure of the Rio Grande Valley” (1927)

This could be seen clearly in the development of cities and towns, where railroads usually divided the white and Mexican parts of town. Additionally, Anti-Mexican sentiments were publically supported by authorities within schools, businesses, hospitals, restaurants and other public and private establishments, including real estate companies. The McAllen Real Estate Board and the Delta Development Company, for example, openly refused to sell property to Mexicans in the white part of town.

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Jennifer R. Nájera, associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California-Riverside, shared, “on the Anglo side of town, you’ll have larger lots. You’ll have more infrastructure, sidewalks, parks, schools, City Hall, and the main-street kinds of businesses – everything that has to do with the public life of a city usually happened on the Anglo side of Town. Whereas the Mexican side of town was, very cramped and often experienced flooding when there were rains. They were the last to get indoor plumbing and sidewalks… It was a really unequal structure.”

Extremely poor laborers who could not afford to live in the city resided in the fields they worked. Farmers would eventually profit off of these settlements by selling unused or flood prone farmland located further away from the cities to immigrant workers.

Migrant housing rented to workers by landowner in Edcouch, Texas, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee

After the Second World War, institutional integration began slowly to occur. Explicitly discriminatory attitudes and Anti-Mexican practices began shifting and changing. For some, particularly returning Mexican American veterans who now had access to financial and social capital, life improved. However, according to Dr. Najera, this only served to create a class of Mexican Americans that were the exception to segregation.

By this point, however, farm settlements on the outskirts of town had already developed into what we now commonly refer to as colonias. Very poor and newly arriving laborers continued to be pushed outside of the urban centers where they could afford property and evade buildings codes in order to make self-help homes. Residents in these communities continued to remain at risk of flooding and were frequently denied basic services. Additionally, many buyers were often victims of predatory land-owners.

Mexican residences in San Juan Texas, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee

Through the Civil Rights and Chicano Movement, a new generation of activists fought for more equitable representation in political and social aspects of the community. In the RGV, many Mexican Americans were able to move into the middle class by the end of the 20th Century. But inequality adapted to continue exploiting and disenfranchising vulnerable populations. In many cases, the structures of inequality and segregation established by the Anglos continued to be implemented by third or fourth generation Mexican Americans. This is seen in the continued growth of the colonias and the routine disinvestment in the old “Mexican” parts of town even when Mexican Americans began holding positions of power.

A trailer home in a colonia in Hidalgo County. Photo by John Henneberger 2013

While racism and discrimination in the RGV has changed and evolved over time , today many colonia residents continue to live under conditions that clearly deprive them and their neighborhoods from safe homes, quality education, good jobs and better quality of life. These structures of inequity do not disappear with time. In fact, they become more deeply entrenched and embedded in our daily lives, beliefs, and policies.

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We must actively acknowledge them and work to disassemble them in order to truly rebuild more just communities for all.