CHAPTER 6
Metaphoric Enrichment and Material Poverty:
The Making of “Colonias”

Sarah Hill

Shortly after I moved to El Paso in the spring of 1994, I encountered a dark side of the U.S.–Mexico border’s celebrated porosity: colonias. One county official after another described colonias to me as “Mexico north of the border,” impoverished settlements thickly concentrated just beyond the city limits, where poor people— “Mexicans”— lived without water, sewage disposal, electricity, and paved roads. Colonia residents demonstrated “typical” Mexican ingenuity. They reportedly cobbled together “substandard housing” from anything they could find: cheap, discarded, and recycled building materials, dilapidated trailer homes, and old school buses. But their ingenuity revealed their ignorance of basic hygiene. County health authorities complained that diseases common to Mexico ran rampant in colonias because residents drew water from shallow, hand- dug wells, contaminated by nearby outhouses, faulty septic systems, and cesspools. Not infrequently, the local newspapers reported on colonias’ alarming sanitary conditions, as evidenced by local health officials’ regular public assertions that colonia residents “literally drink their own excrement.”

For an anthropologist drawn to El Paso at the dawn of the freetrade era by the excitement of poststructuralists’ recent discovery of the U.S.–Mexico border as the most promising metaphoric and actual site of cultural hybridity, indeterminacy, and translocality, colonias were sobering. I expected to find a vibrant social life that teased and defied the political boundary, emerging, as Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)

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