Skip to content

Las Colonias in the 21st Century

Focus Area: Health

In colonias—and other underserved communities—health issues are tied to many economic, housing and environmental conditions. For example, homes may lack insulation or be located in a flood zone with mosquito infestations. Complex factors lead to serious health challenges, including limited access to:

A promotora on a home visit. Photo credit: Brownsville Community Health Center.

  • Hospitals and providers.
  • Safe drinking water.
  • Quality housing.
  • Healthy food.

But many individuals and organizations are working to make improvements.

Promotoras are community health care workers who inform colonia families about health-related issues and connect them to resources. For many, they are the difference between having health care and not. At the Brownsville Community Health Center in Cameron County, promotoras in the Mano a Mano program are working to enroll residents in public health care programs. They can be found walking door to door in colonias providing information and promoting healthy lifestyles. The chart below shows many of the health issues these residents face.

Cameron County Faces Numerous Health Challenges
Year Cameron County % Texas %
Low birth weight 2008 627 7.7 34,228 8.4
Onset of prenatal care within first trimester 2008 3,724 62.2 223,961 60.1
Rate¹ Rate¹
Tuberculosis cases 2013 53 12.7 1,222 4.6
Age-adjusted rate² Age-adjusted rate²
Infant deaths 2008 37 4.5 2,478 6.1
Diabetes deaths 2008 123 35.4 5,170 25.4
Acute care for-profit hospitals 2009 5 * 279 *
Acute care public hospitals 2009 0 * 123 *
Ratio³ Ratio³
Direct care physicians 2010 494 118.4 41,191 162.3
Physician assistants 2010 60 14.4 4,943 19.5
Dentists 2010 97 23.2 11,301 44.5
Pharmacists 2010 207 49.6 20,428 80.5
% %
18 years and younger, without health insurance 2007 26,330 19.2 1,375,714 19.5
Younger than 65, without health insurance 2007 116,803 33.7 5,765,126 26.8
* Information not available.
¹ Rate per 100,000 people.
² Rate per 100,000 people. Adjusted by age distribution among populations, for comparison purposes. For more information, see:
³ Ratio of health care professionals per 100,000 people.
SOURCE: Texas Department of State Health Statistics.

Another organization working to improve health in colonias is the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Medical School, which will help address the area’s shortage of health care professionals and the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in residents, among other issues.


Two organizations in Webb County have been successful in addressing the issue of food deserts in their communities. Ein Gedi Ranch, outside of Laredo, aims to improve living standards in nearby colonias by creating self-sustaining agriculture, providing healthy food and educational opportunities. It features a community center, a playground, gardens, chicken and rabbit husbandries and a ceramics operation. Harvested products are shared by residents and sold at farmers’ markets. The organization provides job skills training, computer classes, English as a second language classes and tutoring for students.

El Cenizo Agua Viva community garden works to improve the quality of life for colonia residents by increasing access to nutrition and education and creating awareness of the environment. Community members are involved in cultivating fruits, vegetables and herbs and trade with other members of the community or sell them at farmers’ markets. Produce from the garden is used for the Kids Café, an after-school program that provides nutritious meals to local children—sponsored by the South Texas Food Bank.

Ein Gedi Ranch

Gardens at Ein Gedi Ranch

El Cenizo Agua Viva community garden