Biliteracy and Human Capital in Texas Border Colonias

Biliteracy and Human Capital in Texas Border Colonias

Patrick H. Smith (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA) and Luz A. Murillo (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8668-7.ch002
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In this chapter we explore the literacies of people living in Texas border colonias, economically marginalized communities along the U.S.-Mexico border that are among the fastest growing and most bilingual (Spanish/English) communities in the U.S. Deficit perspectives characterize public and educational discourses about the literacy abilities of colonia residents, despite a lack of empirical research on the topic. We present an ethnographic counter-portrait that takes into account the intersecting roles of geographic, socio-economic, demographic, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural factors in the literacies of border colonia residents. We draw on human capital theory to show how residents utilize their biliteracy to develop six forms of human capital and to mediate exchanges between them. The chapter concludes with implications for language and literacy research and educational practice in globalized and transnational settings.
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A Portrait Of Colonias On The U.S.-Mexico Border

The U.S. government defines a colonia as an “identifiable community in Arizona, California, New Mexico or Texas within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, lacking decent water and sewage systems and in existence as a colonia before November 28, 1989 (Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act, cited in Nuñez & Klammenger, 2010). Texas is home to more colonias and more colonias residents than any other U.S. state. Approximately 500,000 Texans live in 2,300 colonia communities along the border from Cameron County on the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso County in the west (Texas State Energy Conservation Office, 2010).

Border colonias are transnational communities created by the demand for cheap labor on the U.S. side of the border, accelerated by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the need for affordable housing for the Mexican immigrants who provide that labor (Ward, 1999). Their greater numbers in Texas are explained by the absence of zoning codes in unincorporated areas, which allowed real estate developers to establish sub-divisions and sell housing lots without installing water, drainage, and other services. Residents were able to purchase lots directly from developers with low down payments and monthly payments in cash, an attractive option for families with low or no credit, or those lacking the legal documents necessary to apply for a bank loan. Under the “deed for contract” arrangements typical in colonias,

… the buyer does not receive title to the land until the full price, with interest, has been paid..... Traditionally these contracts were not recorded with the county clerk. If the buyer fell behind in making payments, the seller could repossess the land within 45 days without going through the normal foreclosure process, and could even claim any improvements made on the property. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2003, p. 2)

Key Terms in this Chapter

Deficit Perspective: A pejorative, essentialist view of the learning ability and potential of members of minoritized groups, such as Mexican Americans and immigrants.

Human Capital: A set of theories which aim to describe the physical and symbolic resources available to actors in a given context, including (in this chapter) academic, affective, cognitive, economic, inter-cultural, and social forms of capital.

Bilingualism/Multilingualism: The regular use of more than one language or language variety, by an individual, group, or community.

Border Colonias: Politically and economically marginalized communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, characterized by sub-standard housing, few public services, and high levels of bilingualism and Spanish proficiency.

U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: The region on both sides of the U.S. Mexico political border. Used in a broader sense than “border,” both geographically and conceptually.

Biliteracy: The ability to interpret and produce written forms of language in more than one code, as well as the practices that embody this ability.

Mexican-Origin: An “umbrella” term to refer to Mexican ethnicity. The term permits consideration of students and families born in Mexico, as well as Mexican transnationals and members of the diaspora reaching back several generations.

Transnational Migration: Migration involving the two-way flow of people, goods, products, services, and ideas across national borders.

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