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Another America: a look at 'poverty homesteading' in New Mexico.

You cross over from Interstate 10 into the colonia Las Palmeras with a thump as the van lurches off the paved highway and hits-a dried-up drain age trench that marks this community's dusty border.

It's a trench that sometimes fill with irrigation runoff from the surrounding New Mexico farmfields. During the growing season, Las Palmers residents park across the highway and wade back to their homes after work Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson once came to Las Palmeras on a fact-finding mission that literally stalled when this rugged "road" broke an axle on his van.

In the near distance, solitary pickup trucks kick up minor dust storms as they grind over desert-baked dirt paths that crisscross between the trailes, homes to the 30 or so families, who live here. Crazy cabling hangs across property lines, connecting trailers in a colorful thread of heavy-duty extension cords. It's a bootleg electric grid that somehow doesn't erupt into flames with the flick of a strained light switch.

Not everyone can afford their own hookup to the electric company, but a few years back the state required all Las Palmeras residents to get septic tanks They finally got connected to the municipal water line at about the same time. For years before then sewage trenches ran into stinking cesspools, and desert wells or cisterns provided the community's doubtfully potable water.

"Welcome to the United States of America" Ruben Nunez, a lead organizer for the Colonias Development Council (CDC), says, opening his arms wide--his smile wider in irony--to embrace a vista of beat-up trailers, rain-rutted roads, rusting water tanks, and scrub desert.

Well, yes and no.

Las Palmeras is certainly located with. in the United States, But this unincorporated community a few miles outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico occupies a different reality than most other places in the nation. It is one of Dona Ana County's colonias, small outposts found on the outskirts of major towns and cities throughout the Southwest.

The 1970s and '80s were boom Years for the region. Thousands of Hispanic workers swept in as new job opportunities in farming and service industries opened up. For many of these low-wage earners, apartments and homes in the Southwest's fast-growing communities were economically out of reach. A wildcat market for land beckoned folks into uncharted desert territory as "developers" took advantage of lax enforcement and ambigous zoning regulations. Colonias sprouted up on parcels that no municipal planner ever reckoned with.

The result was the establishment of hundreds of these improvised communities without paved roads, gas, electric, sewer, municipal water, or social services of any sort. Fifteen miles from the Mexico border Las Palmers inhabitants simply--literally--set up house.

Most of the residents were duped by the parcel's subdivider, who assured them that land purchases would eventually be accompanied by gas, electric, water, and other services. That turned out not to be exactly true.

Blanca Gonzalez says when she and her family arrived in Las Palmeras in 1988 the community had nothing. She remembers the last decade or so of her life as her lucha, her struggle. Minimum-wage poverty has been a constant of her experience since she immigrated from Chihuahua in Mexico. Fire took the family's first trailer in Las Palmeras. After that, all they could afford was an ancient secondhand trailer worn and riddled with holes in the flooring. Gonsalez's kids were chilled by cold Sorting chiles is regular work for residents in colonia Salem New Mexico (opposite page).

A trailer passes lot a modern homestead on the desert in Salem, New Mexico.

Children at a community-staffed, Catholic Campaign for Human Development-supported daycare center in Columbus New Mexico share a game of desert soccer. Toddling by bails of chiles--on their way to markets around the country--in Salem, New Mexico.

Ruben Nunez and Father Robert Vittilo, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, review conditions in colonia Las Palmeras, not far from Las Cruces, New Mexico. desert nights and roasted by desert heat. They drew water from a communal well.

"It was really a difficult fight," she says. A neighbor remembers many of Las Palmeras' children were plagued by skin rashes and stomach ailments, playing too often and too close to raw sewage.

Officially there are 37 other colonias in Dona Ana County, perhaps 140 more scattered around the state, hundreds more in Texas and Arizona. Las Palmeras is neither among the worst nor the best of them. Some colonias have managed to acquire all of the services they need--though it may have taken years to do it. Some are nothing better than trailer settlements on the desert.

Most of the homes in Las Palmeras have telephones. Fewer are hooked up to natural gas. Most have set up propane tanks for heating and cooking. But none of the trailer homes are connected to municipal sewers, and there is no mad service. Las Palmeras residents maintain post office boxes in bigger nearby towns like Anthony, New Mexico.

The people who live on colonias come into these communities with nothing but their dreams, often without even enough money for a down payment on land. Unable to enter the formal mortgage market, many get locked into usurious real-estate contracts with unscrupulous developers.

Colonia residents, who often work in the region's lowest-paying jobs--on farms, in landscaping, or in restaurant or hotels--will tell you they bought here because they simply wanted some land of their own or because of the exquisite beauty of the desert. Many say they couldn't afford to rent a home in Las Cruces or nearby El Paso, Texas. Here in the desert, they could purchase a lot for as little as $12,000 an acre and park a used trailer for $10,000 more. It is not too different a life than they or their parents experienced in Mexico. "Poverty homesteading," Steve Ramirez, a Las Cruces newspaper reporter, calls it.

"It's the same kind of life [in Mexico]," he says. "Get a piece of land, put a trailer, maybe a house, on it. 'Build me a better life.'"

In time most colonia residents manage to add basic services piecemeal, but many just learn to make do with what their wallets will allow. Hooking up to a municipal sewer or persuading the electric utility to run a line to a desert-bound trailer can cost $1,500 to $5,000. That's a cash horde hard to come by on a farmworker's wages.

New Mexico is statistically the poorest state in the union with almost 18 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. A good number of that 18 percent is concentrated within the colonias at levels significantly below the official poverty threshold. Many residents have no recourse but to turn to the local government for help.

That's where people like Nunez come in. His CDC is funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. It teaches residents how to fight for the things they need to transform their struggling colonias into viable communities. "Other communities are waiting for the government [to improve basic services]," Nunez says, "They're going to be waiting another 20 years, but if they organize themselves, they will see changes in much less time."

Not far from Las Palmeras, Montana Vista sounds like one of those exclusive communities of beautiful homes and breathtaking views. The sunset over the desert does provide a breathtaking view, but Montana Vista is far from exclusive.

"It's a disgrace, the way we live here," one Montana Vista abuela, Maria Teresa Garces, declares, after leading a tour through a ramshackle trailer that's lacking in any niceties but crowded with grandchildren.

When a visitor observes that a house so full in children is surely rich in some ways, she nods in acknowledgement and says, "Yes, we are rich in our hearts." Then quickly adds with a mischievous smile, "But we are still poor, and this is still a disgrace."

Raul Mendes lives with his parents in their Montana Vista trailer. They're joined by his brother Oscar and his small family--10 people in all. Oscar and his children comprise the second and third Montana Vista generation struggling to get services in place.

"I challenge people who have all the necessities to come here and try to live how we live," Mendes says.

Many residents pitch in together to improve conditions themselves. The residents' "sweat equity" helped lay waste-water lines throughout Montana Vista. Unfortunately no one could afford to pay the fee to tap into them, and the county so far has not bothered to complete the work. The system has never been used.

So many commitments have been made and forgotten over the years, Raul's mother, Manuella, says. She has been to innumerable meetings with local officials. She finds all the municipal regulations confusing and the lack of progress exasperating. "The wind takes all the words away," she says.

The local diocese has become a vocal advocate for the people of the colonias, establishing a number of different services for residents and pressuring the government to provide services and pave roads.

Some ask why state or charities should be called in to assist people who have freely chosen to live here. Father Robert Vittilo, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, wonders why it matters. CCHD helps fund housing, organizing, job creation, and social service agencies in New Mexico.

To him the real question is if this is the kind of life anyone should expect to live at the start of the 21st century in the world's most affluent industrial economy. "There are hidden pockets of poverty like this all over the country," he says. "I find them wherever I travel, and I've been everywhere."

Vittilo points out that the people of colonias like Montana Vista and Las Palmeras are doing much of the basic work that keeps the regional economy going. Their children are the Southwest's future. Their labor brings food to dinner tables all over the country. "It does affect us," he says, "if people are living on the margins in New Mexico. We are dependent on them whether we think we are or not. If they are hurting, we all pay the price."

Things are slowly improving in New Mexico's colonias. For Blanca Gonzalez change began not only when Las Palmeras hooked up to municipal water but when she got an opportunity to move out of her trailer once and for all. The Tierra del Sol Housing Project helped her build a house on her lot that puts a real foundation under her family's feet for the first time.

Other residents of Las Palmeras are applying for similarly subsidized affordable and, more importantly, decent housing.

In addition, the reverberations of the 1986 immigration amnesty program are still being felt around here. These days more residents of the colonias are legal aliens or citizens and have begun to test their political voices in demands for better services, roads, even playlots for their children. State and federal monies have begun to reach colonias in sometimes still frustratingly small steps toward a better quality of life.

Back at Montana Vista;

Manuella Mendez says she has two children who have served in the U.S. armed forces. She says for almost 40 years she and her husband, Lorenzo, have lived, worked, and contributed to life in the United States. Is it too much to ask that they do so with the dignity others can take for granted? "You are valued by how much you value others," she says.

In the same way that the families of the colonias join together to help each other through hard times, they in turn should be able to expect some support from other people around the country, says Vitillo. This is the "whole idea of the family of God ... This is the way we come together as family."

"Great things happen at the frontiers," says Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, taking a poetic turn during a discussion of the dilemma of the colonias. "Creativity comes from the desert. We are told that there is more fauna and flora here in the desert than in all of New England.

"It is tiny life," Ramirez says, "but it is life that gives us hope."

"We have many needs; we have many problems," says the CDC's Nunez, "but in our people there is much potential."

Indeed, Gonzalez and her neighbors are looking past the fight for services in their community to other struggles for better jobs and opportunities for their children. The people of the colonias are not looking for handouts from their fellow Americans, Nunez says. "All we are looking for is a hand-up."

Story and photos by KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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