Off the Grid
When you look at the area along the border,” says Rose Garcia, “what you see is a third-world country.” Nowhere is this truer than in the areas designated by the U.S. government as “colonias.” The Spanish word for neighborhood, “colonia” is used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to define specific regions along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In 1990, the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act defined a colonia as any “identifiable community” within 150 miles of the border that lacks potable water, sewage systems, and decent housing.
There are 141 colonias in just the state of New Mexico and, as Garcia points out, each is unique. Some date back to the 1800s and began as camps for Mexican workers; others began much more recently. New Mexico’s colonias also range in size: Beaverhead has seven residents, while, according to the 2010 Census, Chaparral has a population of 14,500. More than half of those who live in colonias in New Mexico are of Mexican ancestry and the language spoken in most of the homes in these communities is Spanish. Most older adults speak little English. Garcia, who is director of the Tierra del Sol Housing Corporation, an organization that builds housing for low-income people in Las Cruces, says that despite the differences among colonias there are “basic components that are similar.” Those include high levels of poverty and unemployment and substandard housing stock that typically consists of well-worn trailers or small houses (see photo slideshow at the bottom of this page).
The National Affordable Housing Act provided funds for improving conditions in the colonias. “We can’t deny that there are improvements,” said Diana Bustamante, director of the Colonias Development Council in Las Cruces. “You can’t imagine what colonias looked like a few years ago. The housing is still pretty bad, but they’ve got centralized water. The roads are paved. There’s a lot more that needs to be done but just to see communities improve, it’s mind-boggling. Of course, it’s only a tenth of where we need to be.” Funding for projects to improve the infrastructure of colonias has come in from HUD, the North Atlantic Development Bank, and the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, as well as from New Mexico’s state government. Some colonias, like Anthony, have incorporated; a few have some of the infrastructure that most Americans take for granted. But progress has been slow and uneven, and many colonias still lack the basics.
THERE'S NOT MUCH TO SEE as you head east on I-10 from Las Cruces, in the southern part of New Mexico. It’s mostly flat, undeveloped land with little vegetation. Closer to the city, a few buildings dot the sides of the highway, as do a couple of trailers and one trailer park. As you head further east, the buildings thin out even more until they give way to pecan orchards that line both sides of the road, stretching for over a mile. Drive a few more miles and the dairy farms begin—depending on the wind, you may smell them before you see them. The farms line the south side of the highway, one after the other, their herds numbering in the hundreds or thousands.
About fifteen miles east of Las Cruces is the exit for Vado, a colonia with fewer than two thousand residents. Two gas stations and two restaurants—one of them closed—occupy the corners of the intersection. A bit farther on is a Dollar General, a car wash, and a closed mechanic’s shop. Drive another mile or so, make a couple of turns, and you find yourself on McCrimon Road. This is where the pavement ends. It’s also where twenty-first-century America seems to end.
There are only three paved roads in Vado. Most roads are simply rutted, hard-packed sand. Others are covered with softer sand—tricky to drive on when they’re dry, often impossible when they’re wet. The residents of Vado live in old, rundown trailers. The median income is $20,333, well below the rest of New Mexico, and the poverty rate is nearly 40 percent. About a quarter of those over sixteen years of age are unemployed. “Because there isn’t enough work, people eat more beans and drink more water,” said Rosa Olacio, who has lived on McCrimon Road for about twenty-five years. Olacio is a short, stocky woman. She speaks in staccato sentences punctuated with darting hand gestures. She seems to have an almost inexhaustible supply of energy. Her husband, Gabriel, is tall, wiry, and perpetually tired-looking. Unlike his wife, he speaks English, but he is more comfortable speaking Spanish—or not speaking at all.
Rosa and Gabriel both worked on farms when they first arrived in the United States. Gabriel entered the country in 1975 with his godfather and three relatives. They walked seven days through the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. Gabriel quickly found work in the fields, following the harvests from state to state. Rosa arrived in 1976 with three cousins and has worked only in and around Las Cruces. “If you wanted to go farther in New Mexico or into Texas,” she said, “you needed money to pay the coyote.” (“Coyote” is the word for someone who smuggles illegal immigrants across the border.) Rosa and Gabriel received their residency papers during the amnesty in 1986. Three years later, they decided to build a home and raise a family. They settled in Vado, purchasing two acres of land. “We live here because when we arrived, it was hard to find land,” Rosa said. “The man selling [the land], we paid him directly. We did not have credit.”
Like most colonia residents, the Olacios have what is known as a “real-estate contract” or “contract for deed.” According to Craig Acorn, an Albuquerque attorney who has done a lot of legal work for people living in colonias, a real-estate contract allows people who can’t get a bank loan to buy land. “If you’re poor and you don’t have resources for a down payment, no credit history, you’re not going to get a loan from a bank,” he says. The interest rates for money borrowed with a real-estate contract are exorbitant—typically between 10 and 15 percent. The contract is often an informal agreement, and there’s apparently no standard form. Acorn has seen everything from multi-page contracts to a single handwritten page.
This informality doesn’t strike colonia residents as unusual. It’s the way land is sold in many developing countries—the way it’s sold in rural Mexico. The land the Olacios purchased was entirely off the grid. “When we moved in, there was no electricity, no water, no nothing,” said Rosa. There were also no roads. Before 1996, New Mexico law allowed landowners to subdivide their property into four parcels without providing any kind of infrastructure. According to Acorn, sellers often made vague promises that infrastructure was sure to come. Sometimes, after many years, it did. Often it didn’t.
After the Olacios bought their two acres, Gabriel towed a small trailer onto the land. For twelve years that trailer, designed for four or five people, housed between eight and fifteen. “We either paid rent or ate, so we decided to all live together,” Rosa told me. Two months after they moved in, they got electricity and water. It took them two years to get permission for a house and six years for Gabriel to build it.
When the county began to install a sewer system in Vado in 2003, the informality of land sales there proved to be a major hindrance. “When we started working on sewers, we found out how messed up it was,” said Dora Dorado, Tierra del Sol’s Outreach Coordinator. “Addresses didn’t exist, we couldn’t tell who the owners were, the numbers on the properties didn’t match the numbers at the county.” Partly because of these challenges, the work still isn’t complete. Residents without access to sewer lines either have a septic tank or just run a pipe to a hole in the ground.
Confusion about who owns which property has been an obstacle to other infrastructure projects. The county can’t build a paved road without first getting homeowners to surrender twenty-five feet of their property (an easement). That means the county has to ascertain who actually owns the property, do title searches, make sure there are no liens—a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Over the past decade, three streets have been paved in Vado. The other twenty-six remain unpaved. “You can’t drive out when it rains,” said Nicolasa de la Rosa. “Sometimes it’s impossible to walk because of the mud. The county says it can’t pave the roads because it’s private property, but we pay taxes.”
When the Olacios bought their land in Vado, they didn’t know that the colonia is located in a flood plain. Since then their property, along with most of Vado, has flooded several times. In 2009, flooding led to a tragedy. Two young children, a brother and sister, drowned in a large hole that had filled with water. At the time, there were no storm drains in Vado. “Something drastic has to happen for them to pay attention to what we’re asking,” said Noeme Moreno Capistan. Some storm drains were finally installed in 2010, but not on every street.
ALTHOUGH SOME PEOPLE live in colonias because they want to be off the grid, the overwhelming majority of residents live there because they can’t afford to live elsewhere. There are few well-paying jobs around Vado. Gabriel still works in a pecan orchard. For two weeks a month, from February through September, he works twenty-four-hour shifts doing irrigation work and earns $400 a week. He can nap in his truck and maybe go home for an hour for a quick meal and shower but he has to be at the orchard for almost all of the twenty-four hours. He gets one day off between those long shifts. During harvest season, he works sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, but he also takes home more money: $700 a week. Rosa worked in the fields for eighteen years and sometimes still works during the pecan harvest, but those years of labor have done permanent physical damage. “My hands are now so bad that I cannot work in the fields,” she said, holding her hands out to show me. “They hurt…the skin splits and I have to wear gloves.” She now works part time helping elderly people.
Nearly all the residents and community advocates I spoke with told me there are very few good jobs in the area, especially for people with only a high-school diploma. “Here, the only jobs are really dairy or the fields,” said Juan de la Rosa, a twenty-four-year-old who has bounced between dairies for a few years. “Maybe Family Dollar or the gas station.” Ana Maria Avalos, a teacher who grew up near Vado, told me that young people in the area don’t expect much. For them, success means becoming a manager at McDonald’s or Burger King. “Not working in the fields but getting a job indoors with air conditioning is a big improvement.”
Despite Vado’s many material disadvantages, a strong sense of community exists. Most properties house extended families. Rosa’s mother, sister, and a couple of other relatives live with her. When there’s a party in the colonia, it’s assumed that everyone’s invited. It’s also assumed that if anyone needs help, he’ll get it. “There are rats, snakes and mosquitoes, but it’s nice here,” said Noeme Moreno Capistan. “I like it. You know the community. Here everybody knows everybody. I think this is where I’m going to stay.”
Most Americans wouldn’t want to live in Vado—or in any other colonia. These are communities that resemble rural Mexico more than they do any other part of the United States. But Vado residents have settled in. They know what they lack, but they take pride in what they have. “I know it’s ugly where we live but we live comfortable,” said Gabriela Olacio, Rosa and Gabriel’s twenty-one-year-old daughter. “It’s like, we live in New Mexico: it’s Mexico, but a little better looking.”
This article was reported in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
About the Author
Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance writer and photographer currently living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.