One Million Immigrants Create
Controversial Border Settlements

By Kent Paterson
American News Service

LAS PALMERAS, N.M. -- Down a rutted, New Mexico desert road, Manuel and Socorro Carbajal are settling a late 20th century frontier.

Sitting inside their modestly furnished house, the walls decorated by religious icons common in Hispanic homes here, Manuel, 68, a retired blue-collar worker, remembers how high real estate prices were and the drain of paying rent.

But, five years ago, the Carbajals found a parcel of land here in Las Palmeras, an unincorporated "colonia" settlement in southern New Mexico's Dona Ana County, that was cheap enough to buy.

The barren subdivision, a 30-minute drive from the twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, had no utility services, no paved streets, no stores and no schools, but the small plot was just enough, the Carbajals felt, for their children and grandchildren to call home.

The story is repeated again and again along the U.S.-Mexico border, where more than 1 million people live in colonias, border communities in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to a count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To some, these changes in the rural landscape are reminiscent of the way America's inner cities grew a century ago.

A few years ago, the colonias were blasted with bad publicity. Opponents raised public health issues, and the colonias were likened to Calcutta slums. Then the mostly immigrant residents, in the spirit of early Americans settling the Western frontier, took matters into their own hands.

In Las Palmeras, residents' sweat equity is building a collaborative water and sewage system for the windswept community of 36 families, bringing the day closer when recycled wastewater will sustain trees and shade along the unpaved road.

"The most important need is water, since there are many kids in the colonia now," said Socorro Carbajal.

Self-help projects are improving life across the border colonies, says Lorenza Dorado of the Colonias Development Council, a nonprofit organization based in Las Cruces. Over the border in Texas, sweat-equity initiatives are under way in three towns between El Paso and Brownsville, she said.

"It saves money. People take pride in what they're doing," Dorado said, referring to the self-help approach. "They don't want the state coming in and telling them what they need. They already know what they need."

In partnership with private and public agencies, these pioneers are seeking new ways to develop colonias, now defined by HUD as unincorporated subdivisions lacking potable water, sewage systems, electricity and surfaced roads. Made up mainly by people of Mexican descent, colonias are typically established after developers sell parcels for as little as $100.00 per month on the installment plan.

The settlements began two decades ago, but have expanded since a 1986 federal amnesty law provided many of the immigrants with legal status, along with the growth of entry-level jobs in the service and agricultural sectors of the Southwest economy, according to observers.

"People move here for very rational economic reasons," said David Henkel, assistant professor of community and regional planning at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "The land is cheaper, it's less densely populated. In a broader rural landscape, we're having the whole frontera go through what the inner cities did in the nineteenth century. Most of the immigration has been urban. This is rural."

The prices are attractive to low-income workers, who have to pay up to four times the amount for a comparable piece of land in, say, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a short jaunt down the highway. Land is actually cheaper in southern New Mexico than in many parts of Mexico.

After buying their plots, residents install trailers or build new houses, often constructed brick by brick over a period of time as the owners save enough money to buy the building supplies.

Not everyone welcomes the settlements, however. In Hatch, residents tried to halt the spread of colonia dwellings on the edge of town. Three years ago, the village threatened to evict some colonia homeowners after passing an ordinance restricting the establishment of trailer homes.

But the inhabitants fought back with a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. According to court papers, in village council meetings some residents and officials referred to Mexican trailer residents as rats and animals, but a necessary evil for harvesting crops.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department joined the lawsuit on the side of colonia residents and negotiated a settlement with Hatch, which agreed to drop the restrictions on mobile trailer homes.

While health and environmental concerns remain, there has been a discernible shift toward public and governmental tolerance of the colonias. A big reason is the proliferation of community-based organizations that tackle issues ranging from toxic waste to voter registration.

The approach is to combine sweat equity with funding and technical assistance from outside agencies.

The Las Palmeras experience is one indication that colonias are coming into their own as self-defined entities, backed by community organizations that are gaining a foothold and wielding new political clout.

In New Mexico, the activism has been spearheaded by Catholic Church- sponsored groups. Beginning in the late 1980s, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez and veteran organizer Antonio Lujan of the Las Cruces Diocese were instrumental in several New Mexico colonia campaigns that netted youth and daycare centers, a park, and new voters who could cast ballots.

In one instance, hundreds of residents of Sunland Park, N.M., an older colonia of 10,000 people on the U.S.-Mexico border line, forced the closure of a medical waste incinerator they claimed was polluting the town and making the children ill.

Neighbors in Las Palmeras are collaborating with government and a private foundation known as STEP, which stands for Small Town Environmental Program, to bring the water and sewage systems there up to First World standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to purchase water meters, STEP has pledged $100,000 for engineering and pipe infrastructure, and the homeowners have calculated their own share in labor -- laying the pipes and connections between residences.

It's not as hard as it sounds, said Abel Dorado, who is coordinating the program for the Colonias Development Council, a nonsectarian offshoot of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces and its social action office.

"What we do is instruct the community on how to make their own (water) system. They don't have to do the heavy work, just connect the pipes and connections. The heavy work is done by machinery," said Dorado, whose wife, Lorenza, is the council's community organizer. (They live in the nearby colonia of Del Cerro.)

A fiesta to celebrate the completion of the project in Las Palmeras is already planned for late July, said Dorado. At that time, residents will have the same chance as others in America to complain about monthly water and sewage bills expected to average about $25 a household.
Posted June 23, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

[ Return to the News ]
[ Return to the Archives ]

Copyright © 1998 Inc. All Rights Reserved