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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

 

After the Storm

Even as the violence wanes in Palomas, economic hardship
takes hold.

 

I happen to bump into Maria Lopez and her assistant Teresa in Palomas' Presidencia, or city hall, while working on an article I'm writing. We are all standing at the service counter waiting, and I notice the "DIF" on her nametag, standing for "Integral Family Development."

She and Teresa go around from house to house distributing food, and see the way the people live. Virtually the first thing out of Maria's mouth when I start talking to her is: "Before, there'd be tortillas and eggs, but now there's nothing. There's just a plastic jug of water in the house."

There's no doubt that Palomas has been ruined economically by the drug violence the first half of this year. A blissful peace has existed since June, but hundreds of people have moved away and hundreds of families are left in a vacuum of underemployment.

Maria says that the tightening of the border by the US a couple years ago hurt the economy of Palomas even more, because so many businesses relied on border crossers.

After I interview the two women, we scoop up the stuff on the back seat of my car and throw it in the trunk so Maria and Teresa can show me some people they know. We take off toward the south end of town.

Maria has worked for 20 years virtually full-time in her volunteer position, relying on her husband's modest income from his public works job. She has six years of education.

The work is a quiet passion with her, as attested by the pictures I take, with her serious look and dark glowing eyes boring into the camera. She's now the directora of the group.

The family we visit lives in a gray adobe house with four tiny rooms. We talk while I snap more photos. Elda, a small Indian-looking woman, poses standing with her four grandchildren lined up stiffly next to each other. The 12-year-old Norma has a smile like sunlight on water, and so does 8-year-old Karla, who gets a little silly with me.

We then go inside, in a cramped bedroom, and get images that are more relaxed. The lumpy bed and the portrait of Christ and a saint on the wall make the scene look more like a remote village in Paraguay or Bolivia than a home half a mile from the US.

The grandfather, Antolin, arrives and gives the DIF women and myself handshakes with his broad campesino hands. He has made bricks for the 20 years they've lived in Palomas, when there was more building going on because of the drug trade and the border crossers. But now he's collecting used cans to sell and getting $10 some days, other days nothing.

Maria tells me later that this family had nothing in the house to eat. Aren't hungry people supposed to be grim-looking and pale? I ask myself. How could they smile?

She says that when the violence was happening this spring, she realized that a few of those killed (almost all were involved in drug trafficking) were people she knew, who had donated money to DIF. She never knew how they had made their money.

The narcos were an important foundation of the economy in Palomas, much more than I ever realized. People fixed the drug dealers' cars, built their houses, and worked in stores and restaurants kept alive by them.



The women volunteers of DIF often multiply the donations they get by making tamales and burritos to sell from house to house or at fairs. The problem is that there's so much less money in Palomas now that people can't buy as much.

Maria tells me that one of DIF's traditional functions is to pay school expenses for indigent children, but her team has no money for that now. So there are more kids in the streets — 10 percent of students, she thinks. They work here and there, sweeping floors or washing windshields.

The drug treatment center, known as CIAD, whose employees you used to see selling bags of candy in the streets for funding, closed its doors immediately after the horrific massacre of eight or nine people at the CIAD center in Juarez on August 13. Maria says that CIAD's Palomas clients are now on the streets.

The new AAMSA maquiladora closed down because of the floundering US economy, making the future even more dim.

Many Palomenses used to work in the fields in the US illegally, but can't now because of heightened vigilance on the border. They now work instead in the fields of Colonia Victoria, a half-hour south, for $10 a day.

There's a new crop of single mothers since the slaying of dozens of drug dealers. Whether these women were involved in drugs or not, it doesn't matter when the children have no milk to drink or beans to eat. Maria says that what's typical in Palomas is families eating "un dia que si, el otro que no" ("one day yes, the next day no").

There are always a lot of old people who have no pension and eat about once a day. A couple months ago they received from the state government food baskets of oil, sugar, sardines, crackers and so forth. But those don't last very long, and they always need help.

People are having their water and electricity shut off more and more because they can't pay the bills. This will be a more serious issue in the winter.



People are still leaving Palomas because of the economic situation. It's not easy to move away because they may have a house they can't sell, and many people have family ties — mothers, nephews, sisters — that go back decades, even a century.

The DIF women are painfully aware of the situation, but feel helpless to do much about it because they have fewer donations than ever.

Some people might not like the idea of food baskets and donations because it's a band-aid solution, or might cause dependency, but I'd say this is a year when Palomas needs band-aids. The more the merrier.

If you're the type of person who would like to donate to DIF in-kind, you should notify City Hall a couple of days in advance so they can be prepared at Mexican Customs. Call 011-52-656-666-0980 and ask for Noel Flores, who speaks some English. Beans, rice, potatoes, flour, Maseca, cooking oil and milk are always welcome.

Or send a check, payable to "Maria Lopez / DIF," to my attention at Desert Exposure, PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.



Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.



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