A Head for Beer
Bob Gosselin of Las Cruces' High Desert Brewing Company
Brewing Up a Storm
Silver City Brewing is finally putting the "brew" in "brewpub"

Neighborhood Watchdogs
The Colonias Development Council helps border residents help themselves

Going Nuts
Sometimes it takes a superhero –or several– to plant a pecan grove

Pieces of Copper Country
Tracing transplanted Santa Rita houses with Melvin Huff, age 90

Testing the Waters
Follow the water for some surprising bird sightings


Columns and Departments
Editor's Note
Desert Diary

Bayou Seco's Rolling Postcard
New Mexico History Museum
Energy: Nauru and New Mexico
Tumbleweeds Top 10

Business Exposure
Celestial Cycles
The Starry Dome
Ramblin' Outdoors
40 Days & 40 Nights
The To-Do List
Guides to Go
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Southwest Gardener
Continental Divide

Special Section
Arts Exposure

Robert Yee
Arts News
Gallery Guide

Body, Mind & Spirit
Choosing Happiness
Medicine Woman

Red or Green
Dining Guide
Table Talk

About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2009

Neighborhood Watchdogs

For 20 years, the Colonias Development Council has helped residents of Dona Ana County's border communities help themselves.

By Jeff Berg

Land, precious land. As the old saying goes, it's so valuable because they aren't making it anymore.

Women in Chaparral celebrate their culture at a Colonias Development Council event.

For the thousands of people who live in the colonias that have sprung up all along the US border with Mexico, from California through Texas, however, the land they live on simply isn't valuable for anything besides hardscrabble housing. And only in the past 10 years or so have developers been required to provide something besides a piece of empty land — such as infrastructure — to hopeful and typically impoverished buyers.

Loosely described, a colonia ("neighborhood" in Spanish) is characterized by having substandard housing, inadequate roads, poor drainage, substandard or no water and sewer facilities.

Texas has the most colonias, with estimates ranging from 1,500 to nearly 2,400, housing 400,000 inhabitants. In Texas' colonias, by the way, 85% of the residents under age 18 are US citizens. Arizona has about 60 colonias, and California, surprisingly, only about 10.

New Mexico's colonias, although fewer in number than Texas at 140, and smaller in population, housing perhaps 40,000, pepper the landscape from Lordsburg to Anthony and Sunland Park, south of Las Cruces. They include areas as far away from the border as the heart of Grant County and even that second-home mecca, Ruidoso Downs

Surprised? A colonia does not have to be on the border. All that is required to create a colonia is land that is, in general, useless for agriculture, lies in a floodplain, or suffers from other such misfortune. Developers can buy up such land, subdivide it into small lots (sans infrastructure, such as roads, water and other things you take for granted when buying property), and resell those lots to low-income individuals or families as "affordable housing."

Colonias are basically any unincorporated area that lacks basic infrastructure. They have existed in New Mexico for more than 50 years, lining 44 miles of the landscape from Las Cruces to El Paso.

Some obvious examples of colonias near the border include Vado, Chaparral, Berino and Mesquite. Less-obvious ones include all or part of such unincorporated areas in Grant County as Pinos Altos, Santa Rita and Sherwood, plus the city of Bayard and the town of Santa Clara. Others that dot the landscape include parts of or all of Orogrande, Datil, Pie Town and the ironically named Top of the World.

This information comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, www.hud.gov/local/nm/groups/coloniasnm.cfm), which helps individuals and groups in these areas get funding for basic infrastructure. HUD defines colonias as rural neighborhoods within 150 miles of the border that lack adequate infrastructure or housing, as well as other basic services.

According to the Colonias Monitoring Project, a joint effort of HUD and the US Geological Survey (geography.wr.usgs.gov/science/colonias2.html), "The colonias typically have high poverty rates, making it difficult for residents to pay for roads, sanitary-water and sewer systems, minimum-standard housing, street lighting and other services. Colonias are scattered along the border as makeshift settlements, commonly on private land. Because these settlements have been established outside the formally sanctioned governance of nearby cities and towns, colonias residents have traditionally struggled to gain access to the public services available in those communities."

In Dona Ana County, the Colonias Development Council (CDC) celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. This organization, whose mission is to help colonias residents gain the funding and resources needed to "make a village," is directed by Diana Bustamante. A long-time activist, Bustamante's experience reaches back to the Farmworkers Organizing Project, which took root in southern New Mexico in the 1970s.

The Farmworkers Organizing Project was the predecessor of the CDC, and it came to be during a housing shortage. This situation allowed numerous somewhat unscrupulous developers to take advantage by selling land to farm workers and other low-income people, creating illegal subdivisions. The Office of Catholic Social Ministries started the Project, which morphed into CDC, an independent non-profit organization.

"Prior to 1996, New Mexico, the settlements included no historical planning," Bustamante explains. "A subdivision lot could be a four-way split of a four-acre tract, and the developers would subdivide them again into individual parcels. Since there were no easements, sometimes there was no access to the 'back' properties by the buyers."

Land developers used loopholes in the 1973 Subdivision Act, which allowed for this without "attendant infrastructure improvements."

But in 1996, all of that changed when Dona Ana County put together some of the strictest subdivision legislation in the state. Bustamante says, "Only two-way splits are allowed now, and there are easements and water must be accessible. The lax laws before 1996 allowed the developers to get away with a lot of things that they couldn't do now."

Another issue that was addressed was that of Contract for Deed. Previously, developers were able to sell lots through these contracts and charge exorbitant amounts of interest, sometimes as high as 12%, which was based on the balance due. since the seller is always the owner through these contracts, deeds were not accessible; even though someone was building a home on a lot, the lot did not really belong to them.

Bustamante notes that this practice was like buying land by using a payday loan. "If they were even one month late with a payment, the land could be taken back from the buyers."

Today, the Colonias Development Council is a grassroots organization whose main goal is to help develop community-based organizations to empower the residents of colonias. It works on issues of social, environmental and economic justice, and does so through outreach programs. The CDC has also assisted in starting child-care centers in Chaparral and Columbus and, with a grant from the USDA's Community Food Project, community gardens in Anthony and Chaparral.

"We have no other role than that of outreach," says Veronica Carmona, who has worked for CDC for the last five years, and is currently the Lead Community Organizer.

Carmona, who was born in Juarez, is a lifelong organizer who has worked in immigration reform and educational outreach. In Juarez, she was involved in the Workers Movement with the maquiladoras. She has also worked with the AFSCME labor union and in El Salvador.

The Colonias Development Council will co-sponsor a film, Children in No Man's Land, followed by a panel discussion, on Sunday, July 26, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla. The documentary film focuses on the plight of the 100,000 unaccompanied minors entering the US every year.


"I try and follow the methods of Paulo Freire, who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Carmona says.

This notable tome, which was first published in Portuguese in 1968, explores the "struggle for justice and equity in the educational system," and also the "relationships between the colonizer and the colonized." Friere's theory is briefly summarized as, "Nobody liberates anybody else, and nobody liberates themselves all alone. People liberate themselves in fellowship with each other." His work can be a tool in helping those who often aren't quite aware of how to help themselves.

"I work with key individuals in the community and help them become representatives who work with other community members," Carmona adds. She cites the recent controversy regarding Waste Connections, a huge corporation that manages 37 active landfills around the country and collects trash in 125 cities in 23 states.

You're on page 1

1 | 2 | ALL

Return to Top of Page