by Greg Bloom
In Mexico, the word "col-onia" denotes a community or neighborhood. In the US, "colonia" is the term used for an infrastructure-deficient neighborhood inhabited mainly by Spanish speakers, mostly from Mexico, and located in one of the four US states that border Mexico. In the US, colonias are communities that lack some or all of the following: water and sewer systems, gas lines, paved roads and safe housing.
Doña Ana County, New Mexico, a poor county in one of the nation's poorest states, has 37 of the state's 141 col-onias, according to profiles of Arizona and New Mexico colonias done by HUD colonia specialists and University of Arizona and New Mexico State University graduate students in the year 2000. The students' report also notes that the 1990 US Census found 70,280 people living in New Mexico colonias, more than half of them, 40,531, in Doña Ana County.
Problems facing colonias
While 92% of New Mexico's colonias have drinking-water systems, according to the report, the systems tend to be old and in need of repair and/or upgrade. The systems also lack sufficient pressure for fire-fighting purposes.
Wastewater treatment is a serious problem in New Mexico's colonias. The students' report states that only 15 of New Mexico's 141 colonias are connected to a wastewater treatment or sewer system. Most of the unconnected systems are in violation of state and federal laws and regulations and make use of septic tanks or cesspools that are a threat or pose a future threat to area aquifers.
While the students found that all colonias have electricity, most do not have connections to natural gas systems. Instead, poorly insulated homes are heated with propane which costs roughly four times as much as natural gas, according to Ray Padilla of the Colonias Development Council which is headquartered in Las Cruces, in Doña Ana County. Another problem with propane gas is that trucks do not come on a daily basis to refill empty tanks so colonia residents sometimes spend a few days and nights with no heat and no way of warming food, says Padilla.
Strangely, some of the communities that are waiting to receive natural gas hookups have gas pipelines running through them. Signs warn of their presence and are obvious to residents who for economic reasons cannot afford to be connected to this cheaper source of fuel. Padilla says that to hook up 200 homes in one colonia will cost $300,000 or $1,315 per family.
This $1,315 is a lot of money, especially for an area with high unemployment and few high-paying jobs. Padilla states that most of the work done by colonia residents in the south of the county is in dairies, food processing and in low-wage jobs in nearby El Paso, Texas. In the north of Doña Ana County, almost all colonia residents work as farm laborers.
Housing in the colonias is comprised of old mobile homes and some site-built homes, the large majority of which are quite deteriorated.
What's being done to improve lives and conditions
Sitting on the porch of a friend's mobile home, on a warm, sunny January day, with toddlers playing around her, Maria Conejo looks across a sand road at construction workers who are finishing her new house. Located in the Las Palmeras colonia, Conejo's home is being built through a program with Tierra del Sol, a not-for-profit housing organization in Doña Ana County. This new house will replace her old mobile home and will be a better, safer place for her three children.
Groups like Tierra del Sol and the Colonias Development Council (CDC) are working with colonias residents to improve conditions in the communities. According to Padilla, the CDC feels that it has had success in bringing infrastructure improvements to the Salem colonia in the north of the county, the Milagro colonia and the Las Palmeras colonia where Conejo lives. Padilla is also particularly proud of the young people he works with in the CDC's consciousness-raising, youth organizing efforts.
These sorts of success are not easily come by, however. Resources are stretched thin in dealing with the region's colonias. For example, Padilla wishes the CDC could have at least one employee for each colonia. And some colonias could clearly use more than one organizer, like Chaparral which has between 13,000 and 15,000 residents spread across two New Mexico counties (Doña Ana and Otero).
Other impediments to improving the colonias, according to Padilla, are transportation issues and language barriers. Because the colonias lack public transportation, and many residents do not have cars, it is difficult for people to attend public meetings. Also, once at the meetings, residents encounter a Spanish-English language barrier.
However, now that residents like Maria Conejo are beginning to get nice, safe housing, and connections to natural gas and wastewater treatment, perhaps neighbors and surrounding communities will be inspired to begin bettering their lives, on their own or in conjunction with groups like the Colonias Development Council.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS) is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico <http://frontera.nmsu.edu>