By Laura Paskus
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Women engaged in grassroots activism in "colonias"--makeshift communities along the Mexico border--are working to improve access to basic infrastructure, services and help residents learn about their citizenship rights.
LAS CRUCES, N.M. (WOMENSENEWS)--Manufactured homes from the 1960s and '70s--boxy, with sharp corners and rusty hitches--huddle just down the block from the Colonias Development Council.
A green, white and red Mexican flag hangs in one of the trailer windows; New Mexico license plates grace the cars out front.
The council, a nonprofit staffed almost entirely by women, is just two blocks off the New Mexico State University campus, but it feels a world away. Here in southern New Mexico, poverty and affluence often share close quarters, even as economic disparities grow.
As developers gobble up farms and desert scrub--sending the fringes of Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Texas, sprawling toward one another--the region's poorest residents often find themselves squeezed out of affordable housing, exploited by predatory lenders and unsure of their rights.
To the extent that anyone is coming to their aid, it's mainly female activists such those at the Colonias Development Council, says Esperanza "Espy" Holguin.
After 12 years as an activist or municipal employee involved with colonias issues Holguin eight years ago began working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers a handful of grant programs designed specifically for colonias. She estimates that 80 percent or more of the activists in the colonias are female.
"They see the needs of their communities," she says. Then she laughs. "And we are good organizers."
As defined by the federal government, "colonias" are U.S. communities within 150 miles of the Mexican border that lack basic infrastructure such as running water and sewage, electricity, natural gas, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing. Aside from New Mexico, there are also colonias in Arizona, Texas and California.
While government agencies are beginning to focus more on the infrastructure needs of the colonias, such as water and sewage, Holguin says they have yet to address aging and unsafe houses or even the lack of public roads, never mind such essential social services as hospitals, clinics, schools, child care services or senior centers.
This means women lack prenatal care, says Sheila Black, marketing coordinator with the Colonias Development Council.
In the border community of Columbus, Black says paramedics can get almost 80 emergency obstetric calls a month from the community of some 2,000 to 3,000 people. "This is not just people coming across the border to have babies, as people like to say," she adds. "These are people who only feel like they have care when it's an absolute emergency."
The council is hoping to find a grant to bring midwives into the colonias, but Black is frustrated by the lack of social services for rural communities. "It's a bad situation when you have small nonprofits coming in to address these problems."
The council focuses on 10 colonias in southern New Mexico on issues ranging from education to sustainable economic development, to opening day care centers and re-training farm workers, to fighting for environmental justice and civil rights. From a start as a Catholic farm worker organizing project the council has been an independent nonprofit for more than a decade.
Working with other community groups, the council encourages residents to engage with local government entities, attend county meetings, join water district boards and understand how the state legislature works.
In New Mexico alone, there are about 140 colonias. Some date to the 1800s and early 1900s, says Holguin. As parents parceled off their original land to children and grandchildren, the communities of trailers and homes grew without formal planning.
But in the past few decades, says Holguin, many more colonias have arisen as the result of unscrupulous developers and predatory lenders who have created what amount to illegal subdivisions.
Developers will sell parcels of land that lack basic infrastructure normally required under law, such as public roads, water and sewage or electricity. To make matters worse, these developers sell the land under terms where the fine print--unbeknownst to the buyers--prevents residents from technically owning their land until the loans are fully paid.
Despite making payments on this land, residents still lack equity or collateral and are unable to procure a bank loan for their homes, says Holguin. In order to build a house or more often, buy a trailer, residents end up turning again to predatory lenders.
At the end of the day, residents--with the American dream of homeownership--find themselves not only heavily in debt, but also living without basic infrastructure or services.
Despite popular misconceptions, colonias are not squatter's camps or hide-outs for undocumented immigrants. The vast majority of people living in colonias are legal immigrants or U.S. citizens. "Much of what's happening in rural, border New Mexico is reflected in rural America," says Black. "There is an interconnectedness between these little communities."
Environmental injustice is an example of this interconnectedness.
According to the council, 75 percent of the nation's landfills are built near minority or low-income communities. In Chapparral, for instance, the council is working with local leaders to stave off a landfill that would be the community's third.
The struggle to sustain good services is another example.
In 1997 five women in Columbus who called themselves Mujeres en Progreso--Women in Progress--started thinking about how to create a day care center. Today, the Columbus Child Development Center employs five women and provides other working women an alternative to unregulated home day care arrangements.
But Megan Snedden, the council's economic development director, says the center faces challenges to viability that would be familiar to any small, rural community.
With only 20 or 25 children, for example, hiring a cook puts a significant dent in the center's tight budget. Staff training is also difficult, since it often requires travel to a nearby urban center which requires three things in chronic short supply: time, money and transportation.
Laura Paskus is a writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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