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EL PASO: Texas Colonias
Victoria Mauleon and Clarence Ting

Under the crystalline sky of El Paso County, Texas, Oscar and Maribel Flores have in some ways achieved the American dream. Originally from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, they now own their own piece of land in the U. S. where they're building a house. Their red and silver pick up truck is parked in front of their half-constructed house. Brown roofing sits at a shallow angle on the gray plastered cement walls of the completed portion of the house. The other side is a hint of what they want to build: a concrete foundation surrounded by wood framing, standing in for the walls to come.

But for the Floreses and their two children, whose family income plummeted when thousands of El Paso jobs went south to Mexico, there are daily reminders that without money, their reality falls short of the ideal. They live in a colonia called Cochran, an unincorporated settlement of half-acre subdivisions where mostly Mexican and Mexican-American families build houses out of whatever they can. Cochran resembles a planned residential community, but instead of lawns, the properties have patches of beige dirt and the occasional desert shrub. Rather than identical tract housing, people live in houses as varied as their personalities. They range from solidly constructed wood, plaster and concrete structures like the Flores', to houses with walls built out of white and blue cinder blocks from an old army base, to pre-fabricated trailer homes with an extra room made out of scrap lumber nailed to the frame.

From lot to lot, what all families do have in common are containers for storing water: fifty-five gallon plastic drums, large metallic vessels with a thousand gallon capacity, or industrial black cylinders the size of a small truck. Located thirty miles away from the city of El Paso, Cochran has no water or sewage lines. For the residents of this colonia, there's no access to clean running water.

"I look at my children, they'll never know what a bathroom with running water is," said Oscar Flores, standing in the sliver of shade beneath the narrow awning of his house. He said he spends $35 a month on "dirty water" that a truck delivers every three weeks. This water, said Oscar, is not for drinking though. He still has to buy drinking water from a vending machine in Horizon City, a few miles away. He stores the trucked-in water in a thousand-gallon metal container with chipping paint inside and out. He said he has to clean it every month to prevent the algae from growing in the water. "I'm always afraid I'll get trapped inside when I clean this," he said.

The Floreses are some of the more than 400,000 people who live in colonias on the Texas side of the US/Mexico, about half of which live without water and sewage lines. In El Paso County alone, 80,000 people now live in over 200 known colonias built on land that was never zoned for residential uses. Nevertheless, these settlements have expanded with the population. And in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement exported their jobs across the border to Mexico, thousands of people were forced to seek affordable housing in these colonias, further and further from established infrastructure. While some older colonias now have these basic services, thanks to state and federal government grants, colonias like Cochran slip through the cracks. They grow larger in size and number with no source of clean potable water.


"It's not a water problem, it's a housing problem," said Valli Jo Acosta, a litigator who works on colonia cases for the El Paso County Attorney's office. "There is no affordable housing."

It's a housing problem rooted in Texas's tradition of land use rights. Colonias first appeared in Texas in the 1950s to house Mexican immigrants working in US agriculture Small farmers and developers sold pieces of their land to migrants who built their own makeshift houses. But no laws regulated where colonias could be built and developers were never required to provide basic utilities.

"Texas is a very 'property rights' state, so the county has no zoning authority," said Assistant County Attorney Vidal Oaxaca. El Paso County, he said, has never been able to tell landowners how they can use their land. And, "there's no law enforcement aspect," Oaxaca said.

This mentality helps explain why people have sold land never intended, and unsuitable, for residential communities. In an effort to prevent more colonias from going up without basic services, the Texas legislature passed the Model Subdivision Rules in 1989. The bill required developers to provide basic infrastructure and utilities on any land they develop for colonias. In 1995, the legislature went a step further and passed the "Colonias Bill," which authorized counties to provide water and sewer service to colonias and prevented further growth in areas without adequate infrastructure. But according to Oaxaca, it's too little, too late. "We're still playing catch-up with the 1995 law," he said.

With El Paso's per capita income at 64 percent of the Texas average, many low-income border families, priced out of the El Paso housing market, buy cheaper homes out in the desert. For them, a home without running water is better than no home at all.

"Some are willing to live without water," said Oaxaca. "They don't have a problem with it."


Many expected NAFTA, which made it easier and cheaper for multinationals to operate in Mexico, would ease illegal immigration, create thousands of jobs on both sides of the border and revitalize Mexico's economy. But what many considered free trade's great leap forward left Oscar -- and thousands of workers on the Texas side of the border -- behind. Over 14,000 El Pasoans lost their jobs when local manufacturing plants relocated across the border in Ciudad Juarez.

"There used to be so many jobs," said Oscar Flores who during the mid 1980s worked in a lunch wagon serving meals to factory workers. "But all the factories closed like an epidemic and moved to Juarez."

Lucy Gale of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has heard estimates that place the number of displaced workers at 20,000. Gale said NAFTA hit factory workers especially hard. "For so many of these displaced workers, the skill and trade they learned in these kinds of manufacturing jobs can't be taken elsewhere," said Gale. Before NAFTA, El Paso was home nine Levi Strauss & Co. manufacturing plants. Now, the company has moved all but one of the plants over to Ciudad Juarez, laying off more than 3,000 workers.

Cecilia Rodriguez, Texas Secretary of State Ombudsman, said NAFTA also hurt colonia residents. "Over half the colonia residents [in El Paso County] are NAFTA displaced workers," said Rodriguez.

"It's very hard," said Leonor Valdez , who lives in Dairyland, another colonia a few miles from Cochran. Before the agreement, her husband had a $400 a week job in one of El Paso's Levi Strauss plants. Now, he crosses the border each day to earn $40 a week at a "maquila" -- a manufacturing plant -- in Juarez.

On this wage, the Valdezes and their four children have little choice but to live in Dairyland, ten miles from the nearest water provider. It's a colonia that has problems typical of many of these ramshackle communities. Dairyland has no running water because according to Valdez, the developer who sold the land sold it in five-acre subdivisions and designated them for business use. In this way, she said, he avoided providing infrastructure.

To make matters worse, the nearby dairy that gave the colonia its name attracts millions of flies. They are drawn, Valdez said, to the mounds of manure and the cow carcasses regularly deposited near families' properties. The dairy claimed it could do as it pleased, Valdez said, because it was there first. Valdez and her community mobilized and convinced the dairy to start fumigating, but still the flies swarm. She said she uses an entire can of insect spray each day in her house. "We're breathing in poison every day," she said.

That's just one of the many health and environmental hazards colonia residents face. Poor and often uneducated, they are many times unaware of the dangers of living in these unregulated communities. Texas Department of Health data show that hepatitis A and tuberculosis occur about twice as frequently along the border than in Texas as a whole.

"Colonia residents don't know the history of the land use," said Mike Ramos, Regional Lead Inspector of the Texas Department of Health. "Their houses could still be sitting on a dump or drums of hazardous chemicals."

Ramos also said residents often use salvaged materials to build their houses, which makes them vulnerable to lead and other chemical poisoning. In Cochran, he said, men were bringing back old cinder blocks and lumber covered with lead paint, and building their homes from these materials. Ramos said instead of money, the men were given the salvaged materials as payment for demolishing old buildings at Ft. Bliss, a nearby army base.

The El Paso/Ciudad Juarez population of two million is expected to double in the next 25 years, according to demographers. All indications suggest the number of colonias like Cochran and Dairyland will rise sharply as well. Already, said Cecilia Rodriguez, half the colonias in El Paso county lack running water. And it is access to clean running water, say residents, that remains their most pressing need.


Maria Ortiz slowly approached the podium at the San Elizario High School cafeteria, and looked out at the 300 Mexican-Americans squeezed into rows of lunch tables. Neatly dressed in a long skirt, the petite young woman paused for a moment before speaking.

"There are 89 colonias without water," she said softly in Spanish over a crackling P.A. system, "and we hope the Lower Valley Water District will pass this resolution to provide water to all of El Paso."

The crowd applauded as the District's eight members sat facing the audience, silent and inert.

"Fifty percent of our residents have been displaced by NAFTA," Ortiz shouted, emboldened by the audience's cheers. "Our children have to go far away because there are no jobs here."

As the crowd clapped and cheered in agreement, drowning Ortiz out, a shrill voice coming from the back of the cafeteria cut through the wild applause.

"Fuera el PSB- away with the Public Service Board," shouted Gloria Melendez, director of AYUDA, a non-profit group based in the town of San Elizario that helps build septic systems in colonias.

"Fuera!" the crowd chanted in response, defiantly rising from their chairs. Ortiz returned to her seat as some audience members stood clapping. After the cheers died down, Lower Valley Water District President Rosalinda Vigil, speaking in English, redirected the board meeting to the agenda item at hand: accepting the District's proposed new mascot, a duck.

"A duck is a water animal," said the District member who first proposed the mascot, "and we're a water district." Several board members nodded in agreement, but Vigil asked members to further elaborate on the duck idea. The Lower Valley Water District dedicated more time to discussing the mascot than it did the issue that had brought the crowd to this October meeting: whether or not the District would consolidate with the El Paso Public Service Board, the city's municipal water district.

The District has served communities outside the metropolitan area since 1986, accommodating the thousands of families that have searched further beyond city limits for affordable housing. But the District has to buy water from the PSB at a wholesale rate and resell it to Lower Valley residents, driving up water prices. Many residents and organizations say consolidation would cut out the middle-man and significantly reduce utility bills.

"My water bill this month was $68," said Teddy Trujillo, Lower Valley resident and co-chair of the non-profit colonia advocacy group EPISO, "and I'm never home."

Others say lower prices for household water mean nothing for families with no running water to begin with.

"[The PSB] doesn't guarantee to help colonias who don't already have water," says AYUDA's Melendez. For such remote colonias, like Dairyland, consolidation with the El Paso PSB could dash their hopes of ever getting water lines. The city would have little incentive to build expensive infrastructure so far from the city center.

"It would cost millions," said Leonor Valdez, to bring running water to her community. So instead, each month, she pays $120 for trucked-in water.

Tonight's meeting ended in confusion. Between the faulty cafeteria sound system and the insistence of water officials that the meeting be conducted in English -the crowd repeatedly shouted for them to speak in Spanish -residents left the meeting uncertain over what had been accomplished. In the end, the consolidation issue, which has divided colonia residents and non-profit groups, was tabled pending further discussion. But the tense and angry meeting illustrated the communication lapse between the water district, which must follow strict meeting protocol, and the residents they serve, who simply want water-now.

"It's a mess," said Trujillo, "and I wonder what people thing of El Paso, because everybody's fighting everybody."


Many colonias fight for years to get running water -through multiple government agencies, wading through a seemingly endless grant process-and even when the water arrives at the community's edge, that is no guarantee the residents will enjoy it. Many cannot afford the final step -paying to bring the line the last few feet to their homes.

"I don't have the money," said Sabina Arenivas, a 71 year-old great-grandmother from Colonia del Rio. She sat on her sloping makeshift porch, surrounded by a few stray kittens who laid claim to this same half-acre patch of land. "No one has helped me." It would cost $800 to bring clean water the last 50 feet, into Mrs. Arenivas's trailer. This is money she doesn't have. She says she barely survives on social security, still paying off her trailer -at 100 percent interest.

Lack of access to sufficient water forms a litany of complaints from colonia residents across El Paso County. There is Dairyland's fly problem, illegal trash dumping and burning -- only colonias with running water receive solid waste removal-- and frustration with the amount of time it takes to get these water projects going. And while members of EPISO and AYUDA blame water districts, government officials say their anger should be directed toward other targets, namely unscrupulous developers.

"A lot of the problems occurred with the sale of the property," said Jeff Dunsworth, field inspector for the Texas Water Development Board. "The developer promised water and septic systems, never took care of it, sold the property to the residents and left."

Six hundred miles from Jeff Dunsworth's Austin office lies the colonia of Cuadrilla, a small settlement east of El Paso. A rusty tractor, a cabinet of metal school lockers and a few chickens occupy Lázara Gandarilla's land, overrun with weeds. A twisted knot of wires extends from a nearby electrical pole into her small, cement house. It's doubtful the water stored in the two 55-gallon barrels could extinguish a fire this faulty wiring might spark. Cuadrilla, an illegal subdivision, stands no chance of getting water -- utility companies cannot build water lines across the canal that runs through the settlement.

"The county said we would never get (running) water," said Gandarilla, an El Paso native in her 80s. She has lived in Cuadrilla for 20 years, and although she paid off her land six years ago, she does not own the title to it. The developer still legally owns the property - his name alone appears on the deed.

"Developers find loopholes," said Cecilia Rodriguez. She said some developers comb the 1995 law to find ways to build communities that never should have existed. Rodriguez cited the "potentially disastrous" Hueco Tanks subdivision as an example. The "loophole" there was selling the 800 5-acre lots for commercial use - the plots are too big to be designated for residential use - which does not require the developer to provide running water or sewage systems.

The area is not under the jurisdiction of any water district or supply corporation, so no one is responsible for providing water. A study by the County of El Paso estimated that because the lots were so far apart from one another, and because the colonia was 24 miles from the existing water mains, it would cost $75,000 to provide water to each home. This price tag so far has discouraged utility providers from taking on the project. Even if money were available, another obstacle remains: the community lies on an ancient Indian burial ground.

"The area is considered historically and environmentally sensitive," said Rodrigo Mercado, the County official who conducted the Hueco Tanks study. "The cost of performing a clearance for construction is prohibitive."

Meanwhile, about 200 residents take their chances with water delivered to them once a week. At the entrance to the mountainous subdivision, the sign reading "Hueco Mountain Estates Land Sales" is faded and rusty - the agency hasn't been able to sell property here since the 1995 law made it illegal to develop land without infrastructure. Although they've been told water will never come, families still flock to the area in search of cheap land. A community member, who wished to remain nameless, said families buy land off residents there, sacrificing running water for affordable housing.

Back in Cochran, families have also found new homes, knowing they, too must rely on trucked-in water. But Rodriguez has a plan in store that may soon bring water to their community. Cochran is just 100 feet shy of the Lower Valley Water District's line, so the District is not legally required to provide residents with water. But a nearby colonia recently received water, and they've started building a self-help center on the edges of their settlement, close to Cochran. Once the center receives water, Cochran will be within reach of these water lines.

"Once that water line is there," said Rodriguez, "(Cochran) must be hooked up. And then the water line can extend to nearby colonias, like Dairyland."

But the Flores family won't be there when and if Cochran gets water.

"It's very difficult…living like this," said Oscar Flores, looking at his wife Maribel as she stood in the doorway of their half-built home. "We're between a rock and a hard place."

Oscar cannot find work in El Paso, so they're moving to Kansas, where he says as a master carpenter, he'll have his pick of jobs. They've bought a trailer there, and they plan to rent out their home in Cochran. For the Flores family, there's something even more important than running water - finding a decent job.

Looking out at the miles of endless desert sand and shrubs that lie on the edge of his land, Oscar shook his head with resignation. "There's no future here," he said.