"We always say, ‘If your car gets stolen, go look for it on Pajarito Mesa,’ " says Sandra Montes, nodding toward an abandoned van. Her SUV rumbles noisily down a nameless dirt road, littered with old tires, gutted appliances and stained mattresses. Dead animals and barrels of oil have been dumped out here, and Montes often comes across old chemical containers. "Whatever people don’t want, they bring to us," she says.

Illegal dumping is just one of the hardships that burden everyday life on Pajarito Mesa, an unincorporated rural community southwest of Albuquerque. Because it's more than 150 miles from the Mexican border, the community doesn’t meet the official federal definition of a colonia. But by all other standards — lack of access to drinking water, electricity, sewage systems and adequate housing — living conditions on the mesa are little different than those found in the hardscrabble settlements near the border.

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The health and safety issues posed by the mesa’s inadequate infrastructure are exacerbated by the ad hoc way in which the community has developed. Many homes are a couple of miles from the nearest neighbor, and all are accessed by illegal roads. Without street names and physical addresses, residents have to meet police, ambulances and fire trucks at the base of the mesa, seriously delaying emergency response times.

Despite all this, the mesa’s residents refuse to see themselves as victims. Montes, like most of her neighbors, moved to Pajarito Mesa because she couldn’t find affordable housing elsewhere. Since 2000, she has worked to bring basic services to the mesa. Progress has barely crept along, and Montes sometimes feels forgotten. Still, she keeps pushing. "We are survivors," she says. "We do everything ourselves."

Music by Au and Ilyas Ahmed

Additional sound by Dynamicell