Hung out to dry

When their jobs went south, El Paso's working people were hung out to dry

  • "NO HAY AGUA, SOLAMENTE TIERRA": "There is no water, only dirt," says this 4-year-old colonia resident

    J.T. Thomas

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

EL PASO COUNTY, Texas - Under the crystalline sky of west Texas, Oscar and Maribel Flores have tried to achieve the American dream. Originally from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, they now own a piece of land in the U.S., where they're building a home. Brown roofing and gray plastered walls enclose one side of the house, while on the other side, wood framing stands in for the walls to come.

But for the Floreses and their two children, there are daily reminders that the dream is still out of reach. They live in a colonia, or unincorporated settlement, called Cochran, 30 miles east of the city of El Paso. In Cochran, mostly Mexican and Mexican-American families build makeshift houses on half-acre lots with no running water or sewers.

"I look at my children. They'll never know what a bathroom with running water is," says Oscar Flores, leaning against the shaded portion of his house. Instead, he spends $35 a month to truck in "dirty water" that is stored in a thousand-gallon metal container, its paint chipping inside and out.

A story like this would not be such a surprise a few miles south of here, where hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have flocked to Ciudad Juarez in recent years. But in Texas, the problem is as surprising as it is common. The Floreses are among more than 400,000 people who live in colonias on the Texas side of the border. About half of these communities have no water or sewage lines. In El Paso County alone, 80,000 people live in over 200 known colonias, settlements such as College Park, Agua Dulce ("Sweet Water"), and Dairyland (which sits next to a dairy farm and is infested with flies).

Even more surprising is the mainspring of the problem. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) promised prosperity for border towns such as Juarez and El Paso. But instead of exporting U.S. prosperity to Juarez, it exported Mexico's poverty to El Paso, as the two fused into one sprawling border city. In the process, U.S. workers have been forced to the fringes, and now El Paso is struggling to extend already stretched infrastructure to some of the border country's poorest residents.

NAFTA marooned workers

Colonias first appeared in Texas in the 1950s to house Mexican immigrants working in U.S. agriculture. Small farmers and developers sold lots to migrants, who built shacks out of discarded pallets and cinder blocks. No laws regulated where colonias could be built, and developers were never required to provide basic utilities.

The lack of land-use laws set the stage for some ambiguous real estate deals, says 70-year-old Teodora "Teddy" Trujillo, co-chair of the colonia advocacy group El Paso Inter-religious Sponsoring Organization, or EPISO. "Farmers became developers," she says. "They promised people they would get services. They never did."

Trujillo, who worked as an accountant for the city of El Paso for 19 years, and her late husband used to haul drinking water in five-gallon jugs to their home in the colonia Socorro. They had a well, but the water it produced was brown, "and it just had a bad smell," she says.

To remedy problems such as these, in 1989 and 1990, activists put bond initiatives on the state ballot to fund water and wastewater projects for colonias. In 1995, the state went one step further, passing the Model Subdivision Rules, which halted the further spread of colonias by requiring developers to provide utilities and basic infrastructure before they start building.

But according to Assistant County Attorney Vidal Oaxaca, it was too little, too late. The new laws didn't affect the thousands of lots that had already been divided up, lots that are still being built on. "We're still playing catch-up with the 1995 law," he says.

Many expected NAFTA, which made it easier and cheaper for corporations to operate in Mexico, to 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 Flores - and thousands of workers on the Texas side of the border - behind. Over 14,000 El Pasoans lost their jobs when local manufacturing plants moved south.

"There used to be so many jobs," says 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."

Before NAFTA, El Paso was home to nine Levi Strauss & Co. manufacturing plants. Now, the company has moved all but one to Juarez, laying off more than 3,000 workers. Rather than moving back to Mexico, where the housing situation is abysmal, many of these people flocked to U.S.-side colonias. Over half of colonia residents in the U.S. are workers displaced by NAFTA, according to Cecilia Rodriguez, Texas secretary of state ombudsman.

"It's very hard," says Leonor Valdez, who lives in Dairyland. Before the agreement, her husband made $400 a week in one of El Paso's Levi Strauss plants. Now, he crosses the border each day to earn $40 a week at a maquila in Juarez.

Where will the water come from?

There has been some progress in bringing the colonias basic services, but it hasn't come without a fight. Teddy Trujillo says her community, which sits just off the freeway, has had running water for a number of years, but it wasn't until last fall that she got a sewer hookup.

Trujillo's group has helped colonias get state grants to pay for roads, power lines and sewer lines, and water tanks. In once case, EPISO sued a developer who had subdivided a colonia that would not have received running water for 30 years. The developer settled out of court, and helped move 18 families to colonias closer to existing infrastructure.

Now, EPISO is taking on the agency that has been providing water to colonias outside El Paso since 1986, the Lower Valley Water District. While the district has accommodated thousands of families, Trujillo calls it an unnecessary middleman. The district buys water at wholesale from the El Paso Public Service Board (PSB), the city's water provider, and resells it to Lower Valley residents, driving water prices about 30 percent higher than those El Paso residents pay.

"My water bill this month was $68, and I'm never home," says Trujillo. She helped gather 2,000 signatures last fall to petition the state Legislature to dissolve the Lower Valley Water District, and put colonia water in the hands of the PSB. If the Legislature agrees, Trujillo says, colonia residents will see their water bills drop.

But Arturo Duran, general manager of the Lower Valley Water District, says the PSB has no interest in helping the colonias. "They never wanted to provide water to the colonias," he says. "That's why we exist in the first place."

The PSB, however, argues that it already serves the entire county. "We're here to serve the area and not just the city," says Carol Parker, spokeswoman for the PSB. "If consolidation were to occur, we would continue to address the issues of colonias."

As the fight drags on, some colonia residents are looking for greener pastures. "It's very difficult, living like this," says Oscar Flores. "We're between a rock and a hard place."

Flores cannot find a job in El Paso, so he is stopping work on the house and moving to Kansas. He believes that there, as a master carpenter, he'll have his pick of jobs. Looking out at miles of desert sand and shrubs, Flores shakes his head. "There's no future here," he says.

The authors are journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Victoria Mauleon and Clarence Ting

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