Who pays for infrastructure in Borderland colonias?

In places like Vado, New Mexico, good roads are hard to find.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in May 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders found his way to Vado, New Mexico, a quiet rural community on the east bank of the Rio Grande, 35 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border. People from urban centers like El Paso and Las Cruces streamed into the town, eager to see the presidential hopeful in one of the three rallies he held in New Mexico that month.

Flanked by locals standing on metal bleachers, an expanse of farmland sprawling behind them, the Vermont Independent spoke about the challenges many towns face: the need for basic infrastructure, including “decent roads and decent bridges,” and a government policy that had “ignored for too long the needs of the people in rural America.” For the residents of Vado, Sanders’ words rang true. They have been fighting for decent infrastructure for decades — for water and sewage lines and, especially, for roads. Every year, the streets of the town become nearly impassable, when monsoon rains turn the dirt roads into mud pits.

In fact, even as Sanders was speaking, a small group of organizers and volunteers, some of them holding signs that said “I Stand with Vado,” took the opportunity to sell burritos and water to raise money for road repairs, while at the same time raising awareness among local and state media. Among them was Ruben Lugo, a longtime resident and organizer.

 

Lugo, a soft-spoken middle-aged man, had been calling attention to Vado’s roads for years, talking to reporters and attending public meetings. Just a few months before Sanders’ appearance, Lugo had led a community meeting in which he confronted his county commissioner, demanding that government officials do something to fix the roads. But Lugo already knew that the responsibility would probably fall on the residents, and that they would have to be resourceful and make incremental improvements themselves. That’s because Vado is a colonia — from the Spanish for “neighborhood” — one of thousands of unincorporated, unplanned and generally impoverished communities along the U.S.-Mexico border initially settled by migrant farmworkers. Colonias like Vado receive little outside help at the best of times.

By the time Sanders left, Lugo and his co-organizers had raised nearly $1,000. Sanders, of course, did not win the nomination in 2016, and the presidency went to Donald Trump, who ran on building walls, not fixing roads. Still, Lugo and the residents of Vado were determined to make a go of repairing their own corner of small-town America.

Mague Lugo and her husband, Ruben, outside their home in Vado, New Mexico. The couple has been pushing for the county to fund infrastructure, instead of citizens having to foot the bill.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

LUGO FIRST CAME TO THE UNITED STATES from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, more than two decades ago, at the age of 17. Most of his immediate family had already made the journey, sharing a cramped two-bedroom house with Lugo’s grandmother amid the pecan orchards in the small town of Mesilla, New Mexico. Lugo told people his family had come “in search of the American dream,” but it was also true that they were fleeing the violence that continues to plague Juárez.

When he first arrived in Vado, Lugo, like most newly settled immigrants, worked in the fields, harvesting pecans, chilies and onions. After a few years, he found a job in construction, building rock walls, which paid better, enabling him to buy a trailer in Vado and eventually the plot of land it sat on. Unfortunately, the cheap land, tucked into one of the lowest lying parts of the Mesilla Valley, came with some unexpected downsides.

Cut by the Rio Grande, the Mesilla Valley stretches from southern New Mexico to west Texas. Despite its aridity, it is an agriculturally rich region, helped by a monsoon season that runs from June through September. Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, carried by the winds of the Atlantic Ocean, nourishes the fertile landscape. But that rain also settles into the bottom of the valley — and on places like Vado. Lugo’s home has been flooded twice.

The annual downpours do more than flood homes, however. They also inundate roads, turning them into a sludgy clay mess that hardens into a cratered nightmare, damaging vehicles and impeding travel. And because Vado is a colonia, there’s little help available. Colonias constitute a special classification, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. By definition, a colonia is a community located within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and characterized by a lack of basic infrastructure. Nearly half a million people live in colonias in Arizona and New Mexico.

Nearly half a million people live in colonias in Arizona and New Mexico.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Robert Peterson, 2010

In New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, a little less than half of the population lives in one. Because most of these communities are unincorporated, they exist in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. While they fall under county jurisdiction, they often have no formal governance of their own, and they are seldom given much attention by local, state or the federal government. The roads are a daily reminder of their invisibility and of a certain basic lack of respect. To be so ignored “is something that hurts a lot,” Lugo told me. Having a paved road, on the other hand, is a way of saying, “OK, you are part of this community too.”

Lack of infrastructure in colonias, including Vado, New Mexico, means rainstorms can flood homes and make dirt roads like Cebolla Lane, above and to the right, impassable.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

AT THE SANDER'S FUNDRAISER, Vado residents raised enough money to pay for a project that the regional Environmental Protection Agency had coordinated with a local advocacy group. Local EPA officials had partnered with an El Paso, Texas-based recycling company, which donated 60 tons of shredded roofing shingles for improving Cebolla Lane, one of the worst roads in Vado. The recycling company had a surplus of shingles at the time and was actually in violation of a Texas regulation for storing too much, so its decision to donate the material to Vado seemed like a clear win-win for everybody. The residents paid to transport the shingles and for the use of a grader and roller, and they also pitched in to help with the labor, using wheelbarrows to lay out the material.

But the shredded shingles turned out to be less than ideal for road repair. And ultimately the project, which was finished in July 2016, turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. Even though it improved the road, it created new problems in the process: The shingles hadn’t been properly cleaned of roofing nails, and so residents started getting flat tires. The axles on their vehicle were no longer breaking, but driving wasn’t getting any easier. Disappointed residents found themselves having to pull up all the material they had just put down. “It was supposed to last for two years,” Lugo said. “But in the end, it was counterproductive.”

So the residents came up with a new plan. One of Lugo’s neighbors worked at Cemex, a concrete supplier with headquarters just a few miles off nearby Interstate 10. The company agreed to donate gravel for the roads if the residents could figure out a way to transport it and lay it down. The necessary machinery was found and locals hauled the gravel in their own trucks. Each family had to contribute $120 toward the project, a significant amount for a community where many residents live below the poverty line. The gravel considerably improved some roads but was a costly and temporary fix.

 

Cebolla Lane in Vado, New Mexico, is among the worst of the roads the colonia residents try to maintain on their own, without the help of Doña Ana County.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

THE CEBOLLA LANE FIASCO shows how hard it can to be to carry out even simple projects in colonias, which have proliferated near the border. Owing to a combination of developers in search of easy money and people in need of affordable housing, developments like Vado are the product of a simple, insidious scheme, where cheap land (most of it in floodplains) is bought, divided and sold at a markup, usually to recent immigrants. Oftentimes, residents were led into thinking infrastructure would follow their purchase, but these promises rarely materialize, leaving them to fend for themselves. As a result, the properties become a jurisdictional jumble. They are hard to govern or improve, and few resources are available to them.

Billy G. Garrett, a former commissioner for Doña Ana County, served Vado and other colonias for eight years. He tried to make improvements, but was often frustrated and thwarted. “The money is not there,” he told me. “And the social support is not there politically in terms of the whole county.”

One of the biggest hurdles has been logistical. Colonias like Vado were subdivided in a way that makes most of the residents responsible for the roads adjacent to their properties. These “private roads” are essentially public in their use, but the New Mexico Constitution’s anti-donation clause prohibits governments from making “any donation to or aid of any person, association or public or private corporation.” Because the roads are privately owned, in other words, the government can’t legally fix them. This leaves the roads and their maintenance outside of the county’s responsibility, putting the onus on colonia residents. Garrett said, it was hard for other people in the county to understand the scale of problems colonias face. “I wanted to get to the point where you can’t say you don’t know at least the magnitude of (it),” he said.

“If you truly want to have every street paved, you’ve got to understand this is a much bigger problem that you have to take on.”

So, in 2016, Garrett commissioned an infrastructure report for incorporated areas including colonias in Doña Ana County. The assessment, released in 2017, was bleak. The county’s colonias needed an estimated $606 million in infrastructure projects, including wastewater services, drainage and about $84 million for paving private roads. While bad roads might not seem like a big deal, they are, in fact, extremely tough on families. If roads aren’t passable, “people can’t get their kids to school, can’t get to work, can’t get to doctor’s appointments,” Kelly Jameson, a public information officer for the county, told me. But it’s nearly impossible to raise enough money to fix these problems when many residents outside of colonias can’t comprehend the disparities, Garrett said. “If you truly want to have every street paved, you’ve got to understand this is a much bigger problem that you have to take on,” he said. “It has to do with changing how people view colonias; (it) has to do with guaranteeing every community has all the things it needs.”

Garrett said it is unfortunate that there isn’t any real long-term planning going on to address the needs of the colonias. “You can’t deal with good development if every two years you are going to change how you are going to approach infrastructure,” he said. “Infrastructure is a multi-year process in priorities and planning and getting it built.” And infrastructure is made more complicated by the nature of things: Commissioners change, priorities change, funding changes — and the problems simply get worse.

These issues are incredibly complex and costly, and expecting rural county governments to find all-encompassing solutions is not realistic. Federal funding is available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA, but it usually requires a matching loan from a local entity, something that is seldom financially feasible here. The state does provide approximately $4 million a year for projects in the county’s colonias, but, as Garrett said, that’s a drop in the bucket. “The problems with rural Doña Ana County are the same as rural New Mexico, the same as anywhere in the West,” Garrett told me. “What we really need is a major initiative in Washington that says it is important to take care of our rural communities and our rural areas.”

“What we really need is a major initiative in Washington that says it is important to take care of our rural communities and our rural areas.”

A truck turns onto Ward Road, one of two roads paved by Doña Ana County earlier this year using surplus county funds.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News
 

AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS YEAR, Vado saw a small victory. Two of its roads were paved through surplus county funds — a one-off windfall that was designated for a “roads initiative” by commissioners. The funding paved Ward Road, the main thoroughfare in Lugo’s neighborhood. But, as with the shingle paving and gravel dumping, the small gains come with big caveats. When the monsoons hit, many of the families on the side streets will still be stranded in mud.

In February, I traveled to Vado to see how residents felt about the road improvements. Vado has a tranquil, sleepy feel, with just a couple of thousand residents; the town is a patchwork of farmland, houses and roads that border irrigation ditches. I followed Ward Road, with its shiny new asphalt, to branching side streets and clusters of homes and trailers.

The colonia might suffer broadly from structural negligence, but it was clear that residents care about their homes. Nopales, a type of cactus, lined the front of some trailers, makeshift fences and rock walls enveloped others. I pulled up to Lugo’s home, which has been enlarged over the years to make space for his growing family, and was enthusiastically greeted by his dog, Oso, a big, lanky puppy tangled in his yard tether. Mague, Lugo’s wife, opened the door and led me into the kitchen, where her friend Blanca Isabel, wearing a pink shirt that matched the color of her eyeshadow, sat at a round wooden table.

Ruben Lugo outside his home, which has had additions throughout the years as his family grows.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

Isabel had moved to Vado 16 years ago, she said, and now worked at a nearby processing plant, which produced chili paste for popular hot sauce brands. Her husband was employed at a dairy farm, one of several in the region. With their combined income, they had been able to buy a house and plot of land behind Lugo’s. “We didn’t know it was in a flood zone,” she said, adding that during the monsoon season “a lake” forms in front of her house. But other than that, she said she likes living there; it’s a tight-knit community.

When the place isn’t flooded, it’s dry and dusty, and this contributes to another widespread problem: asthma. A lot of people here have it, Isabel said, including her. (According to the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, asthma is a serious concern for communities near the border, where air quality is low and work exposure to chemicals and pesticides is high. Doña Ana County reports that 10% to 12% of adults in the county suffer from the condition.) Her asthma worries her, she said. “If there is an emergency, an ambulance isn’t going to come (in time),” she said. “I have to get sick somewhere else where one can reach me.”

Blanca Isabel stands near puddles from rainfall three days ago outside her home in Vado, New Mexico. When it rains, Isabel’s front yard and the road leading to her home flood and she has to use a four-wheel drive vehicle; when the mud finally dries, deep ruts remain.
Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

In much of the country, decent roads are taken for granted. There is something very American in the idea of the open road and clean, safe streets — no less so for places like Vado. Here, though, it’s an ideal that still seems far from reach. Here, where citizens often live with undocumented relatives, a kind of isolation prevails. Border checkpoints that lock people in from either direction are permanently set up on the two major highways that connect Vado to the rest of the state. The locals keep their cars meticulously clean, headlights in working order, to avoid any excuse for a run-in with police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement in town. Better roads would connect people, give them mobility — and also help them keep their cars in working order.

“They don’t realize that we too are New Mexicans.”

For that reason, Ward Road was “a victory in so many ways,” Lugo told me. “After so many years of fighting, it shows that we can do it. We can bring change.” With one goal more or less achieved, Lugo and his neighbors have others in mind. They’d like to see streetlights and the side roads paved, and a school bus that reaches their neighborhood. The county would also like to see other improvements reach the colonia, including hooking up Vado residents to a centralized sewer system; severe septic tank failures can pose a serious health risk. Adequate drainage infrastructure is also needed to protect residents from annual flooding. Lugo, who traveled to Santa Fe this year to talk with officials, believes Vado is too far from the minds of policymakers. “They think that we don’t exist,” he said. “They don’t realize that we too are New Mexicans.”

Indeed, this reminded me of my own trip to Santa Fe, a few days earlier. There, I had hoped to learn about New Mexico’s relationship to its border communities on “Colonias Day.” I had gone to the Capitol, where a press conference was scheduled. I arrived early, waiting in a marble rotunda, where chairs were set up in rows, a podium in the front of the hall. It was a busy weekday, with visitors and school groups wandering the building as state legislators went from one meeting to the next. Above the rotunda, a crumpled banner hung from a second-story railing. “Colonias Day,” it read. “Federal, state and local government collectively working together to improve social, health and economic conditions.” The appointed hour for the press conference came and went. The chairs stayed empty. After a long wait, I finally left. Outside, traffic buzzed by on well-paved city streets, as tourists came in and out of restaurants. Colonias Day passed, and nobody noticed. 

Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News

Jessica Kutz, an assistant editor for High Country News, writes from Tucson. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.