In Spanish, "Las Palmeras" means place of the date palms. At first glance, the small, southern New Mexican community of the same name seems far removed from that idyllic description. In summertime a hot sun beats relentlessly down on old mobile home trailers and treeless corners. Windstorms kick up dust and sprinkle passersby with specks of sand. But here, only 30 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, neighbors are realizing their own vision of paradise.
Roberto Cornejo, a six-year resident of the unincorporated community known as a colonia, reflected on how his participation in a community development project helped him cope with personal depression. Cornejo, a roofer and construction worker by trade, was among community members who pitched in their labor to install a new water and sewer system for the 35 or 40 low-income families who inhabit Las Palmeras. Many survive by working in nearby onion and chile pepper fields. "I feel so great like this. I feel something real helping people," said Cornejo.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than one million people live in colonias in the border region. Like countless others, Las Palmeras lacked, or still lacks, paved roads, running water, utility services, and schools. What sets the New Mexican colonia apart from many others is that Las Palmeras' neighbors have organized to take charge of their own destiny and collectively improve their common lot in life.
Not long ago, some residents met with the Las Cruces, New Mexico-based Colonias Development Council (CDC), a non-profit organization active in about a dozen area colonias. Together they charted a plan to meet Las Palmeras' most pressing needswater and sewer services. A $100,000 grant was obtained from the Small Town Environmental Program (STEP), a private foundation-seeded outfit that grants funding for water systems. A private consulting firm, Waterworks, oversaw the engineering, and a $400,000-dollar Community Development Block Grant rounded off a successful formula.
For their part, Las Palmeras residents donated their most plentiful resourcesweat equityby helping to connect the new system. Noted local activist Abel Dorado, "The community is the most important in construction because they put in the hours to do the work, to complete all the pipes."
FOUNDED IN 1994, CDC is an offshoot of the Las Cruces Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, organizers from the diocese's social action ministry fanned out into the colonias, holding house meetings and listening to residents' hopes and aspirations. Citizenship education, youth groups, day care projects, and infrastructure development activities resulted from the encounters.
"Bishops all along the border from Brownsville to Tijuana have been struggling to meet the needs of the poorest," said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Las Cruces diocese. "According to Vatican II documents, the church is supposed to be the joy and hope of nations and also the light of nations. The church is an instrument of peace." Prior community organizing drives, added the bishop, have laid the groundwork for broader evangelical work in the colonias. Plans are afoot for building two new churches and expanding a third in three of the newest communities in Do±a Ana County.
Recently, Bishop Ramirez announced his support for a Marshall Plan-like uplift for two other colonias, El Milagro and Vado-4. In conjunction with CDC and other organizations, the Las Cruces diocese is seeking $3 million in federal money to secure adequate housing, supply clean water, and provide water and sewer services. Part of the money, explained Bishop Ramirez, could be set aside in a revolving loan fund, so money returned by previous borrowers could be used by others with similar needs.
The New Mexico bishop credited the work of CDC and colonia dwellers with helping erode a common stereotype of colonias as rural slums hugging the desert's edge. "We need a lot of help and attention of the lawmakers and business people," he said. "I've dreamed the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches will come together in this."
KENT PATERSON is an Albuquerque-based free-lance journalist and public radio producer. For more information, contact the Colonias Development Council, 1485 North Main St., Las Cruces, NM 88001; (505) 647-2744.