Under direction of Dr. Joe Heyman, Chair of Anthropology & Sociology, UTEP

By Sharon Eby Cornet – July 19, 2007


PART I: Reflective Report on Applied Anthropology Experience

PART II: Applied Anthropology Research Report: Canutillo Water Project






Reflective Report on Applied Anthropology Experience


            The UTEP internship class I had been planning to take was supposed to begin in the summer of 2007, although I began my research and “planting seeds” throughout the spring semester.  My semester-long practicum (Praxis (see UTEP) work at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project/VAWA (Violence Against Women Act (see TCRP)) had also introduced me to human rights issues, which is something I was highly interested in, especially in terms of an applied anthropological approach. 

I looked through the entire Praxis list of organizations, several miscellaneous UTEP sources, as well as other online sources.  The organization I found most interesting was the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) due to their focus on social change (IAF 2007).  The particular sentence that really grabbed me, however, was the one located in the “Why” section, which mentions the three reasons why the IAF does what they do: “We do it because we are thankful… We do it because we are angry… We do it because we are hopeful.”  It is the “angry” part that convinced me specifically, and mostly because of the injustices that I’ve personally witnessed and experienced in the local criminal “justice” system, because I’ve been a victim of crime, because my family and others I’ve known have been mistreated by “the system” (structural violence), because we’ve lived in a colonia (unincorporated community on the US-Mexico border) for years and understand the emic view, and because I believe strongly in human rights and treating people with dignity and respect (rather than selective victimization).  Additionally, I am not one to just talk about issues, but like to get involved and help create the path to change that is sought by so many.  I desire to seek justice for others; so that the kinds of heinous acts I have witnessed/experienced would not continue in our society unchecked.  This was the lure of applied anthropology to me, because it is an in-the-field problem-solving approach.  It also goes well with my history of research, field research, interviews, writing field notes and typing up final notes, writing articles, webpages, and also community development (solar energy projects in colonias for clean water), all of which I had voluntarily participated in because I enjoyed it, years before I ever discovered that I had the heart of an anthropologist all along. 

Although this internship with the Industrial Areas Foundation Affiliate, Border Interfaith, deals specifically with the political arena (something entirely new for me), the IAF’s lure was enough to peak my interest and direct me into an entirely new field that I was intrigued by – public anthropology.  At least, that is the area I have wanted to obtain some experience in, and to organize and implement a research project that is comparative in nature – utilizing both qualitative and quantitative methods.  This is where discoveries are made, are scientifically sound (based on empirical evidence), and where theory is advanced.  If any headway is going to be made in the field of public anthropology (advocacy for the people, and with the public’s active participation), then it will be through this type of research.  Areas of policy research, such as evaluation, social impact assessment, needs assessment, and impact assessment, etc. are all intertwined in this process.  These are all areas dealt with by practicing anthropologists, or applied anthropologists (Van Willigen 2002: 3-6).

I’ve been focused for a year now on obtaining my certificate in applied anthropology, which is but a small part of the larger goal of earning my bachelor’s in Anthropology.  I have in mind the comparative research project (previously mentioned) as a very possible and likely study for my master’s thesis, once that time comes.  My goal between now and then is to continue my own research, as well as getting into this field of community activism from an anthropological perspective. 

I had not originally intended on an approach such as advocacy, since cultural relativism is a strong part of my training and personal stance, although I also sense merit in ethical relativism, and see it as a more balanced and harmonious method compared to the strict and unbending (and sometimes illogical and inhumane) “letter-of-the-law” approach that is currently in effect in the U.S.  Ethical relativism allows relevant and contextual lines to be drawn in the sand, whereas cultural relativism does not (Ferraro 2006: 16).  For instance, with a cultural relativistic view you can travel into the jungle, live among a local tribe that commonly kills their neighboring enemies, and then practices cannibalism on those victims, and still remain within the accepted boundaries of that society’s rules.  However, if you tried to do the same thing in just about any other country, you’d quickly be arrested and tried for murder, with an obvious conviction as the result.  The labels of “deviance” or “accepted behavior” of ones’ experiences mightily depend upon ones culture.  And yet, folks who live in U.S.-Mexico border colonias, because they can’t afford to buy a house in the city, or because they prefer to be out in the countryside, or any other personal reason, are labeled as “the other,” and are sometimes seen as almost criminal (or at least deviant) by definition, by those in political power.  These labels intend to bring average homeowners into the category of criminals because they are living in “illegal” subdivisions.  Semantics can harm.

Ethical relativism, although using the law to set the guidelines, also allows flexibility for more practical approaches to dealing with problems that need solving.  Issues in colonias may fit into this scene, although not so much from the etic perspective of the authorities who create policy and colonia laws, but with a counterbalancing emic view of the colonia residents themselves regarding their own living circumstances.  Without “checks and balances” from social justice and other efforts, we find that structural violence, and even selective victimization can perpetuate itself indefinitely.  One example of this is when the El Paso Sheriff’s Department created road blocks for “routine traffic stops as a pretext for turning over undocumented residents to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents” in colonias (Talavera, et. al. 2007: 4).  The people speaking out, and the efforts of the Texas Civil Rights Project, brought an end to that illegal and unethical human rights violation (see TCRP).

Media also plays a role in perpetuating this structural violence by depicting certain people or neighborhoods or colonias in a particularly bad light.  Some of this type of research has already been done in colonias, and how people living in them are considered as innovative homesteaders, independent home owners, and tax payers one day, and the next day they are considered “abnormal” poor people who “do not fully understand… hygiene,” or they have wells with sewage-contaminated water so that they “literally drink their own excrement” (Hill 2003: 141-148).  These folks are considered, by many city-dwelling folks, as marginalized “outcasts” who pose a health risk because they may contaminate the “rest of us” (an ethnocentric-group view) who live within the city limits and have conveniences such as city water, electricity, paved roads and curbs, etc.  Having lived in one of these “colonias” for many years, and seeing how my family’s own status went from a proud homeownership stance, to one of being nothing but “poor colonia residents” who wallow in their own filth… well, the structural violence that is perpetuated by the media (and others) is well known.

The IAF does not have an office in El Paso; however, its affiliates include EPISO (El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization) and their sister organization BI (Border Interfaith), the latter of which I had focused on for my internship.  Border Interfaith is a non-profit and non-partisan organization where different leaders from different religious organizations/ churches/ synagogues/ temples (individuals cannot join, although they can be connected by an institution like unions, schools, adult education programs, neighborhood associations, colonias organizations, university groups, etc. to become members) get together for a common goal – that of social justice.  BI has entered the political scene rather recently, and having met with their organizer, Kevin Courtney, I learned that the people in Canutillo (a colonia north of El Paso) had recently requested BI’s help to obtain city water for their community.   This is the area that I decided I would like to help work on during my internship.  This is where the applied anthropology skills I had learned at UTEP would be put to use.

            The very first meeting I attended with BI (on April 26, 2007) was a public Issues Forum where the Canutillo community representatives gave their plea for help, and requested aid from the city council candidates who replied to that plea, promising to help them if they were voted in (and one of them later reneging on that promise once in office).  Until I attended this first forum I had not realized the amount of preparation and involvement in the political process that BI had begun to develop, even though the IAF website had alluded to such a political involvement. 

With my feet wet, I went forward and attended the steering Committee Meeting and Evaluation on May 3, 2007.  I went in with an open mind, unsure of what to expect, and soaked it all in.  I got a feel for how the monthly steering meetings work and knew that the next time I would attend one would be during my actual internship.  I was sure that the next time I wouldn’t need to take down such copious notes, and would just need to make bullets of main points.  I was impressed with how Kevin Courtney (whom I will refer to simply as “Kevin” from this point on) had run the meeting, having people mingle (creating “couples” groups with people they either didn’t know (yet) or whom they didn’t know well) and discuss qualitative information with each other, to get to know each other better.  Then the meeting convened, points and topics were brought up, and then everyone present broke off into three groups to discuss the topics at hand in more depth.  Afterwards, all three groups got back together and the main points were placed on the board, showing similarities and differences, and things that needed to be done, were being worked on, or had already been done.  I thought at the time that this is a method that I would have closely followed and implemented had I been the organizer, because it is very effective and facilitates different perspectives and needs and other information in a quick and efficient way.   Applied anthropologists use these types of methods often, such as in collaborate research, and focus groups.  I didn’t know at the time of this meeting that before my internship would end I would be facilitating such a focus group under the RRA/PRA (Rapid Rural Appraisal/Participatory Rural Appraisal) model.

I walked away knowing one thing – I needed to do an organizational analysis of Border Interfaith so I could find out more about the formal and informal structure, so I could understand more about how they operate, what they focus on, and how they get things done.  Since I’m a functional person with management background, the need to know about plans, and how those plans are carried out, and in what timeframes, and by whom, etc. are all important features of the ultimate success of BI in the community it serves.  I began there, and then moved on into having one-on-one “relational meetings” with other Border Interfaith members, per Kevin’s suggestion.

Backing up briefly, I spent the last two months (April and May) preparing for this internship by officially joining a religious organization (UU – Unitarian Universalist church) that is both in line with my own stance – on a personal, social, political, and spiritual level.  I had considered joining this church years before, but somehow never did.  Now I had a good reason to go forward with that goal.  Aurolyn Luykx of UTEP’s anthropology department was a volunteer with BI through the UU church last year (2006), although she had put this endeavor aside due to other responsibilities; and consequently, the UU church never officially joined BI as a due-paying entity.  When I joined as a UU member, the church had no other members that were involved in BI.  Once joined, I had already developed a working relationship with BI’s organizer (Kevin), some BI members from other churches (or “community organizations”), and had attended several BI meetings.  The meetings included a public Issues Forum, a Steering Meeting for BI’s future involvement plans, and a meeting with BI members, community participants, and County Commissioner Dan Haggerty, which was held at Haggerty’s office at the County Courthouse building in downtown El Paso (although that meeting didn’t go as well as BI members had hoped).

With this background and foundation for BI involvement in place, I had also used that time to assess the situation and community situation (including some of its members) that I would be involved with.  This pre-involvement, as an initial assessment, allowed me to focus on the areas (domain of application) that were applicable specifically to the BI Canutillo water project (and the committee in BI that I was and still am a part of).  The multiple (6) roles I figured I would be participating in, either actively or by default, wholly or in part, are as follows.



POLICY RESEARCH – “Information upon which to base policy decisions” (Van Willigen 2002: 3) 

            When I began working with BI, I felt that ultimately, if a change in the difficult job of bringing water to colonias within the El Paso county area was to succeed, then not only did BI and the Canutillo community need to focus on obtaining water initially, but the process would need to be documented and used as a model for future communities/colonias to do the same.  The BI meetings with commissioners, senators, the Public Service Board, other officials from Austin and locally in El Paso, etc. are collectively an effort to broker between the Canutillo community and the entities, laws, and policies that govern IF and HOW this water project will succeed.  This ultimately deals with policy issues because of this relationship between “master” (the ruling/governing bodies) and “slave” (the people subject to these bodies).  Policy is written and upheld by the governing bodies; however, it is the power of the people who determine WHO is elected to these positions within the governing bodies, and is therefore a leverage point for the so-called “slave” position of the community to take charge in their own future.  The politicians are, after all, working for the people, not the other way around.

            Voting obviously isn’t enough, however, and the community members who desire water in return for their paid taxes know they must join hands and go public with their efforts, and put political pressure on the very entities that can help them obtain their goal.  Policy changes should be an ultimate goal of the Canutillo community, although, it is not something that appears to be instilled within the minds of the community (as a whole) yet… their real “goal” is to obtain city water lines directly to their homes instead of relying on professional or home-dug wells, and hauling water in containers to their homes for household use, and buying potable water for daily cooking and drinking needs.  

            The bigger picture, if this water project is to succeed, will have to be not in only influencing the governing bodies (those “in power”) who can give the final stamp of approval for bringing water to Canutillo, but it will first have to result in a change in the minds and goals of those very governing bodies who have that power to make such a change for the people.  It has to be a problem that they first recognize, and then come to care about (since obvious indifference is present in some of our politicians), and then become willing to make changes to the policies and system that are presently in place.  These are the political-level changes that I witnessed BI’s influence bring together throughout this process; if not in policy, then at least in how those in authority can come together to solve a problem for the community(ies) they serve.


Kevin Courtney teaching the “Power Analysis” training/meeting at St. Jude church


            The present situation is that which is typical of border colonias – where policy is set against urban sprawl and poverty; where policy designates colonia dwellers as a product of their own “problems” (therefore blaming the poverty on the poor (Goode 2002: 279)), and becomes a form of self-justification for structural violence against these colonias and the people who live in them, as well as serving as a form of selective victimization against people who desire to improve their living circumstances.  The colonia laws are based on policies that make such colonias “illegal” and turn the citizens (undocumented or not, or whether they are Mexican/Hispanic, or non-Hispanic) into inhabitants who are involved in illegal practices by merely living there, while at the same time disallowing an ‘out’ for colonia dwellers by refusing them the very rights of every other city-dwelling resident, such as clean water, obtaining and using electricity provided by the local electric company, and purchasing lands that will serve as a basis on which to build and dwell in their own homes.  The laws were intended to go after developers (Ward 1999:101), but the results have hit the residents even harder due to the slander involved.  It is the American Dream gone sour.  The very foundation of how this country was formed, indeed, how every single township and urban city (not just in this nation either) has developed and built up… by building out.  Extending its boundaries.  Movement.  Sprawl, and specifically immigration, are societal practices that have permeated societies throughout the history of human beings and civilization on this planet (Nunez-Mchiri; pers. com., 2007), lest we forget how the Unites States came to be in the first place.  But for the last 20+ years this practice has become illegal, but only if you live within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.  We must ask ourselves, when does targeting people equate to helping them?  Is it not like doling out punishment instead of compassion?

            Homeownership is a huge part of the ‘American dream’ and is continually counted as “substandard” and as a negative quality for any colonia resident, despite their best efforts to survive and live comfortably.  These methods of negative characterization of colonias and their residents are the basis of the structural violence and directed and selective victimization that I just mentioned.  The politically-based negative stereotypic narratives produced in the media, via prejudiced-based policy changes, and which affects all city dwellers and those who are “above” the “low standards” of colonia dwellers, account for the continuance of the growing division within the already-established hierarchy of the social classes.   Because policy has been changed since the late 1980’s (and especially the 1995 colonia laws) to promote this victimizing of colonia dwellers, it is policy that ultimately needs to be changed to help, rather than hurt, these same people. 

            When I began this internship with Border Interfaith, I didn’t see my mere 2-month involvement with BI as an adequate amount of time to assess for and correct such policies that are already in existence, but I did – and still do – see this BI involvement as an effort to work towards that goal, even if in part.  This brings me to:

IMPACT ASSESSMENT “a specialized policy research role… Involves the prediction of the effects of a project, program, or policy” (Van Willigen 2002: 4). 

SOCIAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT is often used to describe this kind of activity (Van Willigen 2002: 175).

            Much work has been done on the subject of colonias and public policy (Ward).  Impact assessments have been part of this “to provide projections about future effects which inform all the parties involved in the project, including planners, designers, political leaders, and the public” (Van Willigen 2002: 176).  My goal, from the beginning of this initiative, was to be involved in public anthropology (Davis and Mathews, 1979: 37), which involves all the before said entities.  Copies of this report were planned into my specific research project (as a UTEP student) to be given to all stakeholders involved.  Community meetings in Canutillo, regarding the water situation there, possible contaminated wells (to which Public Service Board (PSB) providing well water tests were to determine any such/possible contamination), etc. were attended not only by those in the community, but also by BI members, volunteers, and officials such as Sal Payan from the Congressman’s office, Richard Hernandez from the Texas State Attorney General’s Office, Carlos Rubio from the PSB, and others from the county, etc.  All of these entities/people are stakeholders in this endeavor to bring city water to the Schuman Estates and Brothers Road area of Canutillo.  Each were scheduled to receive a copy of this report, as well as the link to my website at where it will be available online for anyone else (including the public) to view.  A report that is supposed to come out (not yet as of this writing) soon in the El Paso Times will also bring this information available to the public.

            The restraints produced by current policy, against the continuing formation of colonias, has had an impact on the residents in Canutillo.  Via ethnographic research (in-depth interviews), and a Focus Group at a community meeting showed that many people, who once had good well water (see Part II of this Report for details), found that over time it has produced smells and discoloration that affects their appliances, clothes, and other daily-use items.  The water is considered “undrinkable” and “tastes bad” according to residents.  The wells are also shallow, typically around 150’ in depth, because the water table is so high.  However, people there have been afraid to obtain any water tests verifying any possible groundwater contamination due to how “the system” is set up.  Colonia policies and other health laws keep these folks in fear of having their wells shut down so that they would be in an even worse living situation.  Others, due to these laws, do not even have electricity, let alone water (since you need electricity for water pumping).  It begs the question… How is this helping colonia dwellers?   Policy promoting the opposite effect would be to allow water and electricity and other services into colonias to rectify the situation directly, although the policymakers also realize that there is a distinct lack of funds to do so.  In fact, the view of colonias based on current policy is that to provide such services to colonias would be to proliferate the “problem” of colonias at full force. 

            This kind of thinking is not unsimilar to the analogy of “providing welfare (handouts) to the poor would not only be a drain on our tax dollars, but it would not solve the ‘problem’ of poverty.”  But think… how would the impact of bringing clean water to colonias affect their residents?  What do the residents think about this?  How does the impact of restricting (rather denying) water and other services to colonias, and then not providing a financial/funding solution to the existing situation (or policy-caused situation) affect the standard of living to those who have no choice but to exist in these conditions?  These are not just some rogue group of “deviants,” these are people, with children and extended family members we are taking about.  These are worthwhile human beings with as much a right to clean water and healthy living conditions as anyone else.  When it comes to constitutional rights, the policy-drawn lines or land ownership boundaries that exist are arbitrary and are often used as justification for violating basic human rights.   Environmental problems associated with groundwater contamination are not a new phenomenon (Fitchen 1988: 135), and the impact of a healthy environment, and clean water, is essential to life, and quality of life.  Social justice endeavors concerning the “right to a healthy environment is a basic human right.” (Johnston 1994: 223).  This is the goal of an impact assessment, to address these issues.

CULTURE BROKER – “Brokers serve as links between programs and ethnic communities” (Van Willigen 2002: 5).   

            The goal of BI, as a collective force of different denominational churches and temples, is to serve as an advocate for social justice in the local community.  To act as a broker between those in authority (who make changes), and those in the communities who are affected by the changes (or lack of), is really where the spiritually based social action is at for BI.  It was important to me as I began this project that people fully realize the ethical nature of how humankind should be treated as a higher ideal, rather than victimized and attacked, based solely on the geographic area (i.e. a “colonia”) where they live.  The peoples’ voices represent the emic (insider’s) view, and the impact of having clean water (or not having it) should be heard, and the residents of Canutillo feel that it is the authorities who can help bring them water who need to listen to their plea.  My job, as a BI member, and as a church member, as a UTEP student doing research on this project, and as a concerned individual, is to wear the hat of cultural broker along with other BI members during this (more political than not) process.  The needs of the community must be met.


Printed invitation for BI participation - from the July UU church Newsletter

BI_UUnewsletter.jpg (17738 bytes)


NEEDS ASSESSMENT “a specialized policy research role… Involves the collection of data on public program needs in anticipation of social, health, economic, and education program design” (Van Willigen 2002: 4). 

            Border Interfaith is involved in many types of social justice endeavors, including supporting a living wage (and Project ARRIBA), Westway flooding problems, and other examples.  Those in the community who have a need will often approach BI to ask for their help.  The need in this particular project, which I have participated in, is clean water.  The well water of the Canutillo residents, who live in the Schuman Estates, Brothers Road, and other areas have complained about their well water, and/or desire city water for practical and health purposes.  Many of the residents (whom I will respect the privacy of by keeping their names confidential) have come forward and discussed their issues, both privately and publicly.  It is their needs that are important here.


PLANNER – “Participation in the design of future programs, projects, and policies” and

ADVOCATE – “Acting in support of community groups and individuals” (Van Willigen 2002: 4-5). 

            By default, my role as a participant in the Canutillo water project involves that of a Planner, as well as an Advocate.  Although my role in planning is that of co-facilitator (through BI), it is only authenticated by the true facilitators of this project – the community members themselves.   Border Interfaith members don’t plan FOR the community, but WITH them.  It is the community leaders who are trained and who attend BI meetings with politicians and other officials to promote and advocate for their own purposes. 



            In some ways my role in applied anthropology left me hanging on the side for a while, unsure of which direction to take, since the goals of the community must be directed by that community (with BI’s assistance and training).  At first I focused on getting to know the people in the community, within BI, as well as folks at the PSB, EPISO, and the county.  All of these meetings were “relational meetings” which was done on a one-on-one basis.  In-depth interviews with Canutillo residents were also done at this time.  Once I had a feel for where people were at in their understandings, needs, feelings, opinions, and views, I established the research protocols for further ethnographic studies – in the form of surveys that would be based on the data obtained from the in-depth interviews.  This information, which would have been coded and formed into quantitative surveys that could be given to many residents, would contain community-relevant questions.  However, soon it became clear to me, thanks to Kevin informing me, that the “surveys” I planned on implementing (which is often a part of ethnographic research, and not just allocated as a sociological research method) was something that the IAF does not participate in.  With that, I remained flexible and just altered my research plan.  I was beyond the half-way point of my very compact summer internship by this time.  I realized that I would need to obtain a lot of qualitative information quickly, with the few weeks I had left.  This is when I turned to RRA/PRA.


Facing east on La Union street in Canutillo

(Rio Grande bridge near Schuman-Brothers area)


            Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) techniques typically are implemented to collect data for the researcher, in this case, for my final report.  Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) is implemented to collect data by and for the community, with a facilitator to guide it along.  I decided to combine the two very similar and related methods.  After doing ethnographic research in the Canutillo community, and obtaining qualitative data (this was in-field research), I implemented the RRA/PRA (Rapid Rural Appraisal/Participatory Rural Appraisal) methods of a focus group.  I collected enough data to represent approximately 22% of the residents in the Schuman-Brothers area (off of La Union Street) in Canutillo.  This information was then coded and analyzed, producing quantitative results in the form of charts and graphs.  This information will be available in Part II of this study and covers the needs of the community as related by the community, rather than by officials who come in and “tell” them what they “need.”  This emic (insider’s) view is a fundamental element of applied anthropological research, and avoids the etic (outsider’s) views that can contain bias, prejudice, and misunderstandings.   Who better to explain the needs of the community than the community itself?  And as my former applied anthropology professor, Dr. G. Gina Nunez-Mchiri, has stated so often… 

            Community development, without the ‘community,’ is not community development at all.”

            A fellow (graduate) student, Jennifer Matthews, and I had both been in one of Dr. Nunez’s anthropology classes together.  Jennifer aided me on this project with the final translation (after the main part of the translation was done by a gentleman (and BI member/community leader) from Canutillo).  She also called several of the people who had filled out their forms (at the focus group) in Spanish to follow up with some of the information, and to probe for more details.  If it were not for Jennifer’s help I would not have been able to make my deadlines for the last Canutillo community meeting (which she attended), and also this report.  I am indebted to her for her help.  I am also thankful for those who translated from Spanish to English, and vice-versa, at the community meetings.

            One of the next steps for the community of Canutillo is to begin the process of social mapping, which involves drawing a map at the meeting(s) to show where all the community members live, and what their stance or take is on the issues at hand.  For instance, questions like these need to be asked… Where on this map do you live (and then draw it on the map)?  Who has already gotten their certificate of compliance for their septic tanks?  Who has only had their septic tanks registered (or not)?  Who has had (a) water test(s) done by the PSB?  What were the results of that/those tests?  What areas surrounding the Schuman-Brothers area are other community members from?  Do they need water, and/or electricity too?  What areas need natural gas and sewage?  The list can go on.  

            Social mapping is the next step on the PRA agenda that is needed in Canutillo, so that all of the residents have equal knowledge and can “see” where the boundaries of the community lie (the ones that are involved in this particular project), and what is needed, and what is already done, and what is presently being worked on.  This focus and effort helps to being solidarity to those attending the community meetings, and aids in understanding so that there are far less misunderstandings.  This, ultimately, gives strength and solidarity to the group, and helps them obtain their goal that much faster.

            As things continue, I’m sure that plans will grow, be altered, and that fresh insights will be gleaned based on new information or because of the help of other community members getting more actively involved.  Already there is a voiced request, by the community leaders, for at least 1-2 people from each street to agree to be the “leader” for that street, so that communication between all streets in the area/subdivision can be streamlined.   This aids information to be disseminated in to the community, and also aids in retrieving information from the community.  The learning experience of both the community members/leaders, and myself alongside them has been fabulous so far, and ever-growing.  As I continue to teach PRA methodologies, etc. to the residents of Canutillo there is sure to be a continuing increase in the learning curve for all of us; and my part in this project has only begun.


~ end of Part I


Special thanks to Kevin Courtney (Border Interfaith Organizer) and Dr. Joe Heyman (UTEP Chair for Sociology and Anthropology) for their help during this project and internship, as well as those in Border Interfaith, Canutillo, volunteers, church members, and the city, county, state, and federal level officials who have aided in promoting and teaching and otherwise helping in this endeavor to get city water to Canutillo… you know who you are.



Border Interfaith. 2007. Website. (accessed May 5, 2007)

Davis, Shelton H.; and Mathews, Robert O. 1979. Public Interest Anthropology: Beyond the Bureaucratic Ethos. In: Higgins, Patricia J.; and Paredes, J. Anthony. (Eds.), Classics of Practicing Anthropology 1978-1998. United States. (Publisher and date not listed)

EPISO/El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization. 2007. IAF Affiliates. (accessed February 12, 2007)

Ferraro, Gary. 2006. Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective, Sixth Edition. United States: Thomson Wadsworth, a part of The Thomson Corporation.

Fitchen, Janet M. 1988. Anthropology and Environmental Problems in the U.S.: The Case of Groundwater Contamination. In: Higgins, Patricia J.; and Paredes, J. Anthony. (Eds.), Classics of Practicing Anthropology 1978-1998. United States. (Publisher and date not listed)

Goode, Judith.  2002. How Urban Ethnography Counters Myths about the Poor. In: Gmelch, George; and Zenner, Walter P. 2002. Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, 4th Edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Hill, Sarah. 2003. Ethnography at the Border, Chpt. 6: Metaphoric Enrichment and Material Poverty: The Making of Colonias. In: Vila, Pablo, et al. 2003. Cultural Studies of the Americas, Volume 13. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Industrial Areas Foundation. 2007. Industrial Areas Foundation: About. (accessed February 12, 2007)

Johnston, Barbara R. 1994. Human Rights and the Environment. In: Higgins, Patricia J.; and Paredes, J. Anthony. (Eds.), Classics of Practicing Anthropology 1978-1998. United States. (Publisher and date not listed)

Talavera, Victor, et. al. 2007. Deportation in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Anticipation, Experience, and Memory, Version 1.19.07. El Paso, Texas: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Texas at El Paso.

TCRP/Texas Civil Rights Project. 2007. About Us. Texas Civil Rights Project.  (accessed Jan. 23, 2007)

UTEP/University of Texas at El Paso. 2007. Praxis. (accessed Jan. 23, 2007)

Van Willigen, John. 2002. Applied Anthropology: An Introduction. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Ward, Peter M. 1999. Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by Stealth. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.




 Part II:

Applied Anthropology Research Report: Canutillo Water Project

By Sharon Eby Cornet – Border Interfaith Internship – UTEP Anthropology Student

            This report is the culmination of about 3 months of research, with me being at first as a passive participant who initially joined Border Interfaith (BI) – as a member of the Unitarian Universalist church – and then who, as a BI member who concurrently wore the UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso) research student “hat,” took an active role in what is loosely referred to as the “Canutillo Water Project,” also known as the “Schuman-Brothers” project.  This project is located in the area of Canutillo, Texas, which is north of El Paso, and west off of Transmountain Road.  The area is outside the El Paso city limits, and is not an incorporated community, is a self-help housing area, without infrastructure, and so is therefore considered a border “colonia.”  Special rules and policies apply when dealing in colonia areas, and when city water (or other services such as sewer, electricity, and natural gas) is/are requested by the residents, these areas fall outside the jurisdiction of both the city and the county in regards to those specific needs.

            As with the Westway flooding problem from the heavy rains last summer (2006) there was no particular entity in the El Paso area to deal with it, in either prevention or post-flooding solutions.  Thanks to BI’s efforts to push for help with the flooding problems in Westway, a bill was created and finally passed on June 19th, 2007 giving the PSB (Public Service Board) the ETJ (Extra Territorial Jurisdiction – which is 5 miles out of the city limits, and includes Canutillo) for the creation of a new flood district.  There is hope that this is in time for prevention of any possible future flooding (a very real fear of Westway residents when entering the monsoon season). 

            Westway also once had its own water system, but in 1988 it broke down, and the funds were available for the city to come in and provide new wells for the area (a temporary solution was available for 3 years while this was implemented).  Westway is further north of Canutillo, and it is the EPWU (El Paso Water Utilities) who now provides water to Westway residents.  The county has never solely been involved in bringing water to those who live outside of the city, as they are “not in the water business” according to county authorities.  An ORCA (Office of Rural Community Affairs) grant was given to the Village of Vinton (near Westway) to obtain city water to two streets there.  Another project consists of the effort to get water to Nuway/Mayfair (also on the west side of the Franklin Mountains), which has been in-process for the last couple of years. 


Vinton Village received water via a grant from ORCA

VintonWater.jpg (18406 bytes)


            At the same time all of this is occurring, via special grants (ranging from the federal level (USDA – U.S. Department of Agriculture) to the state level, and the local level of county, city, and sometimes other funds from other sources) were applied for and won, the city is still not technically responsible for any areas outside of the city limits.  The EPWU (overseen by the PSB) only have a certain amount of funds that are allocated to specific projects, which all has to be placed on an agenda and approved by the PSB from year to year.  Much of their help actually consists of planning and engineering design for city water lines to be run in the areas of specific projects/programs.  This assures the EPWU that when water lines are installed, that they are done according to the EPWU standards.  However, with all of these grants (and/or loans) and projects being received and implemented, herein lies the problem of obtaining city water in Canutillo.  As Carlos Rubio of the PSB has said in one of the Border Interfaith meetings that was held at the EPISO (El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization) office, “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”  Canutillo residents must unite in a common goal and effort, and they must persevere through what may be months, or more likely years, before all the necessary steps of obtaining water can come to fruition.  Canutillo residents tried to unite once back in 2002, according to one of the Canutillo leaders (name withheld), but he said there were only 5 people in the entire community who got involved, so consequently, they missed out on the grant that was available then.  This time, it is a different story.  Canutillo resident leaders have asked Border Interfaith for their help and now they are attending meetings with political figures at the Federal, State, County, and City levels, and are working directly in their community to inform them of changes, updates, and requirements, etc.   As long as they continue and don’t give up, it is hoped that they will be some of the few recipients to receive city water in the near future.

            It is important to note that there is a part of Canutillo that has city water, and it is in the Doniphan Drive area, which parallels Interstate-10.  Areas outside of this general area do not have EPWU-provided city water.  Because the water table is very high (it is near the Rio Grande river), and the land elevation is so low (in the valley between the Franklin Mountains and the plateau west of there), most people without city water have private wells on their properties.  After engaging in some in-depth interviewing of residents, as part of my ethnographic research methods, I found out that a common depth for wells are between 100 to 175 feet deep.  This shallow depth creates the possibility of contamination by a host of possible sources such as chemicals, algae, sewage seep, rust, heavy metals, arsenic, bacteria, or microorganisms, etc.   To find out what kind of problems might exist I asked the residents to define any concerns in their own terms.  Discovering the needs of the community, by asking them personally about it, is what community development is all about.  If community development is being implemented by anyone but the community (or at least without their direct involvement and input), then it is not truly “community development” at all (Nunez; pers. com. 2007).  I have heard similar complaints from locals about the El Paso “Downtown Development” project since the plans did not include their input.

            Another method utilized in this study is RRA (Rapid Rural Appraisal) including its sister-method, PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal).  The former is information gathering by a researcher for the purpose of writing a report, and the latter is information gathering done by those involved in the community for their own research/project purposes.  The RRA focus group, which I implemented in the 3rd community meeting at the St. Patrick’s hall in Canutillo, was not only to obtain information for this report, but it was also combined with PRA intention to engage the community directly in the information gathering process.  Instead of this information just being useful to me, the ultimate purpose was to create a report that could be utilized by the community, for the community, in their grant-seeking endeavors to obtain clean water. 

            One of the early complaints of multiple Canutillo residents was that the three large water storage tanks were located by the Canutillo school, and yet did not provide water to the locals who were within eye-shot of this water source.  I took tours of the area with two separate local/BI leaders and soon learned where the boundaries stood in regard to where water services came into the subdivision, and where they ended, including the land owned by EPWU.  There is a canal that runs parallel to the Rio Grande, west of Bosque road.  The areas on both sides of this canal, and just north of La Union road are without water, and although the residents must pay taxes (approximately $1,300/yr more or less, depending on the household) many do not have their irrigation rights honored, let alone services outside of electricity.  More important, however, according to residents, is that the Ponderosa/Western Village area at Bosque, and northwest of Bosque, has not only water, but also natural gas (they have only septics, however, instead of sewage).  Then it ends right at Brothers Road.  People on Brothers Road are without all of those services.  One of the reasons this type of thing occurs, according to the PSB, is due to available grants (possible sources including the USDA, the TWDB (Texas Water Development Board), BECC (Border Environmental Cooperation Commission), and ORCA), and allocation of those funds, plus the scope and cost of the particular project they have to work on.  In cases where there is not enough funding to complete water lines to an entire area in need, the residents sometimes feel bitterness or regret that they were “left out” from getting water (and other services at the same time).


Schuman-Brothers Area of Canutillo

 SchumanBrothers.jpg (58161 bytes)



Three EPWU storage water tanks at Bosque road

Canutillo_3Tanks_BosqueRd.jpg (57373 bytes)

These storage tanks bring “supply” water lines to EPWU, but are not part

of the “distribution” lines that go to business, subdivisions, and other areas


            At a combined Border Interfaith/EPISO meeting at the PSB conference room, with representatives from the Federal to the local levels, including members from BECC, etc., the initial planning for the Canutillo water project began taking preliminary form.   A rough project scope and cost sheet was provided (to the tune of approximately $800,000) by Carlos Rubio of the PSB, and a map showing the existing plans for water lines to be brought by Schuman (not into Schuman) was discussed.  Since the original BECC study (finalized in August 2003) was done for that area to receive water, a proposal was suggested to simply expand the Schuman area and extend the lines into the subdivision and on into the Brothers Road section. 

            Also, it was decided that since water tests in Canutillo needed to include testing for E-coli, the PSB would do it instead of the county; and rather than giving water test kits to residents, the PSB’s own personnel would go into the community and obtain controlled samples to prevent possible contamination.  The results would help verify if the water from the wells were contaminated.  If these tests were to come out positive on contamination there would likely be emergency funds available to push along the water project more quickly.  These kind of “round table” efforts, arranged by Border Interfaith, and EPISO members, are really the ‘guts’ of why and how social justice and social change occur in powerful ways.  At our evaluation meeting (after this PSB meeting) the BI/EPISO members who had been present discussed the fact that none of these entities would have gotten together to “put their heads together” and bring this project this far without BI and EPISO (as IAF Affiliate organizations) pushing for it. 

            One of the main reasons the Canutillo residents’ desire for water is so strong is because of the poor quality of the water.  One resident, who is also a BI member, said that in 1986/87 she was told by someone she knew that her water was the “best water” that they had ever tasted.   Her water was still “good” 5 years ago, but now the water smells, and it tastes bad.  Additionally, the color of the water in the area varies from yellow, to brown, to green.  Another neighbor in the Schuman area said she knew of a neighbor whose well tested positive for coliform bacteria, perhaps, she said, from seepage or contamination from the septic tank.  A full acre is required for a well and a septic tank to be located on the same property, but the Schuman Estates have only acre lots, so contamination is possible.  Others in the community don’t know where the contamination is coming from, and suggest chemical sources, etc.  A gentleman at the Brother’s road area indicated that his water was sometimes green with algae, and that other times it is so yellow that it stains his bathroom sink, and the shower, the toilet, the washing machine, and anything else it touches, so that they have to clean the surfaces with chemicals (CLR – a chemical that takes away rust color).  So much of this chemical is going into the septic tank, and then out into the leach field, that he is unsure of whether this type of thing might be a source for possible contamination of the wells, especially if other people are having to use chemical products too.  Clothes don’t last, either, according to many residents, and the “whites” turn to “browns” in short time, despite the laundry detergents.

            Carlos Rubio (with the PSB), who has been involved in EPISO in the past, spoke up at one of the BI meetings and said that the residents he’s spoken with say that the water smells, tastes bad, and that the “serious impact is that it affects the health unless they go and buy bottled water.”  This is not just a water issue, but also a health issue, and an environmental issue.  Another BI member from Canutillo mentioned that people have complained of skin problems, stomach problems, and that people are afraid their well will be shut down if they complain, so they get anti-diarrhea and other medications in Juarez.  One person said they had bleeding gums that only quit when not using the well water anymore.  People having to buy drinking water cannot always afford it.  Several of the people I interviewed claimed to pay about $2/day for bottled water, in 5-gallon jugs.  This is equal to approximately $720/yr, which is a lot of money for any low-income households who may only bring in $7,500 or so in income annually (that’s 10% of their income).  One man was concerned that having city water might be expensive, so he wondered if people could keep their wells just for things like watering their yard, so that the city water could go into the house for cooking and drinking, etc.

            There are other troubles as well, including problems with water pressure, and algae building up in the water lines, which lowers volume and pressure.  Sometimes the water simply stops running and then is able to “recover” several hours later.  Other residents claim that their pumps freeze in the winter, or that the water is so hard, and the corrosion and minerals affect the pumps so that they break down and need fixing or replacing – this costs about $500 to replace (each time).  One person spends about $500 annually (minimum) on his pump and for maintenance/upkeep.  Air conditioners (swamp coolers/evaporative coolers) are another problem that was commonly addressed.  The pads get so thick with calcium/minerals from the hard water that they have to be replaced every 2-3 months instead of once per year.  Also, the coolers themselves break down and last only 2-4 yrs instead of the 7-8 years they are supposed to.   Water filters only last about 1 week also, so are useless and too expensive to keep replacing.  Filters on the refrigerator also don’t work.  Sand, black particles, rust, algae, and other particulates are visible in the water.

            Water-related issues are not the only problem in Canutillo.  The septic tanks sometimes back up, and one man insisted that if it rains hard all of the septic tanks in his entire neighborhood overflow.   Costs for cleaning out/pumping out the septic tanks can get expensive when it has to be done every single year, according to several residents.  One lady said that if she does not put too much water down into the septic tank that it “lasts longer” and she now only spends $85 every three years to have it cleaned out.  In order to qualify for getting city water the county is requiring all residents (a mandatory requirement) to have their certificate of compliance for their septic tank.  In order to get the certificate one must have the septic tank registered.  Septic tanks that are too old (pre-1979) will not be able to obtain the necessary paperwork and will likely have to be replaced.  Many of the old septic tanks or cesspools are not in good working order anyway, and they back up or overflow if too much water is put into them.  I asked the people at the focus group/meeting if having city water would cause them to use more water, or less water, and it was nearly unanimous that they would use less water, since they would have a water bill to pay, whereas right now it only costs them the electricity to run the pump.  Propane was another issue for some of the people present at the focus group, as well as for folks I interviewed.  One man (a BI member) said that he spends too much on propane in the winter, and that natural gas would be far cheaper.  He said that from Nov. 16th of 2006, until February 23rd of 2007, he spent $1,300 to heat his house.  Another lady complained of the same thing, mentioning an even higher propane bill than that.  One man said that he spends $260/mo. for propane in the winter, and that “you get really behind… or the kids can get up cold.”

            I compiled the many details from the personal narratives of the Canutillo residents (mostly from the Schuman-Brothers area), which were taken from both in-depth interviews as well as the focus group forms that attendees filled out.  This information included notes that were taken by volunteers in the focus group activity itself, from which I drew similar details.  The alternate methods that I used to obtain this information proved worthwhile since a few people participated in more than one data-collection method (e.g. focus group forms or volunteers, or interviews) and new facts were drawn out via these different methods, adding to the quality of the study.  Some major themes stood out among the data.  All of the information was compiled and coded, and then quantified for the rest of this study and the final report.  The charts and graphs below tell their own story (which are really the stories of the residents themselves) about the situation in Canutillo.


Approximately 22% of the Schuman-Brothers neighborhood participated in this study

ChartRespondents.jpg (18170 bytes)


Well water is used for almost everything but drinking and cooking

ChartWellWater.jpg (15365 bytes)


Common descriptions of how the well water smells

ChartSmells.jpg (7962 bytes)


Descriptions of well water discoloration

ChartColors.jpg (7783 bytes)

The number of people represented in this study = 61

The average (mean) number of people per household = 4.1

The mode = 7

The average (mean) gallons of drinking water bought per month = 78.9

The mode (gallons) = 150


              The Knowledge Utilization Plan is the culmination of the graphs below, and their interpretations.  Please note that information requested from residents were in the form of open-ended questions, with occasional probing comments to pull out additional details.  All information gleaned from Canutillo residents was purely voluntary, and confidentiality of identity is assured in this report.  If direct questions would have been asked (such as “Do you have a well?”) the percentages shown below might have been higher.  Some people may have assumed, for instance, that it was expected that they already have a well, and so didn’t mention it and focused on other sources of water instead (such as hauling or buying water).  This theme may be true for any or all of the charts below, where answers to direct questions (as in a straightforward “survey”) may have produced more accurate or reliable results.  The difference, however, is that a standard surveying method may have missed some important details concerning septic tank problems, A/C and filter problems, propane costs, etc., so this is one of the strengths of obtaining qualitative data using ethnographic interviewing and focus groups.  The detail of the information (validity) increases, although the reliability (consistency via replication) decreases due to the open-ended quality of the uniquely obtained information (dependent on the stance and position or attitude (or memory) of the residents at the time of questioning).

The graphs below are based on actual answers from Canutillo colonia residents.  


GraphWaterSources.gif (6332 bytes)

 93% of residents must buy water for drinking/cooking.  City water is highly recommended.


GraphWaterWells.gif (8032 bytes)

Nearly half of all residents have continual problems with their wells, pumps, and plumbing.   Filters (for those few who use them) must be changed often due to sand, black particles, rust, algae, and other particles that are visible in the water.  Minerals/calcium/salts all contribute to this problem.  City water will relieve much of the costs for new pumps, repairs, and filtration.


GraphHealth.gif (7554 bytes)

Despite the 93% of residents who buy water for cooking and drinking, almost of residents have health concerns related to the well water, with of them having stomach pains they associate with it.  40% of the people have worries about the water.  Inquiries should be made to local clinics, and programs/help should be made available for those in need of health care.


GraphWaterQuality.gif (10481 bytes)

Water quality is poor, with the highest (60-73%) problems being in the color of their well water, the smell, salt/mineral content, and calcium deposits.  20% of the people say the water tastes bad (most do not even drink it), with 27% claiming the water smells like rotten eggs or sulphur, and 33% uses bleach regularly to take baths, do dishes, or laundry, etc.  Comprehensive water tests are recommended, including for bacteria (coliform, and specifically E-coli) and micro-organisms.


GraphWaterEffects.gif (9233 bytes)

Water heater problems (67%) and staining of baths & clothes (40% ea.) are high.  Pools used are above ground and children’s pools (20%) and washing machine & toilet problems (20% ea.).  City water is needed.


GraphFinancial.gif (8418 bytes)

93% of residents feel that having city water would be beneficial, and about half of them feel that a fee added to the bill is OK.  of residents cannot afford much (low income status).

NOTE: The “Water will be beneficial” bar is the RESPONSE RATE average for the community.


GraphAC.gif (7150 bytes)

Nearly half of the Canutillo residents offered their complaints on how the water ruins their evaporative coolers, how the pads don’t last, and how $800-$900/unit coolers must be replaced every 2-4 years.  This is a severe financial burden on low-income residents.  Grants for help on these costs are recommended until city water can be brought to this colonia.


GraphSeptics.gif (6975 bytes)

About 27% of residents have problems with their septic tanks, although a greater percentage (33%) have encountered problems with their septic tank approvals, paperwork (past or present), and other issues surrounding their septic tanks.  Regulations and policy for septic registration and obtaining certificates of compliance need to be updated to accommodate Canutillo residents (especially in EDA’s (Economically Depressed Areas), or grants to help replace old septic tanks are needed.


GraphPropaneTrash.gif (5034 bytes)

Nearly half of Canutillo residents complain of propane costs being too high, especially in winter.  Some children and elderly suffer the cold mornings and/or nights.  Getting natural gas is recommended for this area, although a temporary solution could include special funds for help with utilities in EDA’s.


~ end of report ~





Back to Articles Page:



Update on BECC Study Application

The cover letter for the BECC Study (Border Environmental Cooperation Commission) is being drawn up by the county and will accompany the Resolution and Scope of work for the BECC application.  Once processed and accepted a $50K study will take 2 1/2 - 3 mos. to implement.  This study is supposed to expand on the previous BECC study for the Schuman Estates area of Canutillo, to include Schuman Rd itself, Kayla Rd, Brother's Rd, and others in the localized area.  The idea is to create a plan for the consultant who will later work on the design for the water lines to be installed.  In the meantime, USDA grants/monies will be requested to help aid in the eventual water project, to bring it to completion.  Total time from the application to BECC, to getting water lines installed into the Schuman-Brothers area is 1 1/2 - 2 yrs. due to the many steps and approvals from different governmental entities throughout this process.


Update on Water Tests August 7, 2007

Texas A&M completed the testing of 48 (a later # was said to be 52 tests total) sites in the Schuman-Brothers area of Canutillo, and 9 of these tests were positive for fecal coliform bacteria.

The 5 sites (multiple quality-controlled tests at each site) tested by the county of El Paso came out negative.



Message from Border Interfaith's organizer Kevin Courtney on July 26, 2007

The County Commissioners' hearing on a resolution to ask the BECC
(Border Environmental Cooperation Commission) to fund a preliminary study to
bring water to the Shumann Estates/Brothers Road area of Canutillo has been postponed
until Monday, August 6th, at 9 AM at the Courthouse. This will be BI's first official
step towards helping families in Canutillo obtain potable water. You may recall
that this issue first surfacedlast October during the Candidates Forum evaluation. Canutillo residents
came to BI to ask for the organizations' help in obtaining water. Dozens of research meetings, house
meetings and one-on-ones have been done. Now, 9 months later, well water samples are being analyzed
and funding is being arranged.

I especially want to recognize the 60+ involved residents themselves -
especially Suky Perez, Luis Cisneros and Andres Villalba, and the BI team of Alicia Franco, Ceci Garcia, Marcelino
Delgado, Sharon Cornet - our UU/UTEP Intern, Jesus Luna, Martha Parton, Doraliz Llamas, and Fr. Pablo Matta. Also,
we've had good cooperation so far from Cong. Reyes' office, the County, the PSB, the Sec. of State's office, the
Dept. of Agriculture's Rural Dev't Office, the Texas Water Developmentd Board, and the Juarez-based BECC. However,
this has been made possible by the political clout Border Interfaith has amassed. We're a long way from
turning on the faucets and probably have battles ahead, but this is already a significant accomplishment for the
community, our leaders and Border Interfaith.