COLONIA LIFE

By Sharon Cornet, February 27, 2008

 

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil...
Isaiah 5:20

 

This is how liberty dies -- with thunderous applause.
Padme Amidala in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The small "tale" below is fictional, however, the longer "tale" that follows is a parody of the first tale, but is absolutely true...


TALE #1 (FICTIONAL):

A tale is told about a small town that had historically been "dry," but then a local businessman decided to build a tavern.

A group of Christians from a local church were concerned and planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene.

It just so happened that shortly thereafter lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.

The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were certainly not responsible.

The presiding judge, a man wiser than most, after his initial review of the case, stated that "no matter how this case comes out, one thing is obvious. When asked what that was, the judge said "that it is evident that the tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not."

Author Unknown


LEGEND FOR THE TALE BELOW:
local businessman = developers
build a tavern = sell land
group of Christians = legislators
all-night prayer meeting = planned a many-years-long series of colonia laws
bar = colonia residents/dwellers
owner of the bar = developers that owned the deeds to the land (until paid off - due to CFD)
church = state
judge = citizens who recognized their rights were violated
tavern owner = developers
prayer = Constitutional rights
Christians = legislators


TALE #2 (TRUE):

A "tale" is told about Texas that had considered itself "up to par" on living and housing standards, but then local developers within 150 miles of the Texas-Mexico border decided to sell land legally and cheaply (via Contract for Deed) to people who could only afford these out-of-town places they could call their own (i.e. "The American Dream"), but took advantage of some of these people by exploiting them, reselling the same property to multiple people at once without providing deeds, and foreclosing on properties (kicking out the families from the homes they had built with their own hands) because of a single missed or late payment.  Some of these people were undocumented workers (illegal aliens). 

A group of Texas legislators and others were concerned and planned a many-years-long series of colonia laws to intervene "for the sake of public health and safety" especially since hepatitis and other problems were prolific in these poverty-stricken areas, therefore focusing the problem of some corrupt developers onto the masses of people who bought from them and other noncorrupt developers. 

It just so happened that shortly after the first colonia laws were enacted (beginning in 1989), that Chapter 232, Subchapter B, C, & E of the LGC (Local Government Code), associated with House Bill 1001 (HB1001), became effective in 1995 and struck (as quick as lightning) every single "colonia" dweller (U.S. citizens and undocumented people alike) by not allowing electricity service to ANYONE in border colonias if they did not have city water, knowing that it might be many, many years before the poorest of the poor within these counties would obtain city water or other utility services.  By law, ANYONE and EVERYONE living in the dreaded "colonia zone" (a geographic area of 50 miles along the TX-Mexico border) could no longer obtain electric service for the homes they had begun building, or perhaps already lived in. Or if they had electricity, but moved away temporarily for a job, or to help someone who was sick in their family, or for any other reason deemed necessary, and then came back to their house, they could not get their electricity back on.  Hundreds of people (individuals, families, children, elderly, etc.) suffered irreparable damage by being denied something they formerly could obtain... electric service, which highly aids in quality of life.   "Good health" was associated solely with "good water," foregoing the concept of education, or the fact that electric service would allow for pumping possible "bad water" through a household or at-the-faucet filtration system or electric distiller as a solution (not including solar water distillers, reverse osmosis (R/O) systems, etc.).  The goal, according to the Texas state government, was to "stop colonia growth" and to eliminate colonias altogether (meaning, eliminate the people that live in these areas - eradicating via forceful removal via colonia laws).  If colonia dwellers were legal U.S. citizens, or illegals, it didn't matter to Texas legislators.  It was better to sacrifice the former, to eliminate the latter.  The former includes any wealthy ranchers, farmers, business owners who run their business out of their homes, people who prefer to live in the country instead of the city, etc.  The former, as U.S. citizens, includes a high percentage of Hispanics, but also includes Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans, Native Americans, mixed-bloods of many "races" (the majority of which Americans are these days), and although includes a high percentage of people in poverty, does not exclude those of higher socioeconomic status. 

Some developers who were doing legal business, and not lying to their customers, lost business since they were now also not allowed to sell lots under 5 acres in size (a strategy by the state, which created a higher price for lots so that poor people could no longer afford to buy land in these areas), and sued the Texas state government (conventiently, the poor of the colonias could not afford to sue for their rights), but the government (legislators) who made the laws, and had the law on their side, argued in court that they were certainly not responsible.  They were supposedly not responsible for violating the rights of businesses to do business, and for citizens (including non-citizens, or people who were becomming naturalized citizens, or who were here with legal work permits, etc.). 

In response, the state government provided home-mortgages (Bootstrap Loan Program) to colonia dwellers, to replace the Contract for Deeds (CFD's) that were exploiting them, but still did not help the businesses, nor all the colonia dwellers.   They (as well as non-profit organizations) also began multiple programs to get city water, septic tanks, and other utilities to these areas, but despite these efforts the list is very long, and the money short, and now 13 years have passed with many, many areas in the EDA's (Economically Depressed Areas) still having no city water or other services.  Even worse, most of the colonia dwellers did/do not even know about the colonia laws, or that if their electricity got turned off it could not be turned back on (unless they qualified for a Certificate of Compliance - that requires city water or a well that passes a water-quality test - or an exemption).   The state laws trickle down to the counties, which then trickle down to the electric companies, making these companies the official front-lines "enforcers" of the colonia laws.  The question that begs to be asked is, do these electric companies have policies in place to legally protect them by requiring their employees to INFORM colonia dwellers that they cannot get their electricity service back on once it is turned off?  Electric companies are losing business, too.  In El Paso county alone there are 2-3 people per week who come to the County Attorney's and/or County Roads and Bridges department with this problem of permanent electricity loss.  This does not include the people/families who do not make official complaints, and since 1995 can mean that thousands of families have lost their quality of life due to these laws.  This also doesn't include the many, many other families in Texas counties along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Families that owned land prior to 1995, but later exchanged properties within their families (such as sister to brother, or vice-versa, etc.) by formally filing a Deed at the County Clerk's office, could not qualify for any exemptions or the Certificate of Compliance, or were just simply disqualified for being grandfathered in for electricity no matter what the circumstances (so much for trying to do things legally, which ultimately may promote underground land transactions)... with the official reason being, according to the El Paso county government, that "Any new deeds cancel out the old ones."  Certificates of Compliance, or exemptions to the colonia laws required the land be owned and occupied prior to 1995, with no deed exchanges (even within families).  A home that had electricity since 1994 (or before), but had it shut off for ANY REASON could suddenly not have it anymore, even though they'd had the service all of those years, therefore causing great loss in property value (a house with appliances suddenly cannot be used, toilets cannot be flushed, water cannot be pumped, showers cannot be taken, dishwashers cannot be used, nor can washers/dryers, or any electrical-using items like hair dryers, irons, TV's, VCR's, DVD players, game players, computers, printers, all lamps and lights, etc. -- even poor families have some or many (if not all) of these items).  Solar and wind electric systems are typically too expensive for the majority of colonia dwellers (as well as city dwellers) to afford as an alternative to municiple electric-providing companies. 

Some families do not even qualify for the much-needed relief of House Bill 2096, which became effective Sept 1, 2007, if they need to sell or rent out their house (like if a sexual offender next door molested their child) because that particular colonia law amendment requires that the family lives there in order to keep their electricity service.  These families cannot afford to lose everything they've invested in, especially if they still owe money to the bank.  Understand this... more and more colonia dwellers (who are being selectively victimized by Texas state colonia laws via geographic location) are now aware that they do not have the RIGHT to live in their house with electricity (once its turned off for ANY reason), and therefore do not have the RIGHT to a qualify of life that electric service would bring them, and they do not have the RIGHT to rent their homes, or sell their homes (because then it is considered to be "commercialized" property, rather than occupied by the resident owner), unless the electricity is turned off and the new buyers accept that via disclosure in the sale contract.  In some cases, according to the El Paso County Attorney office, a home or land in a colonia is not even legally sellable. 

The home/land/property simply is not worth much (if anything) if electricity is suddenly not available to run appliances and lights and pump water.  By law, the government is required to compensate property owners if 25% or more of their property value is taken from them, but Texas is not financially compensating colonia dwellers.  Instead, they claim people can abandon their properties (even if they still owe tens of thousands of dollars in mortgages for a property they now cannot live in), and go to Central Appraisal and get their property value reduced to a mere $10/acre, to save them on taxes.  This is significant property loss!!!  This is the "good" that has come out of colonia laws.   Colonia dwellers, who often don't know the laws, and many times do not know their rights, also typically don't know about Reverse Condemnation, which is a lawsuit (by a single family, or multiple people - 40 or more - via class action lawsuit) that requires the government (state) to compensate them for their property loss when eminent domain is not being claimed

The presiding judges (the people who live in colonias, who are now becoming wise to these discriminating colonia laws), know that no matter how this mess was started, one thing is obvious... that it is evident that the they believe in being able to retain and exercise their Constitutional Rights like any other homeowner, property owner, or even developer in the entire United States, but Texas legislators do not believe in these rights, and make laws that violate these basic human rights (to eliminate them/colonias), while at the same time claiming to be "helping" them, for their own good, without consulting them, or even verifying the individual families' and colonias' unique needs.  What started out as targeting some corrupt developers, has punished other developers, and has especially punished the very poorest of the poor, as well as the middle-class families who live in these same geographic areas.  Poor areas exist everywhere, not just on the border, and inexpensive land provides OPPORTUNITY for homeownership, and as that goes, the percentage of homeownership is actually higher within colonias than in cities.

In the Report below, I take from my own experiences of being very poor outside of a border colonia, and then compare and contrast it with living within a colonia (going from poor to middle-class, and then going into debt to counteract the damage these colonia laws have done).  As you will see upon reading about these experiences, the fundamental reasoning behind colonia laws is inherently flawed, and discriminates against human and civil and property rights.  

Major change is needed, and its not just in colonias, but in the laws that affect them.

(c) Sharon Cornet 2008


Below is a Report I wrote for my class:
Social Work in the Colonias

February 16, 2008

For this report our class was asked to keep a journal and do some things, which would be considered hardships in daily living, to mimic life in a colonia.  In Mexico a “colonia” simply means “neighborhood” and are outlying areas of unstructured development that are slowly incorporated into the city as it expands.  In the U.S. colonias are “unincorporated communities within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border that lack infrastructure and have substandard housing.”  These areas are typically thought to be made up of poverty-ridden Hispanics (but not always, and not everywhere), and so the stereotype, like criminal profiling, has taken over the minds of city-dwellers and so now colonia-dwellers are now outcasts, and “need help because they can’t help themselves,” even though the percentage of homeownership is much higher in colonias than in the cities.  Plus self-help construction keeps costs low, adding on a little at a time instead of taking out massive mortgage loans to build a house all at once.  This is affordable, and makes sense to build-as-you-go, especially since even people inside the city limits add on rooms for one reason or another all the time.  Colonia dwellers know how to make-do, and are extremely resourceful.  Families tend to stick together, and although there are health problems in some areas, there are also extremely strong-willed people of mighty faith, who don’t just get by, but live life to its fullest, in whatever way they can.  I’ve been to many a Mexican party in the homes and yards of my neighbors, and some of those times were the best I’ve ever had in life.  Good company, good food, good times.  That is something that can be had because of who you’re with, and has NOTHING to do with socioeconomic status, or racial/ethnic background, or if your house is in line with the “keeping up with the Joneses’” mentality that permeates cities all across America.

I have renamed the title of this report from “Colonia Living Experiment” to simply, “Colonia Living” because I have lived in a colonia for so many years that I don’t need to “experiment” to know what it is like.   It is of these experiences that I will share with you.  For the record, the experiment was to include giving up, for one week, many of the things city dwellers often take for granted, like:

TV, entertainment, videos, & computers (except for homework)

Bathe in cold water, or boil it

Wash your hair sparingly

Wear the same clothes at least twice a week

Have your family sleep in one room for a few nights

Eat beans, rice, tortillas, and potatoes for a week

Make a budget for the week using $75

Consider adjustments you’d have to make if you don’t have electricity or water

 

Instead of a keeping daily journal of poor living conditions I decided to pull from past experiences of living fairly poor in the city of El Paso, Texas, and then living VERY poor in rural Nebraska (under conditions similar to those in Texas border colonias).   From there I will once again turn to El Paso, Texas, where I live now – and until recently, lived in an El Paso county colonia for many years.  You’ll be able to see the similarities and the differences between rural Nebraska living (in poverty) and rural Texas (in poverty, and above poverty) as you read on.  I am also going to cover some of the colonia laws and how they have been more harmful than helpful to many colonia dwellers.  If you hear any cynicism in this report, it is for good reason, as you will soon see.

Back up to 1989, when I was 18 yrs old, was still newly married and had a baby.  After living in an apartment in El Paso for one year, where the sewage from our entire building complex backed up into every room in our apartment (our apartment basically became the cleanout, since the real cleanout outside was clogged), we decided that we did not want to stay there any longer.  The management hired people to sucked out the sludge, but made us live in the wet, foul-smelling rooms until it dried a few days later, so they could then steam clean it – all while my baby was still walking and crawling all over the floors!  They refused to give us another apartment or motel room in the meantime, despite me throwing a fit.  If this was city living we wanted no part of it!  So much for city living being “superior.”

We did not have any credit so opted to purchase property outside of the city limits, where we could buy an acre, put in a septic tank, get electricity, a water tank and pump, phone service, buy a mobile home (with plans to build a real house eventually), and move in.  My parents helped us out with some of the expenses, for which we were very grateful.  We were so proud!  I remember my then-husband picking up a rock from the yard and exclaiming, “This is MY rock!”  There is something about owning your own place in the country, instead of being subject to the whims of apartment complexes, and high taxes of city-homeownership, that just settles a sense of peace into your bones.  The extra gasoline bill and 20 minutes for driving farther was only a slight trade-off for actually being home-owners.  Nestled in a desert valley between the Hueco Mountains (just a few miles from the Hueco Tanks state park, which is one of the best rock-climbing spots in the country), we were happy, and the scenery and cactus blooms were gorgeous!  No more poop sludge in our residence.  No more noise from the neighbors coming through the walls.  No more sirens and lights glaring all night long – you could actually sit outside on a summers evening and SEE the stars and the Milky Way! 

We bought a second acre next to our original one, but eventually divorced, so I left that little home in the desert and later moved away, got remarried, and lived in the city of Lincoln, NE.  Within a year I was pregnant with my second child, and since we had a horrid landlord at our duplex, and it was still my dream to own our own property and build our own house, we started looking for land we could afford.  We found a 2-acre plot of land that had two old dilapidated trailers on it.  I hated trailers, and still wanted to build a passive solar house, so we decided we could put up with the trailer for a year or two until the house was built.  I quit my job to stay home with the baby, so our little family of 4 now subsisted on a single income of $6+/hour, along with food stamps and Medicaid.  The old trailer was far worse than I first realized.  It stunk of cat poop from the family who lived there before.  There was a hole in the living room floor that the original owner (who repossessed it from the cat-poop family) fixed with only a sheet of galvanized steel.  The insulation in the walls was nearly all gone, and mice were constantly crawling around in there, sometimes dying in the walls so that the room would smell for a week or so, and you could do nothing about it.  The good news was that the couple we bought the land from said that there was a water well, and a septic tank in good working order.  The other trailer, although not livable (yet), was solid and could be fixed up if we wanted, or we could use it as storage.  It was a full two acres, with green grass, and trees encircling the property.  Neighbors were sparse, with only one house on each side, and one behind the property (they had beautiful horses).

Poverty was the trade-off for staying home with my kids, so I could nurse my baby, and be an at-home mom, sew clothes, and home-school my oldest child (then 8 yrs old).  It was the best and worst times.  My cousin (more like a sister) and her kids (who called me, and still call me “Aunt Sharon” instead of cousin Sharon) would come over and we’d have cookouts, sleepovers, make homemade peach cobbler (with the free peaches and butter we got from the food bank – plus inexpensive flour and sugar, and baking powder).  One of our favorite dishes was what I named “7-Layer Casserole” – cheap-man’s food (made in a 13”x9” baking pan) consisting of a layer each of sliced potatoes, two cans of on-sale off-brand veggies (usually corn and green beans), 1 lb of ground beef fried with chopped onion, diced tomatoes (with juice) to cover all the meat, and covered over with shredded cheddar cheese (also from the food bank).  Covered with aluminum foil and baked until the potatoes were done, I’d let the last 5 minutes “slightly brown” the top of the cheese with the foil removed… and it was dinnertime for lots of people for a mere few dollars! 

We were told that the water well was shallow, a mere 22 or so feet deep, so we didn’t trust drinking the water and bought 1 and 5-gallon jugs from the store instead.  In the winter the water pipes would freeze so there was a lot of waiting till thaw times, or thawing it with water we had filled in the bathtub as a backup, and boiled on the stove.  I remember the water pump in the hole-in-the-ground style pump house breaking one winter and my husband had to go down in there and fix it.  His car keys accidentally dropped down the well pipe, lost forever.  Luckily we had spares to make a new set from.  When our well broke down it affected two households since one of my very best friends (along with her family) had fixed up the second trailer on the property and moved into it, with us splitting the cost of the land.  Both trailers were on the same water well, but had separate electricity bills.  When their car broke down they borrowed ours, and vice versa.  Money was tight when things broke down, especially the car or truck (depending on what we had at the time).  Seems like old things broke down too often, and we were always asking for financial help from my parents, who still lived a 19-hour drive away in El Paso.  I felt like a sponge for money, always needing help.  I figured out how much money I would make if I worked (minimum wage, which was only several dollars/hr back in 1995-1999) and it seemed a nearly impossible task since we only had one car, lived 40 minutes from town, and would have to alternate our schedules plus pay for child care for – by this time – 1 child and two babies (family of 5 total).  After the extra cost of wear and tear on the vehicle, the child care, gasoline, taxes, social security, etc., working a full-time job, I would have only netted a mere $50/week, which I considered a terrible income for losing my precious time with my children (and having to give them over to child care centers to “raise” for me).  Working any less than full time would have given me a deficit.  My husband’s smoking habit was also costly, and it kept the rest of us coughing, and sick, especially in winter.

Our income was still very small, even though my husband was making over $7/hr after a couple of years.  I paid the bills, and kept a tight budget, usually only having $20/wk for any odds and ends we might need for the house, or for eating out when in town all day (I’d shop while my husband worked, since we had only one car – so we ate dollar items at fast food restaurants on those days, or else had a picnic if the weather was warm).  That $20/wk was usually spent at the dollar store, to buy soap, laundry detergent, a new spatula to replace the old cheap one that broke, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.  We lived paycheck to paycheck.  We ran up credit cards for things we couldn’t afford otherwise, which made our financial situation worse in the end.  Every morning I was up at 4:15AM and made my husband breakfast, and fixed his lunches daily (with those re-freezable ice packages), bought cheap brand sodas on sale $1.50/6pack (25 cents per soda instead of $1.29 for a single bottled soda, which in Nebraska they call “pop” instead of “soda” or “coke”).  He hated that I controlled what he drank since he preferred Pepsi, and that I complained about the candy bars he’d eat in front of us without offering the kids or me a bite.  There was a lot of stress over finances, and eventually building the house (people think buying a house is stressful?… try building one with your own hands!), and within our relationship.  During the late 1990’s I suffered from chronic depression, and had to deal with my oldest son who was A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) and O.D.D. (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and slightly dyslexic, plus I had two babies (and one miscarriage), and my social networks was nil since I was stuck at home all of the time (except for shopping days).  By 1998 my friend had moved from her trailer and I was alone, except for my kids, and my nephews who came to live with me – one at a time for a couple of years. 

We shopped for all our clothes (except for underwear and shoes) at thrift stores in Lincoln, and the greatest thrift store of all time, Blue Valley, in David City, NE.  Every Christmas they had special giveaways for poor families, which we always qualified for.  Winter was the hardest because of the heating bills.  We decided that we needed an alternative source of heat, especially since winter storms would often cause the electricity to go out.  Even the waterbed turned cold and you’d have to insulate your body from the waterbed mattress just to stay warm.  We decided that we would heat with a fuel source we could collect ourselves – wood!  For most of the winters our only source of heat was from wood; the heating appliance came from using a $50 “kit” and a jigsaw with a metal-cutting blade to turn a 55 gallon drum into a wood stove.  We usually went through about 3-4 cords of wood per winter (a cord is about the size of a very full large truck bed).  We had a gas-driven chainsaw, and we went with friends/neighbors, who also heated with wood, to fell trees, cut the logs into woodstove-length pieces, and then would use the maul to hand-split the wood.  Then we’d pile the wood up and cover it over with a tarp, making sure to tie it down well so the winter winds wouldn’t uncover it and get it all wet with snow.  There were many times when we had to sit wet wood on top of the wood stove, and turn it often, just to dry it so it could be burned in turn. 

One winter we had a severe winter storm come through.  We had to portion off the back half of the trailer with blankets hung over the hall entrance.  Everything in the back froze, including the water in the tub and toilet.  Water pipes busted.  Because of the lack of insulation in the walls, the wind robbed the heat from the trailer very quickly.   That particular storm we prepared for, and it saved our lives.  We got an entire cord of wood piled up by the front door and covered over, with as much as we could put inside the living room and kitchen as well.  We finished chopping the wood just as the storm arrived.  By that evening the temperatures dropped to –30 degrees F, with a wind chill of –70 degrees F.  If you went outside the liquid on your eyeballs would freeze instantly and could cause permanent damage.  Frostbite would happen quickly to any exposed surfaces of your skin, so we just shut the door and remained inside.  The snow was blowing sideways.  We taped plastic up against the windows with duct tape (duct tape is truly the poor man’s helper in MANY situations!).  The children and my husband and I all slept in the living room for two nights (the storm broke on the third day), and had to go to the bathroom in a 5-gallon bucket (we put a toilet seat on, and put bleach in to keep down the smell) that we kept on the other side of the cabinet in the kitchen (for semi-privacy).  We basically lived in the living room and kitchen for those three days.  The nighttime was the worst.  We slept on anything that would keep us up off of the floor (i.e. the couch, and mattresses dragged in from off the beds).  We were bundled up with layers of clothing, including our jackets and shoes 24/7, plus comforter blankets, and were still shivering from the cold.  The 55-gallon drum woodstove was burning so hot that it literally glowed red, and yet the air in the trailer was so cold it would still allow us to see our breath when we exhaled.  I hated that trailer.  I hated being cold.   I hated being poor.

When spring came, two years after we had first moved onto the property, I was disgusted that so much time had gone by and yet we still hadn't even broken ground for building our house.   We didn't even have a floorplan chosen.  I then decided to do something, anything!  I went out into the yard for about 30 minutes, fumbling around with the plans in my head, and then told my friend and all the kids to come see what I had done.  It was out in the open, grassy part of the yard, behind our trailer, and I had taken a bunch of long skinny branches (leftover from chopping down trees) and laid out the “floorplan” to the house I was going to build.  I walked everyone through "the house," explaining about each room as we stepped between branches and imaginary "doorways."  "This is the living room," I said, and then we walked over to another area, "and this is the kitchen."  I explained that the house would be passive solar in design to help heat it in winter, and it was going to be made from straw bales (a building design that was growing in popularity around the country, especially in the southwest and colder areas like Nebraska).  Straw bales (not hay) had an insulating R factor of about 50 (compare that with standard 2x4 walls having an R factor of only 13), and would keep my family warm in the winter.   I took a non-credit class at the local community college on solar design and homeowner-built houses.  A building contractor was the teacher, and he helped us design a new tension-compression straw bale wall design, which turned out ok, but I would definitely and only use post-and-beam for the structure and use the straw bales as the “infill” (insulation) if I had to do it over again.  We took out a loan from my parents to build the house, and ordered and had delivered hundreds of straw bales; but the winter came early that year, and the winds literally ripped apart the tarps and the snow and rain ruined almost all of the bales.  I used the spent bales the following spring to plant part of my garden in (take out a little straw from the top, put in a few handfuls of soil, and some seeds or seedlings, and it will grow some of the best tomatoes and summer squash you'll ever taste -- all with very little watering, absolutely no tilling, and no weeds!  Ruined bales that sat out in the weather for 1 yr. worked best -- not too firm, and not too deteriorated).

The next spring we had to order more bales and start again.   The teacher/contractor had become a friend and we shared in a straw bale workshop where he taught a day-long course on how to build with straw, with the first of the day being in-class, and the second of the day being held at our “house” so the folks attending the workshop could get some hands-on experience on building straw bale walls.  It worked out great because they got the experience, and we got the free labor, which put up of our walls in a single day.  The roof was on just before the next winter came, and we had to hire out the plastering to professionals, which, with the cost of the special plaster we bought, cost us $3,500 by itself.   We used straw for the ceiling and attic insulation, and had to keep trying to fill in the eaves and keep them from allowing the wind to blow through, but by that winter we were in the straw bale house and OUT of that trailer!  We had used an alternative foundation and the inside had a dirt floor.  Part of the house had some special industrial-type pallets (very strong) that we used on a thick plastic vapor barrier as a “wood floor.”  We put carpet over that.  Until we made and plumbed our shower and was able to hook up the water heater (with a safety value and an extra coiled copper pipe spiraled around the woodstove pipe, which saved a LOT of gas to heat water!), we were boiling water on the woodstove or portable gas (countertop) 3-burner stove and dumping it into a large plastic tub we bought at the store (wasn’t even big enough to sit in unless you hung your feet out).  Our oldest child wanted to sleep in the upper open attic – like a second floor – section of the house (heat rises, so it was warmer up there).  There was only a ladder to climb up, instead of stairs.  Loose straw covered 1/3 of the dirt floor, so we stayed away from that area.  The wood that framed the windows, made up the framing of the roof, and the floor upstairs, and part of the floor downstairs, was all purchased used, from an old barn that had been dismantled.  All of the doors and windows were also bought used, or gotten for free or from bartering.   The 4-year project was a LOT of work, and we learned a lot, and were sore a lot (especially with my back problems and sciatica), but it was worth it.  The house was finished on the outside (minus paint), but unfinished on the inside, but had only cost us $20,000 total by the time we sold it.

During the summers I would grow an organic garden, so we had fresh beans, tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables.  Otherwise, we relied on food stamps to buy “poor mans food” such as rice, potatoes, LOTS of spaghetti and other pasta, lots of eggs, and cheap canned veggies and other items on sale.  I gained weight and had a very poor diet most of the time, despite the garden.  We also homesteaded in the old fashioned sense – we raised pygmy goats, 2 sheep (one black, one white), chickens, ducks, rabbits, geese, and even two pigs (the neighbor taught me how to do a “tailgate butcher” for chops and pork cuts).  We had dogs and cats as pets, but the rest were usually raised for food.  I learned to butcher and process meat, and learned to “put food by” (store it long term, i.e. canning, freezing, drying, etc.).  It seems to me that the cost of food for feeding these animals outweighed the amount of meat we got, except, perhaps, the goats and pigs.  We didn’t eat the sheep, they were too sweet and cute (and stupid – we felt sorry for them).  You also never, EVER name the animals you raise unless you plan on keeping them as pets.  We were given a goat once for free, and he was a full-sized, neutered, de-horned goat who was brown and looked just like a deer, for some reason.  So we called him the “deer-goat.”  It was to be a non-personal title we called him, but we kept him far too long, and called him “deer-goat” too long, so by the time we butchered him I could hardly stand it.  He was older so he became goat-sausage and bratwurst (both mixed with pig fat, bought cheaply at the local meat shop), and ground meat (like hamburger when mixed with beef fat), as well as stew meat.  His flesh was far too stringy and tough to eat any other way.  I still miss the deer-goat and regret eating him.  I never butchered another animal after that.

During those years of poverty we finally had our shallow water well tested and discovered there was a high coliform bacteria count (which can cause cholera or other health problems).  Luckily we bought water in jugs, used chlorine bleach in well water (but that smelled and tasted too bad, and my mom said “but there’s still poop in there!” and refused to drink it or even cook with it), and even tried solar pasteurization using clear jugs in the sun (UV kills bacteria).  We eventually got my parents' electric water distiller, which helped a lot.  We also started having septic tank problems and found out the septic lines actually ran from the trailer uphill for a 50’ stretch across the yard, dumping into a very small homemade tank.  Then we found the septic line leak under the trailer, which was about 7’ away from the 22’ deep (shallow) water well.  Dumping bleach down the well didn’t help because the water ran through the ground and the bleach would just dissipate into the flowing water in the earth.  We decided the only way to stop the leaky, problematic septic tank was to avoid using it for anything except showers or washing hands at the bathroom sink.   We researched composting toilet books and decided to make one, via the contractor-friend’s design.  Soon we found out that excess urine, from 5 people using a 2-person toilet, was a problem.  It overflowed into the bathroom – really gross!  By the time we were out of the trailer and in the straw bale house we had been given a composting toilet by some generous people (strangers to us, really), and this one utilized urine diversion, which helped greatly.  We installed a graywater system (which drained into several tons of small rock/pebbles, several feet deep, under the earth).  Our neighbor complained because he found out we had this kind of graywater system (again, a design by our contractor friend) because he had to put in a 1,000 gallon state-approved graywater tank, which our contractor friend didn’t realize was required.  We were trying to sell the house at the same time.  The new owners (friends of ours) agreed to put in a septic tank and so that got rid of the graywater problem and the composting toilet at the same time.

It was at that time, of the sale of our house, that I borrowed more money from my parents and bought an old car body (sight unseen) for $75, and a compatible engine (also sight unseen) for $150 and paid a man to put the engine into the car.   After that, and a muffler system, tune-up, newer-used tires, etc. were put on I drove it around for 500 miles, to make sure it would make the 1,000+ mile trip to El Paso.  I packed the kids and everything I could fit into this little car and left for El Paso to start our life over.  I had to let go of everything I had worked for… the land and house, almost all of our belongings, the dream of finishing the house and keeping it, and the ideal of a working “marriage.”  The kids and I lived with my parents for a few months, and then my two older brothers and I swapped houses on Christmas of 1999.  It worked out perfectly because my oldest brother was getting married and going to Puerto Rico, and my middle brother needed more space so bought the first brother’s house, and I needed a place so just “took over payments” of the house he had built on my original “second acre” from my earlier marriage.  The house payments were only $200/mo., which was something I could handle financially.  I got involved with the El Paso Solar Energy Association (EPSEA) again and worked on solar water distiller grant projects in colonias all around El Paso county, in southern NM, and in colonias in Juarez, Mexico.  Things were improving, except my relationship with my husband (who followed me back to El Paso once the house was sold). 

I look back and think about the positive things I learned while in Nebraska, despite the hard times… mostly it was the much desired time with kids, despite being looked down upon by neighbors for me not working a full time job to “improve” our situation of great poverty.  We had other things that made us rich… our family closeness was strong (except the marriage part), although there was a lack of social networks.  Email was my only outlet, and I cried at the thought of having to lose that $12/mo cost for the Internet – it was a terrible, desperate feeling of being absolutely alone with no one to turn to in my lowest times of depression.  Many people in colonias don’t have email, let alone a computer.  The phone works, too, though – but in Nebraska all my real friends and family were out of state, and I couldn’t afford the long distance phone calls, so email worked out great for me – even on an old, slow computer.  I felt that even though poverty pervaded our lives, I had accomplished the goals I had set for myself… to homestead, raise my kids without paying or relying on someone else to do it, home school (at least part of the time) my kids, my nephew, and even the neighbor’s kids, design and build a passive solar straw bale house with alternative design features inside and out, utilizing recycled wood and windows/doors, etc.  Those things made me proud, but by the time I left Nebraska and came back to El Paso a part of me had died.  That is a hard thing to get into as to why, so I won’t bother with that story here.

El Paso has offered me so much more than Nebraska did.  Once I came back I started out with absolutely ZERO money, was on welfare and food stamps, and my kids had Medicaid.  Within months I had a part-time job as secretary at my dad’s office (he’s a minister and writes Bible Studies), and within a year I had a full-time job as his office manager.  I also became President of EPSEA in 2001, and was Project Manager.  All of these things happened while I lived on that second acre, tiny “core house” (living area, bathroom, make-shift kitchen, and utility room – absolutely no bedrooms, so we all slept in the living area, set up with dividers so that it sort of resembled a separate bedroom area) that my brother had built on my original land.  In time we paid (added on to the house principle we owed) $3,500 to have a nice kitchen installed with real cabinets and a dishwasher.  Later we bought a contractor’s trailer to use a bedrooms, but somehow we never connected the trailer to the house so quit using it (walking outside in your PJ’s to go to the bathroom in the house is like going outside to use an outhouse, except with a flush toilet… not fun in front of the neighbors).  Years later came two small bedrooms, built by a contractor who lived in the area, and a year after that we had the same contractor add on our nice large master bedroom.  Living in a “colonia” in El Paso county was far better than what I had lived through in Nebraska.   Even though we didn’t have city water, the water tank sufficed, and there was a whole-house water filtration system, plus we had an at-the-sink filter for drinking and cooking water in the kitchen.  I got a new fridge, a new washer and dryer, and got a divorce.  Life was good.  

I met a man who I would later marry 2 yrs down the road, and life was even better.  Together we were making $55K/yr gross.  We took trips, and went camping, and did all kinds of fun things.  My kids were happy, except that we found out the neighbor had hurt my daughter.  Lots of things happened quickly at that time, and I found out that the legal system is not as “just” as they’d like you to believe, and the court system is nothing but a game, and its only the lawyers and prosecutors that know how to play that game (and criminals who have been in the system for a long time).  It's all a game where they negotiate peoples' lives away, and where the perpetrators go free, and the prosecution violates the victims' rights, and has the criminal pay the courts restitution, but not the victim.  It's a sick and broken system. Before all of that happened, though, my new husband, who has a Doctorate in geology and palynology, a Masters degree in paleobotany, and a Bachelor of Science in biology, inspired me to go back to school.  Now, as a continuing anthropology student (specifically, cultural and applied anthropology), and someone who got caught up in the criminal justice system of El Paso county, I found that there is corruption in every corner of this state.  That is when my urban anthropology professor (who taught us about policy in colonias) suggested that I do my Praxis (volunteer) work, which was part of our required curriculum in spring of 2007, at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.  I was turned on to social justice work, but felt that my skills and talents could be used elsewhere for the long term.  I had to do an internship over the summer so I looked at long lists of community organizations, etc. and found the one I thought would fit best with my goals – Border Interfaith (BI). 

BI is a non-profit organization made up of members from many different churches (or other organizations, or institutes, etc.) in our El Paso community, and they (we) do social justice work in many areas including focusing on getting city water in a Canutillo colonia, getting Border Steel in the Westway/Vinton area to comply with state standards (for the health and safety of the surrounding community), holding public officials accountable to serve the people who put them in office, put on public Issues Forums, and Public Life Institute meetings.  After my internship is when I really learned the most about colonias, and colonia laws.  It was what my family EXPERIENCED that made me wiser to what is really going on behind the scenes here on the border.

When I moved to the county the very first time (back in 1989) it was because it was all that was affordable, especially since we did not have any credit yet (as a young couple with a baby, just getting started in life).  To us it was not moving to the county, but to the country.   Our own place, free of noise and light pollution, air pollution, and without people packed in like sardines so that there’s hardly room for privacy or personal freedom.  The sunsets against the mountains were far better than a sunset over a smog-filled city.   There was no such thing as a “colonia” in our view of the world, even though it was during those years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that “colonias” was a term being developed to mean something horrible, unsanitary, unsafe, unhealthy, substandard, lacking the “conveniences” of the city, and associated with deviancy, i.e. people being labeled as the “other.”  When I moved to Nebraska (1993), and then back to El Paso (1999), I arrived to live in my new house in the country and found out there were new laws that had been enacted while I had been gone that made our country living into “colonia” living, which by city and state standards was suddenly considered “illegal.”  It was illegal to buy property below 5 acres in size, even though one could legally put the same septic tanks and water tanks and anything else (like we had) on a 5 acre property, but not on a 1 acre property like ours.  It is still that way, but at the time I sought the advise of a lawyer who was an expert in colonia laws and found out we were grandfathered in, so all was well.   I heard that one of the land sales offices near our house was suing the state for creating laws that did not allow them to conduct business and sell their property as it had been surveyed and platted (if it was less than 5 acre tracts). 

It would be many years later, in 2007, when I would find out that the Contract for Deeds were being used by some (not all) developers to exploit land purchasers (that simply did not happen to us), and that there was a new program called the Bootstrap Loan Program, which turned Contract for Deed purchases into authentic home/land mortgages with safety guards so purchasers wouldn’t lose their properties and homes just because of one missed payment.  Because of having lived in rural El Paso county for years, with nothing changing except my life getting better and better, I realized that colonias developed because of the laws that defined them, and restricted them, and not just only because of developers selling the land with empty promises of “city water to come soon.”  I found this out when we tried to sell our house in August, 2007 that we found out that the electricity could not be turned on into the buyer’s name once it had been turned off.  By law these buyers could not get electricity because there was not city water at the location, nor would there be city water for at least another 10-20 years, since the Hueco Tanks area, in far east El Paso county, was the last one on the list that would receive water in the future.  It boiled down to one simple formula and bottom-line answer for me…

            No city water = No electricity (defined by the colonia laws)

No electricity = No use of ALL appliances/devices (washer, dryer, dishwasher, water

pressure to faucets, showers, water heater, outdoor hose, indoor plumbing, toilets, and any and all electric appliances such as the stove/range (that had electronic starters/clocks), microwave, hair dryer, computers, monitors, printers, TV,s, Radio/CD players, speaker systems, LCD projector, alarm clocks, fans, bathroom exhaust fans, Christmas lighting, VCR/DVD players, video game players, reading lamps, and ALL light fixtures inside and outside of the house, etc. – of which we owned and used all of these things like anyone else in the city)

            No use of appliances = Back to living in the dark ages (we would have had to use oil

lamps, start hauling water in buckets that would have to be dropped down on a rope through the opened lid in the top of the 2500 gallon water tank and then drawn back up, taken down the ladder, and carried inside in order to wash or cook with; having no water pressure to use the filtration device on the kitchen sink so that drinking water had to be boiled (over a gas camp stove used indoors(?)) or bought in order to drink; toilets would have to be flushed using 5 gallon buckets of water, too, which means flushing would be a lot of trouble, so bleach (not good for the septic tank, which, by the way, was legally registered) would have to be added to the commode and used all day long, with a “flush” only happening once/day (usually at night); baths via boiled water, or just taking cold baths (it takes quite a number of 5 gal. buckets full of water to take a full bath), and a host of other hardship-causing factors due to the loss of electricity in a home that was constructed by contractors to-code, and had been lived in, and had electricity in, until the day the electric went off due to a previous renter that didn’t pay their bill to the electric company.  The electric company did not inform me that I would not be able to get my electricity back on, either, until it was too late.)

            Back to living in the dark ages = the property value drops to $10/acre (according to

the allowance of the state via the local Central Appraisal office, this serves as a way of not having to compensate property owners for making laws that rob them of their property values since the state of TX is not officially claiming “eminent domain” (however, this can be countered by a class action lawsuit to the state of TX via “Inverse Condemnation” in order to gain financial compensation).

            Property value drops to $10/acre = the property is not livable or saleable (despite

any loan(s) that need to be paid against the property – as in our case the $46,000 that was still owed on the property via a private mortgage loan and an equity loan).

            The bottom line… without electricity our home is worth squat, whereas just 3 months before it was appraised (by the mortgage company who held the Deed of Trust on the property) at $46,000 and was sellable.  I was sure that the mortgage company and their attorneys would be rather upset knowing this, too.  According to the Texas Attorney General’s website a resident owner is allowed to sell their property even though the El Paso County Attorney said that it is “illegal” and the owners trying to sell their property can have “criminal charges” brought up against them… all because they (we) wanted to move and not lose everything they (we) had invested!  In our case, we were moving to get away from the registered child sex offender next door who molested our daughter.  The sex offender was not made to move, and can presently live at his old mobile home freely, with no jail time to serve, or restitution to pay.  The victim and her family (us) had to move, and lose everything.  The County Attorney had no intentions but to follow state law, which out of one side of their mouth was to “prevent colonia growth” (even selling our house was NOT new development, so was therefore NOT new growth) and to “eliminate colonias” (meaning the PEOPLE who live there, like us), and out of the other side of their mouth they claimed to be there to “help people in colonias”… but I have to ask HOW are they helping by finding every single technicality possible in order to DENY a certificate of compliance that was needed to obtain electric service?  How is it helping when you are promised that certificate, only to be lied to and set up for failure?  How is it helping when you try to move into the house you don’t want to stay at anymore, so that electric service can stay on, and the people living in the house don’t want you there?  How is it helping when the County Attorney threatens you with perjury if you don’t live there while the electricity is on, and insists that it MUST go off if you don’t live there (where in the HB 2096 or other colonia laws does it state the electricity has to go off if you leave?)?

            This all started at the state level.  Chapter 232, subchapter B (passed in 1995 – associated with HB 1001) is the Texas state law in the LGC (Local Government Code) that defined colonias (meaning the people in them) as not being worthy of having electricity if there is no city water, therefore promoting the monopolies of the water and electricity utility companies as the ONLY “adequate” or “safe” source(s) – ignoring ALL perfectly acceptable alternatives such as filtration and R/O systems, or even solar water distillers – destroying peoples’ lives and property values, placing them in great debt for property they can no longer use adequately, and causing massive hardships on families who live in these EDAs (Economically Depressed Areas) called “colonias.”  Economic hardship, and life hardships are enough without the state inflicting such losses to families along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Since these colonia laws began at the state level, it is also where amendments and policy changes have to originate, such as House Bill 2096 (HB2096), which allows a resident owner to obtain electric service again if they meet certain criteria.  One of those criteria is that the owner must live in the house.  Since we were selling the house it was very hard to get the people to move out and let me move in.  I have since had the electricity turned off out of my name, and the folks purchasing the property have had it switched over to their names for commercial use (since they run a business out of the home, and store heavy equipment on the empty parts of the 1 acre lot).  There is no zoning in the county, and electricity cannot be denied to a business for commercial purposes, so it should be an interesting scene to follow as the El Paso County Attorney’s office tries to get their electricity turned off and ensure their public service (county) jobs as “doing the right thing by following the law.”  These laws hurt people.  The County Attorney also told an attorney I had hired that, “2 to 3 people per week come to us with this same problem.”  That’s a lot of families over the course of a year… times how many years?  Too many people being hurt here.

The colonia laws are unjust, period!  The state of Texas is discriminating against people based on geographic location, targeting the poorest of the poor areas (EDA’s), and including the folks like ranchers and others of higher socioeconomic status.  Even though border colonia dwellers (American citizens or not) are mostly of Mexican/Hispanic heritage, these laws are crossing all boundaries of race/ethnicity as well.   I’m white/Caucasian, so technically am the “minority” in these colonias.  Sure, there are programs to help people in colonias, but NONE of them have helped us in this situation.  None of them have helped the folks who still highly desire to purchase the house and live there because they don’t want to be in the city either.  The way the colonia laws (dealing with obtaining/re-obtaining/keeping electricity) are actually used out in the real world means you have to be a “good citizen” who lives within the city limits in order to be someone of worth and value.  Colonia dwellers are considered as “the other.”  The “them” but not the “us.”  It is easier to discriminate and apply bias and prejudice when the object(s) – in this case PEOPLE – are removed linguistically, physically, and metaphorically by recategorizing them and treating them accordingly. 

            Our own solution to our electricity problem was to take out yet another loan and purchase $12,580 worth of non-electric appliances and lights, an industrial-sized generator, and a complete solar system (less than 1Kw, which is not much in way of electricity output), and tack that cost onto the price of the house/land in the purchase contract (drawn up by a law firm).  So now the house is worth less (especially if the electricity goes off again, or permanently), but costs more (about $59K – this costs my family $800/mo for a house we cannot possibly make a profit on, nor can we take that cost off on our taxes since it is a personal loan and not a mortgage, and it has created a huge financial burden on both of the families involved).  It’s been a lose-lose situation because of these colonia laws… colonia laws that were meant to go after the developers, but wound up hurting the colonia dwellers instead. 

How this story will end is yet to be seen.  I don’t have to walk in anyone else’s shoes in order to understand the problems in colonias… I live with the burdens caused by these colonia laws everyday, and will for another 6+ years (of $800/mo payments), even though we don’t physically stay there anymore.  Before there were these anomalies called colonias we lived a good life… but the colonias “anomaly” is, in reality, not an anomaly at all, but a reality that exists all over the world, INCLUDING all over the rural United States (and even within the city limits of most every city in America) – but it’s only the U.S.-Mexico border counties that are being selectively victimized.  Soon, if these laws perpetuate, they may spread like a plague into the rest of our society, grasping at other states’ rural areas with its claws, shredding and ripping apart the lives of all in its path. 

Today the American Dream eludes my family, and has robbed us of any sense of peace of mind, including the pursuit of having a real life, and the liberty to live as we choose, and the happiness that comes with that “right.”  Property rights, civil rights, and human rights… what are those?  Based on our experience, since our valuable property became labeled as some piece of crap in a “colonia,” that’s now much more expensive to live at, with threats of perjury hanging over our heads if we don’t live on the property, and the electric service to be turned off against our will (since no one at that house suddenly has the “right” to have electricity), I wouldn’t know what our rights are anymore. 

Ahhh, America the Beautiful, the Land of Plenty, Land of the FREE… unless, that is, you live on less than 5 acres that lies within 50 miles of the Mexico border!  I think I’ve made my point and position very clear.  It is not the colonias that need to be eliminated, for they are filled with many lovely people trying to make the best of what they have.  Colonia laws that harm people need not be amended, but ELIMINATED!  That is my experience, and until you’ve walked in those shoes, then you might want to dig deeper into the reality of these colonia laws.

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) opened some doors between the U.S. and Mexico, but closed others.  Migrants coming from Mexico came, and still come, to work on farms across the nation.   Illegal immigrants, having to work “under the table” (part of the informal economy mentioned in Kathleen Staudt’s book “Free Trade? Informal Economies at the U.S.-Mexico Border”) so as not to be caught and yet still having to survive, eat, and pay their way through life, often find places to stay that are under less surveillance, and cost less, which makes colonias seem like a “safe place” since it is typically off the radar.  Border checkpoints are outside of the El Paso county lines (in New Mexico, and in Hudspeth county, which borders El Paso county to the east), so it is plausible that a good number of undocumented workers are harboring their lives and families in Texas counties (in border colonias) rather than outside of these areas.  

            Unemployment rates in Texas vary, although El Paso is presently at about 5.9% (lower than some years in the past).  I have heard locals (both Mexican-American and Anglos alike, as well as other ethnicities in this multi-cultural city) often say things like, “Illegal immigrants steal our jobs, and that’s why the unemployment rate is so high,” but in reality these folks work for companies or people who often (but not always) exploit them by working them much harder and longer than a lawful 40-hour/wk job, and for much less pay.  Undocumented workers often do the labor-intensive jobs that most Americans don’t want.  It’s often the grunt work, or the low-status jobs that keep things moving along despite the outward appearance of the formal economy, and if suddenly removed would affect the local economy by actually creating a deficit that might otherwise not be filled.  Families that have their only (undocumented) working spouse deported are often too scared to leave their houses, and the women and children suffer, ultimately.   Food runs out, their transportation resources disappear (or it is just simply too risky to travel), and fear pervades their daily lives. 

            Blockades illegally set up at public schools in colonias by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department have had a history of asking citizens for social security numbers, which as the recent Sheriff’s candidate, Larry Wilkins, said, “smacks of profiling!”  Legal immigrants, like a man I know in the Westway colonia, who raised his entire family here for 20+ years, was embarrassed and humiliated when his citizenship was questioned at one of these blockades, merely because he “looked” like an illegal Mexican immigrant.  These practices violate civil rights, as well as human rights.   The Texas Civil Rights Project took the Sheriff’s Dept. to court (although they settled out of court) for violating these laws, and the rights of our citizens.  Special training (a half a day only) ensued, but much later the Sheriff’s Deputies were still violating the rules (as of January 2008).  It is not the Sheriff Department’s job to be involved in immigration, but the Federal government instead. 

Texas has more colonias than any other U.S.-Mexico border state, and El Paso is the largest port of entry in the lower 48 United States.  Colonia laws, although originally targeting developers, is now absolutely violating the rights of citizens by claiming they don’t have the “right” to electricity if they are not connected to the monopolies of municipal water supplies.  This is asinine and slaps perfectly viable, legal alternatives and water filtration companies in the face.  It also deprives families of their property values, and being able to live as if they were in the city (by being able to turn on their faucet just like anyone else), because a loss of electricity is a loss of MUCH more… it is a loss of a standard of living that is available to anyone else in the country except them.  One has to question whether colonia laws, since poverty is prevalent all over the U.S., is not really about eliminating places called colonias as it is about eliminating illegal immigrants in colonias, and at the expense of legal citizens.  Prevention of colonias in new growth is not the same thing as “eliminating” (i.e. extinguishing/squashing out) existing colonias… or rather, the colonia dwellers themselves.   Colonia laws do not distinguish between citizens and illegal immigrants – it is an across-the-board enactment, which encompasses ALL geographically-defined areas along the border, so therefore also “smacks of profiling.”  These actions of the state of Texas purposefully violating its citizens’ rights, was the reason behind the title of my online article, “Colonia Genocide,” concerning our own experience of losing electricity at our colonia home.

            My house, now being sold to its new owners at an astronomical price (considering the state says it can be worth only $10 on the tax rolls if abandoned) is nothing special, but it certainly is worth more than the money we’ve put into it.  It’s not just a house, but a home, which gives it a value that money cannot defend, and it’s now a home to a new family.  It has all the amenities of any house in the city, and actually has more conveniences than some poor areas, or standard apartment buildings in the city (i.e. a satellite dish for TV, a satellite internet dish, dishwasher, washer and dryer, three separate phone lines, etc.) and yet is worth a ten-dollar bill (by the allowance of the state and county) if the electricity service is denied.  And this is a house built by standard to-code construction, not a dilapidated trailer with no septic tank. 

There are even alternatives to septic tanks, such as NSF-approved/TCEQ-approved composting toilets that use little or no water, and little or no electricity, thus saving thousands of gallons per year, which would greatly help El Paso’s water crisis.  Alternative construction, and alternative methods are not always “worse” than the status quo used by developers within the city limits – the extremely energy efficient straw bale house in Nebraska, with its high R value insulation (R-50) and passive solar design, is a perfect example.  Not all homes are constructed the same way in colonias either.  In fact, some of the homes are manufactured housing (mobile homes) built by manufacturing companies, with a spattering in colonias of some trailers being new, and some old, and some very old.  Many homes in Jaurez, Mexico are made of whatever people can get their hands on, such as pallets and tar paper, or cement blocks, or even adobe, which is an ancient building material, inexpensive and effective – albeit labor intensive - which actually works very well with passive solar design, especially if insulated on the outside with pink or blue board (extruded polystyrene) prior to plastering, and by placing most of the windows on the south side of the house for solar gain. 

In U.S. colonias homes are also built with cement blocks, or standard “stick and brick” (2x4 walls, with a standard roof, and brick or other siding on the outside), or even adobe, etc.  Some of the houses are substandard and even dilapidated, while others are owner-built and yet no more “substandard” than contractor-built homes in the city.  There is a saying in anthropology and sociology, based on empirical evidence from cultural studies done around the world, “There is more diversity within a population than between populations,” also said, “There is more diversity within a group, than there is between groups.”  This fact flew in the face of racial prejudices of groups of people that tried to feign white supremacy, or any other racial slur of one ethnic group or skin color being “less” or “more” than another.  Similarly, with that as an analogy, I would hypothesize (and a study would either support or falsify this hypothesis) that there is more diversity within county-area colonias and other equally poverty stricken city-areas along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, than there is between them.  Lumping all colonias together via these discriminating, across-the-board laws, without taking into account the individuality and lives of the families that live there, is unethical at best.  Should our government assume ALL poor people living within the city should be treated the same?  Should their human rights and civil rights and property rights be violated just because of where (or how) they live?

Right here in El Paso county we have colonias on the west side of town, south, east, and far east of town, all clumped into tiny units (within the same communities) called “colonias.”  All colonias are lumped under the same state and local rules and apply to anyone and everyone within a certain geographic area (i.e. 50 miles of the border, or 150 miles of the border, etc.), despite any differences they may have.  They are all seen as “the same problem” even if no “problem” exists in a certain area (not denying that there are many problems in some of these areas).  For instance, the Hueco Tanks colonia (Butterfield #4 and Eisenburg Estates) is very similar to the Canutillo colonia (Schuman Estates and Brothers Road area), but the differences pop out as obvious as we look deeper.  Diversity within even these mere two - out of hundreds of - colonias in west Texas is evident.
 

Examples of SIMILARITIES include:

Mixed socioeconomic status of residents (most tending to be on the low side)

Mixture of mobile homes, owner-built homes, and contractor-built homes

            Majority (if not all) of the lot sizes are smaller than 5 acres (many being 1 acre or less)

            Majority of residents (95% mas o menos) are of Hispanic ethnicity

            People living there include families (incl. extended families), couples, and individuals

            No outhouses exist in either colonia (that I am aware of)

            Water is available to residents at both colonias, in one form or another (i.e. wells, hauled

water, store-bought water, etc.)

            Water is pumped into the house plumbing via an electric water pump (either at a well or

a water tank)

            Phone service is available to all residents

            Propane is available to all residents

            Trash pick-up by El Paso Disposal is available to all residents

            Electric service has been denied to some homeowners, making living conditions worse

           

Examples of DIFFERENCES include:

            Elevation in Canutillo is near and just a few feet above the Rio Grande river (3800 feet

above sea level) while Hueco is situated on a two-tier plateau (4500 feet above

sea level), far above and away from the river (or any other open ground water

source) – that’s a 700 foot difference in elevation in the same county.

            Water depth for wells in Canutillo is about 20 feet below the surface, while water depth

in Hueco is 500 feet minimum (usually over 1000 feet if you want drinkable water)

            Wells are common in Canutillo, and inexpensive to drill, but wells are extremely rare in

Hueco due to the very high cost to drill ($15K to $100K or more)

            Hueco residents have septic tanks while Canutillo has both septics and cesspools

Water quality – water hauled in has lower TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) in Hueco than in

Canutillo, although water wells in Hueco may have a higher TDS than wells in

Canutillo

The water source (although hauled in by trucks and delivered to water storage tanks) for

Hueco is from EPWU (El Paso Water Utilities, i.e. “city water”), while the

majority of Canutillo water sources come from shallow wells

            Water in Canutillo is said to “stink like rotten eggs” while water in Hueco does not

            Water in Canutillo is said to be so brackish, full of algae and/or sand, and discolored and

“hard” (calcium deposits) that filtration systems do not work because of the great

expense to change them so often, while hauled water in Hueco can use at-

the-sink filters with no problems, as well as household filtration system with no

problems (even the tiny holes in water-saving showerheads do not clog up – even

without any filtration whatsoever)

Water wells in Canutillo have been tested by EPWU & TX A&M (2007) and at least 9 of

them tested positive for coliform bacteria (due to problems such as too-close

proximity between the well and cesspool/septic); septic tanks in Hueco simply

cannot and do not contaminate the water that is held in above-ground, contained water tanks

An EPWU main water line in the Schuman Estates/Brothers Rd area of Canutillo is at the

corner of Schuman Estates, but the Butterfield #4/Eisenburg Estates area of

Hueco has the nearest water line about three and a half miles away

The Canutillo colonia is expected to receive city water within 2 years (with plans already

underway as of 2008) while Hueco is not expected to receive city water for

another 10-20 years or more (it is the last one on the list)

            The subdivisions in Hueco (Butterfield #4/Eisenburg Estates) are surveyed and platted, but not all

of the streets in Canutillo (Brothers road in particular) are even platted (as of this writing)

            All of the Canutillo colonia is in a floodplain (due to proximity to the Rio Grande river),

while only part of the Hueco colonia is in a floodplain (runoff from the mountains during rainstorms,

with one main arroyo that is about 1'-2' deep)

            Most of the homes/lots in Canutillo are fenced in, while only some of the homes/lots in

Hueco are fenced

 

            This list could go on, but as you can see, there are more differences than there are similarities between these two “El Paso county colonias.”  Every single colonia has its own unique features as well as strengths and weaknesses.  Wells in Canutillo are cheap and shallow, but are often contaminated or the water smells bad.  Low-income, or even median-income households in Hueco would be extremely hard-pressed to be able to afford a deep well up on the plateau, and the water obtained is often so brackish it would not pass the TDS test required by the county to obtain a Certificate of Compliance (which is needed and required by the county to get electricity).

            The water in Hueco is not considered “city water” because trucks haul it in (via companies that have to keep strict standards on the cleanliness of their trucks, and sell the water to residents – at about $43 per 3,000 gallons, which lasts about a month for most family households), but the water hauled in is, in fact, from the city’s (EPWU) water source.  So even though Hueco doesn’t have “city water” piped in, it is in fact “city water.”  This is why the water held in aboveground water tanks in Hueco is so “clean” compared to the wells in Canutillo.  It is why filtration systems work so well there, too.  Even an R/O (Reverse Osmosis) system attached to a kitchen sink would give absolutely PURE water to a home in the Hueco colonia, where it would not be feasible in Canutillo.  Each colonia has its own independent needs, and unique solutions to those needs.

            Electricity being available to homes in either colonia is essential to quality of life for the people (especially families with small children).  There are a number of families near the Schuman-Brothers Canutillo colonia that don’t have electricity, and therefore cannot run lights or a water pump, or other appliances, etc.; and yet they stay there because it is their home.  If for nothing but human rights alone, electricity should not be denied to those people there, nor to anyone in Hueco Tanks, or for that matter, or any colonia ANYWHERE on the U.S.-Mexico border!  To deny people/families this utility service is absolutely unethical, especially since the rules are not the same for different acreages.  I attended an EPSEA (solar) public meeting earlier this month (February 2008) where the guest speaker was the CEO/President, Ershel Redd, of the El Paso Electric Company.  He took questions throughout his PowerPoint presentation, but it was near the end when I asked him if El Paso Electric had lost much business because of the Chapter 232, Subchapter B law of the LGC.  He was completely unaware of this law, and didn’t think that it had caused EP Electric much (if any) loss of business at all.  I then explained about the law, and how we were putting in a $12.5K solar system because of how hard it is to keep electricity, even with HB 2096, since we did not plan on staying at our house in Hueco Tanks, but were selling it instead. 

            I spoke with Mr. Redd alone after the meeting and told him our story, and how we moved to get away from the sex offender next door, and why we could not stay at the house and had to sell it (our 2-month trial of renting it had not worked out well for us just prior to this – we lost $1,100 from that venture, too).  He was very obviously disturbed that our electricity was turned off due to the tenant who rented from us not paying her bill, and because EP Electric’s employees did not inform us that once the electricity was off in a colonia you could not get it back on.  I gave him my website: www.sunstar-solutions.com/HB2096.htm to read once he got home.  What is interesting (or disturbing if it was related to this) is that Ershel Redd suddenly quit his job within 4-5 days of that meeting (that includes the weekend), with his explanation in the El Paso Times newspaper article saying he was going on to do other “business” ventures.  I may never know the real reason why he quit… if it was truly a better opportunity elsewhere, or if he was disturbed and worried about possible legal repercussions later on since our electricity battle with EP Electric, the County Attorney, and County Roads and Bridges all occurred during his mere 9-month tenure at El Paso Electric Company.

            At that same EPSEA meeting I met a man who lives in the Hueco Tanks colonia, although further back near the Hueco Tanks State Park (several miles further away from EPWU’s water lines) who claimed he had recently bought land, was fixing to build a house, and had put in his drop pole and was getting electricity service.  I gasped because of the problems I had KEEPING my electricity (something that was completely out of my control) while he just called them up and got it with no problems.  I figured it out (and he verified it)… he had bought a 5-acre plot, whereas we only had 1 acre.  The question I held back that was teeming through my mind was WHY?  Why is it ok for a family on 5 acres, who is FARTHER away from city water lines than the property we were selling, to have the EXACT same “colonia conditions” (listed earlier), water services, septic tank use, trash service, phone service, satellite service(s), house construction that is built to code, etc., and be able to legally GET and KEEP electricity service, while it is suddenly not available to my family on 1 acre, even though we’d had electricity service on that acre continually since 1994 (and had electric service on the other acre since 1989), prior to the colonia law (Ch. 232, subch. B)?  Why can he (a non-Hispanic man) and his family build in a colonia, with the same exact circumstances as we had, and yet we were being selectively discriminated against?  The El Paso County Attorney even tried to criminalize us over this electricity issue… how is this fair?  How is this just?   How is this ethical?  How is this even LOGICAL???  It’s simple.  It’s not any of those things.  It’s bureaucracy at its finest.  It’s state-level laws implemented to supposedly “eliminate colonias” by targeting smaller plots of land, because those people cannot usually afford the larger plots… the poorest of the poor, and most important of all, the most likely place for illegal immigrants to live.  If illegals are being targeted via these colonia laws, then U.S. citizens' rights are being infringed upon in the process.

            It is important to fully cover one thing regarding the immigration issue.   The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department has had a history (although they are trying hard now to reverse it) of violating American citizens’ rights by setting up blockades at public schools (where even children of illegal immigrants can attend – and why shouldn’t ALL children have the right to an education regardless of their – one or both – parents’ status?), at rush hour times, and targeting older cars, etc. and asking for citizenship status, or asking for social security numbers.  This practice is illegal and is the job of the Federal government, NOT for officers at the county or any other local level, as I stated earlier in this report. 

            Border Interfaith (BI), the broad-based, grassroots, non-profit organization (that is a collective of many churches and church leaders and/or other organization(s) in the area) that I am a member of, hosted an Issues Forum on February 12, 2008 (just last week from the time of this writing) where candidates for Sheriff attended and were asked questions regarding these illegal blockades.  The Sheriff’s department was calling me 1 to 2 times/day just before the event to ask for the name and number of the individual (a BI member) who witnessed and experienced several of these blockades in recent weeks/months.  The Assistant Chief of the Sheriff’s Dept. said that they needed dates, times, and hopefully names of the officers on duty, and/or car numbers, or any other identifiers so they could follow up and do an investigation because their Deputy’s were NOT supposed to be asking for social security numbers.  Our BI member from Westway spoke at the Issues Forum and was near tears as he spoke of the embarrassment and frustration he experienced in front of his 6 year old granddaughter, and grandson, when he went to pick them up after school and had his citizenship questioned, even when he was not being cited for anything.  He was (is) a legal citizen that was a victim of racial profiling because he “looked Mexican” or “looked like an illegal.”   The depth of emotion that emanated into the synagogue where the Issues Forum event was held, as he told his testimony, was a high-tension moment, and you could hear a pin drop as the audience listened with care.  The Sheriff and one of his trusted, high-titled people within the Sheriff’s Department attended.  All of the candidates agreed that profiling of this nature should not be happening, especially at the expense of citizens’ rights. 

            Understand this… this entire scenario is also an analogy for the same kind of thing that is happening within the 50 mile-wide strip of colonias down through Texas, all along the Rio Grande river… except instead of citizens’ rights being violated due to profiling for illegal immigrants via blockades, citizens’ rights are being violated due to profiling of illegal immigrants via colonia laws that discriminate against its own citizens, while at the same time claiming to “help them” via other programs.  There are many good programs, and new grant and loan funds at the state and Federal levels, as well as through non-profit organizations, which help people in colonias.  But NONE of them can help someone get their electricity on, or back on once it is off, especially if you (like us) don’t qualify for HB 2096 in the long run.  At the same time, the folks further down the road, with the same living conditions, can get electricity with no hitches at all.  The only way to combat this problem is to deal with it at the state level, where the laws originated.

            Individual action (civil and political) can be very effective when done with a larger group of people with the same ideal(s) as you.  This is where Border Interfaith comes in; it is a place where the common man or woman, who knows nothing of politics or how power structures within our governmental system works, can come and find their own power as a collective.  Social justice and fairness for people in colonias, or otherwise, come together for a common goal.  Getting city water to the Canutillo colonia is but one of the projects that BI is presently working on.  The illegal blockades have been very effectively dealt with (by educating the Sheriff’s dept. as well as the candidates running for the next Sheriff’s term) through the Issues Forum.   Border Steel pollution control, flooding in Westway and the new flood district formed between the city and county (although they, conveniently, are focusing on a study that includes ONLY the city limits, and leaves out the colonias) are other areas presently being worked on.  These things, and more, are all things that we, as citizens, can discuss and ask politicians and officials about as a group, often in their own offices during pre-scheduled meetings.  It is a learning process, and there are BI leaders willing to help teach those who want to stand up for change; for social justice. 

            Social justice is what lead me to BI, and one of the next goals – for me – is to put the colonia laws to the test with BI’s help, aid, and direction, so that laws like Chapter 232, Subchapter B of the LGC can be either amended or abolished for the sake of citizens’ human and civil rights.  People in colonias suffer enough, although some of them don’t suffer at all – like was our situation – except by the hardships that the Texas state colonia laws bring to them.  It’s time for this atrocity to end.  This is the 21st Century.  This is America!   Why is this happening here?  Stealing away peoples’ property rights, civil rights, human rights, and their electricity service because of supposed “water problems” (that may not even exist in a given colonia, or in a given household) or a “lack of city water” is discrimination of the worst kind, making peoples’ lives, and quality of life, far worse, and is equal to (or perhaps worse than) the living conditions in developing countries.  It is, in many cases, perfectly good and safe homes turned into 3rd world conditions, right in our backyards, right here in Texas, CAUSED by Texas.  It’s right under our noses, and the stench is putrid, but no one seems to realize where the odor is coming from.  Let’s take a big whiff and open our eyes! 

            Time to clean up these colonia laws and actually help people instead of hurting them!  Pass the word along.  Get involved.   Do something!  I am.