Behind the Truck Stop:

The Story of Vado-Del Cerro

Frontera NorteSur

Rambling along Interstate 10 between Las Cruces and El Paso, travelers might see the Vado exit sign and notice a truck stop that’s seen better days. They might catch a glimpse-and a whiff-of the numerous dairies that line the southern Mesilla Valley.

Few, however, will probably ever hear about the rich history this border region community of several thousand people offers to visitor and resident alike. Scratch the history of Vado and a prism of windows opens up into the past, present and future of New Mexico, Mexico and the United States.

Dora Dorado has lived a good part of this history. Guiding her vehicle through a jumble of paved and unpaved roads, Dorado takes the visitor on a tour of the site-built houses, stone walls and mobile homes that make up Vado and its neighboring community of Del Cerro. In recent decades growth has practically merged the two communities together, making it more proper to speak of Vado-Del Cerro, as opposed to just Vado.

Like many of her neighbors, Dorado is struggling to stay afloat in uncertain economic times. Born in Ciudad Juarez, the affable and community-minded woman arrived here in the early 1970s after her father Juan Dorado got his legal residency papers thanks to employer Stahmann Farms. Originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, Dorado entered the United States as a guest worker enrolled in the Bracero Program of 1942-64.

Years of farm jobs in California and elsewhere eventually found “Don Juanito” just south of Las Cruces at Stahmann Farms and its huge, internationally known pecan orchard. Following in her father’s footsteps, Dorado soon got a job at Stahmman Farm’s pecan processing plant, where she helped prepare the famous Christmas gift packages laden with nutty treats.

Entering the workforce at the tender age of 16, Dorado became part of a crew of workers she calls the “white women,” because of the  white work uniforms the women donned as part of the sanitary regime that was applied to pecans processed for baked goods, ice cream and more. Don Juanito, meanwhile, began clipping hair on the side and became known as the barber of Stahmann Farms.

“ I feel so proud of him because he was a hard worker, he was a barber,” Dorado says.  “They called him the master.” The head of a large family,
the elder Dorado also had a knack for healing ailing, aching people, though he lacked formal training. “God gave him the gift to be a chiropractic,”
his daughter says.

Don Juanito’s skills with the razor and scissors were such that to this day out-of-towners sometimes show up for a trim only to cry when they the discover the old master has passed on to the other side, Dorado sighs. “They appreciated him so much.”

The Dorados were among the first families to settle Del Cerro, a subdivision built in the early 1970s for Stahmann Farm employees, including former braceros, on the high ground overlooking the old river-bottom settlement of Vado. In fact, the very name Del Cerro comes from one of Stahmann’s “fancy pecans” says Dorado.

With the assistance of the Farmers Home Administration, a regular subdivision minus sewer connections was established for immigrant farm workers who kept an important New Mexico agricultural enterprise at the top of its game. By 1990, 720 people were counted as residing in Del Cerro.

The arid land that was turned into Del Cerro had “nothing” on it, recalls Amalia Ceniceros, another original settler who worked a quarter-century for Stahmann Farms. “We  were like family,” Ceniceros says of the workers and the founders of Del Cerro.

Four decades later, Del Cerro is changing. Many of the original inhabitants have died or moved on to other places.  A couple homes even stand abandoned. Yet newcomers keep arriving to a place where land and housing are cheaper than either in Las Cruces or El Paso. Recently, Dora Dorado says she looked around mass and realized she didn’t know many of the faces in the pews at mass anymore.

Migration stories fill the history glass of Vado-Del Cerro.

Popular histories tell of Hispano settlement and farming by the time of the US acquisition of New Mexico between 1848 and 1853, the subsequent  presence of  Quakers, community name changes and even a broom factory. Then in the early 1920s, Francis Boyer came to Vado, which means “ford” in Spanish.

A graduate of Georgia’s  renowned Morehouse College, Boyer had earlier led the founding of Blackdom, an African-American community near Roswell, New Mexico. But after water wells dried up, Blackdom’s residents had to find new homes and Francis Boyer found his way to the Mesilla Valley, according to grandson Mitch Boyer.

“(Vado) was sparsely spread out along the river but it wasn’t a township until my grandfather platted it,” Boyer says.

The Boyers and other African-American families cleared thickets of river land known as the bosque and massaged the land for a crop that transformed southern New Mexico.

“This valley was rich in cotton,” Boyer remembers. Once again, though, water troubles dogged the Boyers and other small farmers and Vado eventually declined as a Black community by the 1960s, Mitch Boyer adds.

On the desert slopes, the construction of Del Cerro hailed a new generation to the area. Started in a resident’s garage, the San Pedro Church is today a spiritual and cultural nerve center of Del Cerro. Nowadays, a regular church serves parishioners but plans are afoot to build an even bigger one for the growing congregation.

“And we hope that it will be one of the most beautiful churches in the Valley,” says Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who is retiring this year after 29 years as his diocese’s first bishop.

“People tell me I’m the best bishop they’ve ever had, but I’m really the only one they’ve ever had,” he chuckles.

To raise money for San Pedro, church-goers hold a fiesta every summer, which also coincides with the celebration of Corpus Christi.

“There is a tradition in New Mexico, throughout the Southwest and into Latin America that on the patronal feast day that the people have a fiesta,” Bishop Ramirez observes.

The two-day June fiesta includes a procession, mass and matachine dancers generously sprinkled with platters of food, fun and frolicking. A dunking booth, baseball toss, the Mexican game lottery, nortena music and dancing greet  hundreds of attendees each year. Fiesta helpers like Amalia Ceniceros work overtime preparing an estimated 2,500 gorditas to keep the celebrants gastronomically satisfied.

In addition to locals, San Pedro draws people from neighboring communities. Some even contribute to staging the celebration.

“It’s a pretty chill event, with our family and with our friends,” says teen Andrea Nieves, who performed at San Pedro this year with a singing youth group from a church in Westway on the edge of El Paso.

An enduring, cross-border horse culture is on display at San Pedro and in Vado-Del Cerro.

As in Mexico, seasoned riders called charros entertain the fiesta crowd amid the prancing and neighing of their mounts. Intermittently, a rodeo is even held off the interstate at Vado-Del Cerro. Horses graze and play behind the small fenced spreads that sprinkle the dirt and paved roads leading in and out of clusters of mobile homes.

Even in an age of hybrid cars and space rockets, the horse still commands a place of respect. “The person who was mounted in the horse was seen as high-prestige,” says Dr. Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies rural border communities like Vado-Del Cerro.

Though nudged between the northern and southern urban nodes of the growing Paso del Norte borderplex, Vado-Del Cerro retains much of its rural flavor.

A onetime resident of Vado-Del Cerro, Luis Gutierrez currently lives in Las Cruces. Gutierrez is a flesh-and-blood example of the old saying that you can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy. For three years, the small hay farmer has pitched in to help make San Pedro a success.

“This is my country, so I like the countryside,” Gutierrez proclaims.

Vado-Del Cerro’s big growth spurt occurred between 1990 and 2000, when Vado’s official population increased from 1,396 to 3,003 people.  As in previous decades, a new generation of migrants came to the land that rolls from Chihuahuan desert mesas into the valley of the Rio Grande.

The latest residents were Mexican immigrants-many of them originally undocumented- who found low-paid but reliable work in the then-booming dairy industry as well as the chile pepper and onion fields.

Unlike earlier years in the community’s history, a different pattern of development changed the landscape. Similar to other border zones, Vado Del Cerro witnessed the emergence of colonias, or underdeveloped communities lacking paved roads, utilities and other basic infrastructure.

Often in very poor condition, mobile homes became a typical dwelling. Seeking home ownership,  many of the low-income colonia residents purchased small plots of land without basic services before subdivision regulations were tightened up in the 1990s.

A series of settlements called Vado 1, Vado 2 and so on sprung up on the land. In 1989 the Dona Ana County Commission formally declared Vado-Del Cerro a colonia, opening the door to federal assistance in funding development.

According to the 2010 US Census, 3,194 people resided in Vado alone, but locals estimated the number of people in both Vado and Del Cerro was much higher. Overwhelmingly Latino, the population is also very young, with fully 35.3 percent of residents under 18 years of age, according to the latest census.

The proportion of local residents in the under-18 age group is even higher than the 2010 US average of  24.0 percent of the overall population. In a big way, Vado-Del Cerro is experiencing a “demographic bonus” of young, able-bodied residents.

Youth-related issues stand out in Vado-Del Cerro, and they will likely do so for the foreseeable future. Educational access, limited employment prospects, teen pregnancy, gangs, graffiti, and drug abuse are pressing local concerns. Yet according to locals and knowledgeable outsiders,  the community also possesses significant assets

The children of recent immigrants, Vado-Del Cerro’s youth are versed in both Spanish and English and exposed to the traditional culture of their parents in addition to the contemporary one of their peers.

High school student Brenda Martinez is a member of the new generation.  A native Spanish speaker, Martinez began learning English in the third grade and is now conversant in both languages. The teen says she wants to attend Dona Ana Community College and study business administration.

Organized by the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council and other local non-profits, the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) provides recreational and other alternatives to eager young people.

In August 2010, TOP sponsored a youth forum in Vado-Del Cerro where participants summarized matters of importance to their lives. Transportation quickly surfaced as a hot issue.

As with the rest of rural Dona Ana County, Vado-Del Cerro does not have public transportation and residents must rely on private cars or rides with family and friends.  Nor does Vado-Del Cerro have a high school, meaning that students must commute back and forth to Gadsden High in the town of Anthony.

In a time when the local agricultural-dairy economy is not employing as many people as before, transportation is a critical social, economic and psychological need especially felt by the young, according to Dr. Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri.

Like the prize stallion of 100 years ago, big trucks and cool cars combine utilitarian value with social status, according to the borderland scholar.

Clued by the words her late farmworker father, Nunez-Mchiri says a common regional Spanish term for truck, “mueble,” colloquially means mobility and the ability to obtain jobs, housing, education and entertainment.

“Having a vehicle means you’re someone,” Nunez-Mchiri argues. “Having a vehicle means you now can move out and about, that you can transport people, you can seek jobs in the city, you can go watch a movie-things that young people like to do and usually take for granted.”

City slickers, Nunez-Mchiri contends, have trouble appreciating the vital importance of transportation for residents of rural places like Vado-Del Cerro, where geographic disconnection and social alienation can deeply affect people who find themselves unable to navigate complex, modern economic and employment systems. “You’re basically trapped in your body, in your community and you have very little options,” she says.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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