Change and challenge in a NM border town

Editor’s Note: Continuing with the New Mexico Centennial series, today’s Frontera NorteSur article  is the second of two pieces on the history of Vado-Del Cerrro in the rural Mesilla Valley south of Las Cruces. This article was made possible in part by support from the New Mexico Centennial Project, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

Down a country lane in southern New Mexico‘s Mesilla Valley, a new walk-path and park took shape as the summer heat beat relentlessly down upon the land. 

While a similar project might not even draw so much as a wink in a bigger community, residents of the rural community of Vado-Del Cerro are “very excited” about getting a new recreational  space, says Vado Village Council Chair Mitch Boyer. According to the community leader, donations from private businesses and individuals are bringing the project to completion.

Constructed with the assistance of  the non-profit organization Groundwork Doña Ana and its crew of youth workers,  the building of the  walk-path/park presented an opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.

The late Boyer family patriarch and African-American community pioneer Francis Boyer once lived near the construction site, and an adjoining, small pecan orchard belonging to one of Mitch Boyer’s cousins still shades this slice of Doña Ana County just north of the US-Mexico border. A graduate of  the old school, Boyer recalls growing up in Vado, in an era before computer games, text-messaging and Facebook absorbed the attention of the young.

“This was lined with trees, cottonwood trees,”  Boyer says of the surrounding area. “And that’s how we spent our summers. We spent more time on those trees with swings…and building tree houses and stuff. This was a kind of summer recreation spot for the kids of the community.”

Decades later, Vado-Del Cerro has experienced profound changes in population size, ethnic composition,  development patterns and economic orientation. From the black village of Francis Boyers’s days,  Vado-Del Cerro is now a growing small town of several thousand people that is 95 percent or more Latino, with recent immigrants from Mexico constituting a large sector of the populace.

Built for Stahmann Farms workers in the early 1970s, Del Cerro initially developed as a regular subdivision with most basic services and amenities. On the other hand, the zone encompassing Vado was splashed with unplanned growth, the proliferation of septic tanks and dilapidated housing.

A 2005 environmental assessment by the private Border Research Solutions outfit further noted  flies, odors and nitrate pollution traced to some local dairies;  the potential back-up of drainage ditches that could hold pools of  stagnant water and spawn mosquitoes carrying  the West Nile Virus; the presence of household mold wrought by flooding; and the proximity of small chemical plants and the railroad to residences.

Long rooted in agriculture, the local economy is changing. Former farm lands have been subdivided into cheap, small residential lots strategically located almost half-way between Las Cruces and El Paso-Ciudad Juarez.  Water availability and global economic competition increasingly make chile or onion growing tricky propositions.  The once-booming row of  dairy farms have spent the past few years reducing herds, laying off workers and even shutting down some operations.

Running off Interstate 10 that glides down into the big city of El Paso-Ciudad Juarez and then dissipates into the longhorn vastness of Texas,  Vado Drive serves as a sort of main drag between the newly expanded freeway and older rural highway cutting through  the flatlands and corn fields of the Rio Grande Valley.  A smattering of new businesses heralds winds of change.

Competing for the scarce dollars of a low-income consumer base, a Family Dollar and a Dollar General offer their arrays of cheap, imported goods, while the shell of new car wash pops on the road.  On opposite sides of  Interstate 10, a meat market with a community bulletin board, a stone quarry and a facility owned by the huge Mexican cement company Cemex all emit additional economic pulses.

Welcoming a constant roar of lumbering commercial trucks and frequently funky passenger vehicles, the rusty  NTS truck stop vies for business with a smaller Texaco station and the adjacent, sunflower-themed El Viajero restaurant, which was once the Bull Ring bar of local fame. A little ways down the hill,  a Jehovah’s Witness salon now exists as an institution alongside the traditional Roman Catholic Church.

Vado-Del Cerro, however, does not have a high school, hospital, community swimming pool, movie theater, supermarket, and public transportation system.

In the mid-1990s,  the community emerged as a poster child for  US-Mexico border comunities called colonias, which were and are settlements characterized by high degrees of poverty, unpaved roads, underdeveloped or non-existent  infrastructure and substandard housing, especially the rickety used mobile homes that sprung up all over the borderland.

Earlier, in 1991, a Dona Ana County task force had assessed Vado as having “the greatest number of substandard conditions” in its jurisdiction.

In response, community activists, representatives of the Catholic Church’s Las Cruces Diocese, local elected officials, Doña Ana County authorities rolled up their sleeves and came together at certain points with the federal government’s point men to improve Vado-Del Cerro and turn it into a  “model colonia” for similar border communities.

Born in 1994-95, the Colonia Task Force for the Development of Rural and Urban Policy proposed a Marshall-like plan to uplift Vado-Del Cerro and other colonias.

In a funding application to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the task force underscored it was guided by the precepts of the US Catholic Bishops’ 1986 letter on the US economy, “Economic Justice for All,” which upheld human rights and dignity, community participation and special obligations to the poor and vulnerable.

On another level, the Church inspired the creation of  citizen organizations like Vado-Del Cerro’s Center of  Strength and Unity and the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council.

While no Marshall-sized  investment in the colonias ever emerged, notable improvements in infrastructure did take place. In April 2003, the Doña Ana County Commission passed a resolution making the colonias a priority focus.

In a later report, Doña Ana County listed new county-wide colonia projects funded to the tune of more than $15 million. In Vado-Del Cerro,  money was spent on new flood control, road paving, housing, drainage and village/community districting, according to the summary. On the educational front, meanwhile, the new Vado Elementary School opened in 2005 as part of the Gadsden School District.

HUD  concluded that  development efforts in Vado-Del Cerro represented a “success story” for the model colonias concept.

Interviews with several community leaders give a decidedly more mixed picture of the current situation.

Retiring Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez was one of the key actors in Colonia Task Force and the Vado-Del Cerro story. Bishop Ramirez credits cooperation across political party lines,   strong community involvement and the involvement of the Catholic Campaign for Community Development for helping bringing betterments to Vado-Del Cerro and the other 36 declared colonias of Doña Ana County.

“So there’s a lot of community organizing that takes place in the colonias, but above all a hope is given to (residents) that life can be better once they are united and work together for a better future,” Bishop Ramirez says.

The religious leader is now optimistic that the 2010 New Mexico State Legislature’s approval of the Colonias Infrastructure Fund marks another important step on the road of progress. “We hope that eventually this will solve many of the problems of so many of our people,” Bishop Ramirez says. “Even a simple thing like gas lines.”

Mitch Boyer likewise voices support for the first-ever creation of a modest but specific state funding mechanism dedicated to New Mexico’s colonias. “Hopefully, when these funds became available, we’ll be able to take advantage of that and finish some of the things we definitely need in this community,” he says.

Historically, flooding has been a nasty problem in Vado-Del Cerro, dramatized most recently by  the inundations of  2004 and 2006.

“Devastating” is how Boyer describes the 2006 episode,  when dead horses and animals were spotted floating around an instant lake contaminated with spilled sewage. “And then you could see kids playing in it like it was a swimming pool, and then they were basically swimming in a septic tank,” he says.

According to the long-time activist, funds that could have built a retention dam on the desert mesa above Vado-Del Cerro failed to materialize, and Doña Ana County was ill-equipped with emergency response plans and equipment for a natural disaster the magnitude of the 2006 flood. Boyer says he is hopeful post-flood emergency preparedness planning and recent flood control projects will prevent catastrophes like the one in
2006.

Headquartered up the highway in Las Cruces, the County of Doña Ana is the primary agency responsible for developing unincorporated Vado-Del Cerro; funds from different government sources are channeled through the county for projects in Vado-Del Cerro and the other colonias.

High unemployment and  poverty, which afflicted at least 33 percent of the local population in 1999 according to a HUD report, persist as deep-rooted  structural problems in Vado-Del Cerro. And in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the situation could be worsening.

America Terrazas, director of the  South Valley Community Resource Center in Vado-Del Cerro, oversees the distribution of food boxes to needy seniors as well as citizens of all ages. According to the Doña Ana County official, 300 elderly residents alone pick up a box of food every month.

Previously, only the poorest people would show up for a box,  but  people of once-higher social strata now turn up at the Center seeking food help, Terrazas says.  “Everybody is lining up for these services,” she reports.

Based on recent food bank registrations, Terrazas estimates that the local unemployment rate could hover between 30-40 percent.

Vado-Del Cerro has no downtown,  but the county-operated community center serves a function very similar to that of downtowns elsewhere or even the village plaza of other eras.

Visible from Interstate 10,  a medium-sized building with a small park and basketball hoop hosts food assistance programs, senior citizens’ activities, samba dance classes, youth meetings, ESL instruction and much more.

“It’s the one stop for everybody,” Terrazas says.

But as the only full-time paid staff member, Terrazas depends on volunteers to keep the center running. “Thank god  I have volunteers,” she quips.

Until this year, high school drop-outs could study for their GED at the Center, but budget cutbacks now force students to attend class in Anthony, a community close by but still requiring a private vehicle to reach, Terrazas adds.

Sylvia Sierra, director of the Doña Ana County Health and Human Services,  says her agency has intentionally made the community centers in Vado-Del Cerro and five other colonias the centralized locations for delivering services and disseminating information in far-flung rural zones where transportation, communication and isolated living quarters  present challenges.

As a plus, the centers are places where elected representatives can go to meet their constituents and hear out concerns, Sierra says.  “That’s where the community gathers to meet their commissioners and county staff,” she adds. “These centers have become the hub of much of the social development and economic development of the community as well.”

From June 2010 to June 2011, the community center for Vado-Del Cerro registered 14,255 individual visits for different activities and purposes, according to Sierra.

“These spaces are very, very important for connecting people in rural communities with the outside world,” says colonias scholar Gina Nunez-Mchiri, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas El Paso. Nunez-Mchiri has attended different events and activities at Vado-Del Cerro’s community center over the years.

As Vado-Del Cerro moves into the next century of New Mexico statehood,  what are some of the visions of the future its residents and neighbors hold?

After four decades in Del Cerro,  Dora Dorado is more than knowledgeable about the people and place she calls home.

The Mexico-born woman has worked in a local pecan processing plant, haggled with labor contractors over pay deductions in the onion and chile fields and worked for or collaborated with local non-profits including the Center of Strength and Unity, the Colonias Development Council and Tierra Del Sol Housing Development Corporation.

Dorado says the young and the old need more diversions. She recalls a visit with her children to the family homeland of Zacatecas, Mexico, where her two daughters were “thrilled” by a visit to a trendy ice cream shop with flashy lights and music. “Here they have nothing like that,” she observes.

For the elders, Dorado says it would be nice to see dance contests and the like for shut-in and sometimes ailing seniors who still have big hearts and plenty of gusto for living. “That’s my vision for the future.”

Besides jobs, transportation simmers as a burning issue. The University of Texas’ Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri contends that planners should “think strategically” and outside the box for resolving the lack of public transportation, perhaps taking a cue from Latin America, where small passenger vans and taxis are abundant.

“And that would be a great investment opportunity,” Nunez-Mchiri affirms. “Certainly, an opportunity to partner between government and private industry and citizens.”

Despite funding gaps, government red tape and assorted ups and downs surrounding various development projects,  Mitch Boyer agrees with other community leaders that Vado is “slowly but surely” improving. And Boyer says there is no reason Vado should not resemble other, more developed places in his county. “I’d like to see our community look no differently from a community like Las Cruces or Anthony, with nice gutters, curbs and public transportation.” he says.

Currently, the village council is studying the pros and cons of incorporation, Boyer says. In 2010, the colonia of Anthony just down the valley roads incorporated as a town.

“We would like to have more control over our own destiny,” Boyer adds. “Right now, there’s things that happen, business that could be put in our community and the local community will have no knowledge to it, because it’s a done deal.”

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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