Department: Organize!

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  • Thirsty for Justice

    Some 200 miles from the Mexican border, residents of New Mexico's 23-year-old Pajarito Mesa community pay taxes but lack essential services like roads, electricity and emergency services. Perhaps the most pressing need for the 1,080 residents is one that many people take for granted water. In 1997, the "SouthWest Organizing Project": (SWOP), based in Albuquerque, began organizing in Pajarito Mesa, 10 miles south of the city in Bernalillo County. SWOP exists to empower the powerless, so organizing this community seemed like a natural fit. Many Pajarito Mesa residents are not only poor, but can't vote because they aren't U.S. citizens. Robby Rodriguez, SWOP's director, says elected officials' attitude about the disenfranchised community members could be summed up as, "Why should we care?" Many small towns near the Mexican border, some with a population of mostly recent immigrants and others with many long-time residents, share Pajarito Mesa's conditions. Many of the towns were subdivided by unscrupulous developers, who saw no need to install basic infrastructure to accompany their house lots. Since the late 1980s, state and county governments in the region have devised special legislation to try to bring services to these towns, often called "colonias." But progress has come slowly. It was one of these developers who first drew SWOP's attention to Pajarito Mesa. SWOP worked with community residents to go to court to ensure they had proper title to their lands, after the developer tried to evict them. Afterwards, SWOP went door-to-door (it's the only way to reach people, says Rodriguez), surveying Pajarito Mesa residents to uncover the burning issues in the community. This is how SWOP often identifies campaign issues in New Mexican communities, meeting people in their homes to build relationships. Organizers also sometimes meet with groups of neighbors and then call community-wide meetings. In this case, water surfaced from the door-to-door survey as the residents' first priority. As taxpaying residents, the community members should ideally receive basic services like potable water from the county, he says. As SWOP's presence grew in the community, the organization engaged a passionate community member named Sandra Montes. "I was a housewife," she says, when SWOP first started organizing the community. "I had never led anything." Two other Pajarito Mesa residents connected to SWOP through the water campaign and are also now on the group's staff. "Part of our theory of how change happens is that people transform in the process of trying to transform their communities," says Rodriguez. "It made sense for us to invest in their leadership potential." SWOP had asked Montes to help with outreach to other residents and to invite SWOP into the community. As a result, she eventually assumed a leadership role among the residents and with SWOP. She first volunteered, then worked part-time, and now works as a full-time organizer. "I was going through the same needs" as the other community members, she says. "We didn't have any infrastructure at all. No drinking water, no electricity." Transporting water to Pajarito Mesa is demanding, and exhausting. Community members drive as far as 20 miles for drinking water, and their vehicles struggle to make it up hills on the way home. The weight of the water makes for a slow and dicey ride that overheats cars. Building a well in the community seemed like an obvious, relatively simple solution to the problem. In 2000, SWOP organized 150 of the community residents into the Mutual Domestic Water Users Association. Rodriguez says that this association functions as a utility or, as he calls it, a "quasi-government" agency. SWOP trained residents in how to form an association, and in public speaking, board development and other skills. The experience of developing the association and fighting to build the well has been empowering for residents, says Montes. But forming the water association was just the first step. Montes, the community and SWOP have run into countless stumbling blocks on the way to building their well. In 2002, the community's dire need for water prompted the "United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utilities Service": to grant Pajarito Mesa "emergency status" and $500,000 to dig a well. The community had to fulfill an exhaustive list of conditions in order to build the well with the USDA money, Montes says. They were required to build a road near the well, for example, but couldn't get permission from a nearby landowner. Also, the process of obtaining a permit to take ground water was a long one that became bogged down in the county bureaucracy. Then came a proposal to expand an 80-acre landfill located adjacent to the community. The expansion would have interfered with the well project. The landfill's owners held community meetings, trying to win over residents who had supported building the well. Residents managed to halt the expansion, but only after filing a lawsuit. The community didn't have the time, connections and resources to meet all of the USDA conditions, so the grant expired. Half a million dollars disappeared, and the community still didn't have water. In 2005, Montes met with the person who would eventually give her hope that she might find money to drill the well. She went to the border town of Las Cruces, New Mexico, to hear Governor Bill Richardson announce brand-new funding for colonias. By this time, stories in the Albuquerque media about the water issue and SWOP's efforts to gain water rights from the county had drawn the state's attention. So while Montes and Richardson had never met before, Richardson was interested and asked her to contact him when he returned to the state capital. Although Pajarito Mesa doesn't meet HUD's official definition of a colonia (an immigrant community within 150 miles of the border), Montes convinced Richardson that the well project would be worth funding. In April the governor's office put the wheels in motion to fund Pajarito Mesa's well. It isn't guaranteed, but the state identified a source for the money and indicated in writing that it was likely to happen. The money would come from the state's capital outlay fund, which supports construction projects, says Montes. Rodriguez credits the water association with the well's progress. "They're dealing government-to-government as opposed to disenfranchised entity to powerful government entity." Pajarito Mesa may at first appear to be a disempowered community, given that many of its residents are not citizens, do not speak English and are poor. But because of the organizing and training they went through, they have the power to work together to gain the ear of powerful government officials, and to fulfill the basic needs of their community.  · 

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