VADO, N.M. — When Ruben Lugo sees children skateboarding, bicycling and playing in the dust of Vado’s unpaved streets, he says a lightning bolt of sadness strikes his gut.
Many residents of the rural community in Southern Doña Ana County, like Lugo, have to get their cars repaired every few months because of the damage inflicted by Vado’s unpaved, uneven roads.
But, as Vado residents know, the colonia’s roads are not merely an inconvenience for kids and a financial nuisance.
“Last December, (a woman’s) husband had a heart attack, and the ambulance and emergency services weren’t able to get to the house on time [because the roads were unpassable], and the husband passed away and left behind three children,” said Johana Bencomo, who works as a community organizer with New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fe (CAFé).
CAFé is a Las Cruces-based nonprofit community organizing group that seeks to effect systemic change, Bencomo said.
(Disclosure: NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher Heath Haussamen is dating CAFé’s executive director Sarah Silva.)
Through hundreds of conversations with Vado residents, Bencomo said, CAFé learned that the condition of Vado’s roads was as big an issue to its residents as immigration and poverty.
Children have had asthma attacks — and their parents weren’t sure whether to call an ambulance, as they may not have been able to get through the roads, or drive to the hospital themselves and risk accidents traveling at high speeds on Vado’s roads, according to Bencomo.
Vado’s roads are particularly hazardous when it’s raining, Bencomo said – not only because they are unpaved and not level, but also because of the community’s location within the Organ Mountains floodplain, which makes rainstorms such as the recent downpour on May 18 all the worse.
“You can’t even tell where the road is sometimes (because of flooding) and a lot of these neighborhoods only have one way in and out,” Bencomo said. “So community members are stuck — literally stuck — in these neighborhoods and on these roads that aren’t safe.”
Efforts to get county and state governments to help haven’t brought the road improvements many residents say they need. Legal issues and money are among the roadblocks the community has encountered. But Vado residents, with CAFé’s assistance, may have recently found help elsewhere.
A ray of hope
In January, Doña Ana County Commissioners Billy Garrett and Wayne Hancock held a community meeting, inviting Vado residents to discuss the conditions of the colonia’s roads. More than 160 people in Vado, home to over 3,000 people, attended, Bencomo said.
“We were able to gain some media attention and the regional coordinator of the (Environmental Protection Agency) was there – and she reached out to (CAFé) after the meeting,” Bencomo said.
Debra Tellez, Region 6 coordinator for the EPA, put CAFé in contact with a Texas-based recycling company that had a surplus of asphalt shingles, which are typically used as roofing material.
Shingles are usually disposed of in landfills, but the EPA, as a “demonstration project,” wants to see how effective shingles can be used in building asphalt roads, Tellez said.
The recycling company is donating the paving materials, but the people of Vado still have to pay for machinery, labor and delivery.
To help raise these funds, CAFé members and Vado residents, including Lugo, sold burritos and bottled water at the rally Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held in their community on Saturday.
Vado residents, with the help of CAFé, raised more than $900, which they estimate is enough to cover the costs of starting to improve Vado’s roads, beginning with the paving of Cebolla Road in a couple of weeks, Bencomo said.
A history of difficulty
Residents and CAFé used Sanders’ visit to Vado as an opportunity to bring attention to the community, which as, a federally designated colonia, often goes unseen, Bencomo said. A colonia is defined as a community near the U.S.-Mexico border that lacks sufficient housing and infrastructure.
Doña Ana, Grant, and Catron counties have the largest number of colonias in the state, at 34, 31, and 33 respectively. Other colonias in Southern Doña Ana County include Chaparral, La Union, La Mesa, and Berino.
“Most of these communities are lacking basic infrastructure, like paved roads, like septic tanks,” Bencomo said.
Some colonias “barely got hooked up to water systems a few years ago, or even gas systems,” Bencomo said.
Often, as in Vado’s case, colonias are unincorporated communities. The significance of being an incorporated town or city, Bencomo said, is that residents “get to have their own town governments, their own governing bodies.”
How did Vado become an unincorporated community?
In the ‘70s, ‘80s, even ‘90s, Bencomo said, land developers sold parcels of land to poor homebuyers — often migrant workers — with the promise that the area around the land would soon be home to “vibrant communities” and “of course they were going to have services” – which often failed to happen.
This was allowed to go on because of little to no state or county regulation, Bencomo said.
“They became unincorporated communities of the county that nobody really knows what to do with,” Bencomo said. “Nobody at the state or county level knows how to pay attention in a really meaningful way, instead of providing these bandage solutions for what people are really facing.”
Previous efforts to fix Vado’s roads
In the past, Vado residents have successfully pushed for services including gas, sewage and water, Bencomo said, but “roads have really been a huge barrier.”
Bencomo, who started working for CAFé a year ago, learned about the condition of Vado’s roads by talking to residents.
Once CAFé better understood the situation, the organization began working to help find a solution. CAFé and Vado residents hit a wall with the county government, which said many roads could not be fixed with public funds because they are privately owned – often by a patchwork of multiple landowners.
“County maintenance of a private road is illegal,” Commissioner Garrett wrote in an email to NMPolitics.net. He cited the anti-donation clause in New Mexico’s Constitution, which doesn’t allow spending public funds for private benefit.
The county has grappled with the issue of roads in colonias before. More than ten years ago, after people in many unincorporated communities complained, the Doña Ana County Commission passed Resolution 05-22.
“(This) allowed for residents of the community of a certain road to ‘deed’ over a portion of their property to the county,” Bencomo said. Once the land was owned by the county, it could legally maintain and even upgrade a road.
This was a lengthy and sometimes complicated process that required the agreement of all people who owned parts of a road. The county paved several roads using this process, Bencomo said, but in 2013, the county commission suspended the ordinance that made it possible.
“The reason they gave was it’s too time consuming and it takes too much money,” Bencomo said.
Garrett elaborated on this, saying it “turned out to be more expensive and cumbersome than expected.”
“Title searches and surveying for a single road could cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “Just one property owner could hold up the potential transfer of a road used by dozens of families by refusing to participate.”
Garrett also said turning a potentially endless number of private roads into county roads could deplete the County Roads Department’s operating funds and existing county roads’ conditions would decline.
Garrett said Doña Ana County is responsible for more than 1,300 miles of road, about 550 of which are paved. “Every year the county accepts a few more miles of road to the system it maintains,” he said.
With 05-22’s suspension, Vado residents are left to deal on their own with roads that are still privately owned, Bencomo said – “which of course is very expensive for families.”
Despite this, Lugo said, Vado residents attempted to fix the roads on their own, with their own money, which settled the issue for a time. Then, about a year ago, the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority came into town to install new water lines along Cebolla Road.
“They left (the roads) in bad condition,” Lugo said, as translated by Magdalena Giron, a certified interpreter for the State of New Mexico.
NMPolitics.net contacted Karen Nichols, projects manager for the Water Authority. “I would disagree with (Lugo’s) assessment,” she said.
Nichols said the Water Authority, which owns and operates the water pipes beneath Vado’s roads, was not aware that any improvements to Vado’s roads had been made, nor did Vado residents produce any proof of improvements at a meeting between CAFé representatives, Vado residents, water authority representatives and Garrett and Hancock several weeks ago.
In a memo from Vencor Engineering, which oversaw work for the Water Authority, Vencor’s Hector Vasquez said installation of the new water lines left Vado’s roads in “similar or better conditions” – as the contractor was mandated to do.
Nichols said, from what she has seen, the area on Cebolla Road looks fine.
But Vado residents disagree and so, once again, they attempted to talk with county commissioners about helping to fix their roads. That didn’t lead to a solution. So the donated shingles are, at this point, the community’s best bet for improvements to private roads.
Lugo said because Vado residents pay taxes, he believes their roads should be maintained by the county and/or state.
Bigger than a roads issue
Beyond the roads, Lugo said, the real problem is that Vado residents do not feel part of their own county.
“In Vado you can live well and happy, but the problem is that they (elected officials) have forgotten us,” said Lugo. “We feel (cast) to the side because we are walking on dirt roads.”
Bencomo said Vado’s federal designation as a colonia gives county and state officials the idea that “we don’t have to place as much priority on it.”
“A lot of these communities have a lot of migrants that have undocumented status,” Bencomo said. That makes it easier for elected officials to ignore the needs of these communities, she said.
Giron, who translated during NMPolitics.net’s interview with Lugo, and who also volunteers with CAFé, said the organization and Vado residents have attempted to contact all five commissioners, but nothing significant has changed.
The issue of county/private roads in colonias “is among the most difficult of the challenges we face because of the potential financial impact on the county as well as the anti-donation prohibition,” Garrett said.
Garrett acknowledged that often people in colonias do not have the financial ability to fix their roads.
“At the same time, governmental agencies in New Mexico cannot work on private roads,” he said. “I’ve never heard of an (non-governmental organization) interested in taking on this issue.”
Garrett made no mention of reinstating the resolution that let the county take ownership of private roads.
“When it comes to roads in colonias, we have a serious disconnect between legal authorities, financial capacity and standards of living,” he said. “The ‘system’ just doesn’t work. I don’t know what the answer is yet, but I can’t see anything substantial being done unless the public sector has an expanded role in the effort.”