El Paso LIFE ON THE EDGE of El Paso is about as hard as it gets in the United States. Jobs, housing and health care are sorely deficient, just as they are at the poorest Indian reservation or inner-city project. But something else is missing here that sets this place apart: running water. More than 10,000 people try to survive the searing West Texas climate without this most essential public service. To say that the water is missing is not quite right; there is enough potable water around, but these Hispanics are not getting any of it. They live in swelling, unregulated developments known as colonias that ring the city from the valley on the east to the windswept sandhills of the north. It is a striking perimeter of poverty, and a telltale sign that El Paso, while geographically part of Texas and of the United States, sociologically is a metropolis of the Third World, where it is common for makeshift slums to arise on the outskirts of cities. Not surprising, is the largest U.S. city on the border and sits across the Rio Grande from the fifth-largest in Mexico. The plight of the colonias has haunted El Paso since the 1960s but has severely worsened in the last ten years, as their populations doubled, then tripled, with a modern border version of western homesteaders many from the city, others illegal immigrants from across the river. For years, local officials seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the colonias existed, as if they would stop growing or disappear if denied basic utilities. But the realization is hitting home that they are a fact of life along the changing border, that they must be controlled and humanely helped. “Water and air are two basic human rights that can’t be denied,” says El Paso County Judge Luther Jones. “For David Maraniss is Southwest bureau chief of the Washington Post, where this story first appeared. It is reprinted with permission of the Washington Post. too long, there was an attitude here that this was some planning debate or something. It’s not. There is no possible good reason in the world for human beings to be deprived access to running water.” “There are conditions here that would not be tolerated in the worst slum in Washington, Chicago or the Bronx,” says Dr. Herbert Ortega, regional director of the U.N.-affiliated Pan American Health Organization. “What we’re talking about is a Third World within our border. It is a very serious problem that can no longer be ignored, locally or nationally. Can you imagine, for a minute, what it is like to wake up every day and not have running water, to wash, to drink?” For those unable to imagine, here is a tour among the more than 100 colonias on the rim of El Paso: First stop, San Isidro, where Willie Madrid sets the mood with a description of the well water he and his family and friends use. “The water smells bad,” Madrid says. “It is polluted because of the cesspools. If you bathe in it, usually you get a bad rash. Your skin will dry up, and most of all you will itch terribly.” On to San Elizario, where Darlene Brown, administrator of public schools in a district that includes several of the poorest colonias, says that half of her 1,200 students live without running water. Hundreds arrive at school an hour early so they can clean up. In most parts of America, girls outdo themselves with excuses to avoid taking showers in physical education.class; here, they beg for first-period gym so that they can get early showers. In the summers, many children stay cool, and try to clean themselves, by swimming in the irrigation ditches that cross the valley. Many people try to drink the irrigation water. Ed Pfifer, director of the valley’s irrigation district, remembers the time a San Elizario man came into his office to complain. He had been going down to the canal and loading water into a 55-gallon drum, then taking it home and straining it through three T-shirts. “And he was mad at us because it was still brown,” Pfifer says. “He was using that water to drink.” THE RATES OF dysentery, hepatitis and lice here are twice the regional average. Many children and their parents have dark yellow stains on their teeth. All of this is attributable in large part to the water. Those without running water dig shallow wells on their property \(in the valley, water can be 20 yards of their outhouses. The water is dangerously contaminated. “In effect they are drinking their own sewage,” says Dr. Laurence Nickey, the region’s health director. This year, Brown crafted a large map of all the colonias in her district and colored in pink the properties where wells were dug within 50 feet of outhouses or cesspools. Pink splotches dominate the map. In Valle Villa, there are 30 cases of outhouses near wells. There are 20 more in Las Azaleas, 20 in Dalias, 10 in Bernal, 10 in Madrilena and 30 in Las Pampas. “The well water is not meant for drinking, but I’m afraid some of our kids are using it,” Brown says. “They just don’t look right most of the time. They feel weak and tired. They have trouble concentrating. They are victims of water. It is all I can do to keep from crying. When I first moved to El Paso and wrote to my parents in New Mexico about the condition of my students, my mother wrote back and said, ‘I thought you lived in El Paso, not Juarez.’ ” Now to Socorro, an incorporated village of 22,000 that sprawls through the lower valley to the east of El Paso, embracing more than half the colonias that lack running water. The big Alameda water pipeline runs through the heart of Socorro, from the city of El Paso out to the ranchers in the community of Clint. But this pipeline is of no use to most Socorro residents. For the last decade, the El Paso water utility has prohibited them from tapping in, trying to use a moratorium to curtail growth in the colonias. The policy has not worked, and it may soon change as a result of intense pressure from county officials and a community organization known as EPISO. The disparity of water distribution is everywhere in Socorro. On one side of the street are community baseball fields hot, unshaded and without running water. On the other is the Lujan Trucking Co., which has a free-flowing spigot from which it fills 2,500-gallon trucks 25 times a day with city of El Paso water that it began receiving before the 1978 moratorium. Hauled water has become the trucking firm’s major source of revenue. One stop the Lujan water trucks make El Paso’s Waterless Colonias By David Maraniss 12 OCTOBER 23, 1987
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