Pho to by Alan Pog ue The only source of water in a Hidalgo great many U.S. citizens who moved to the colonias out of hope, not despair, and that hope may be their salvation. The first politician outside El Paso to promise to help the colonias get water was Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. It was in February 1983, and although Hobby’s office was able to direct some state money toward the problem, his real contribution was his presence among the waterless people. Hobby, a wealthy Houston Democrat, a pillar of establishment Texas, lent legitimacy to a group that for two years had not only been fighting for water but also struggling for recognition. The group was EPISO, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, one of Texas’ community-action groups founded by Ernie Cortes, a disciple of organizer Saul Alinsky. The most overworked part of Cortes is his brain. His method of organizing is not to do all the work, but to teach community residents how to organize themselves, how to realize the power of numbers and ideas and how to use that power. He has always used the church as a base. During its first two years in El Paso, EPISO spent more time defending itself County colonia than organizing. The city’s Roman Catholic churches were split: Some were socially active and embraced EPISO; others were old-line conservative and attacked it, complaining that it was run by outside agitators. Hobby helped defuse that argument by showing up at an EPISO rally. The water issue helped, too, because it was a fundamental issue around which thousands of people could be organized. By September 1983, EPISO was able to draw 3,000 supporters to another water rally, this one addressed by thengovernor Mark White. As the crowd chanted “Agua! Agua! Agua!” White not only promised to help bring water to the colonias, but also said he would return to El Paso and dig a ditch for water. He kept that promise, coming back in July 1985, to dig a trench at the home of Sandra Solano in the colonia of Moon City. Solano was one of the lucky people who had been on the city water pipeline before the moratorium but had been unable to pay for a hookup until White and Hobby persuaded the state to provide special funds. While White’s intentions may have been noble, his actions in El Paso created more tension than they resolved. Only 60 people like Solano were able to get water, while thousands of others, whose homes were farther from the pipelines still went without. Sister Pearl Ceaser, one of Cortes’s professional organizers, arrived in El Paso at about that time and the political pressure increased. Water rallies were held every month or two, at which local politicians were asked to account for how the conditions could persist. With help from the Southwest Voter Education Project, EPISO registered 21,000 new voters in the city and county. Under heavy lobbying from the community groups, the city council passed a resolution urging the water utility to change its moratorium policy. Socorro residents approved a referendum establishing their water utility district. And county voters elected a new team of officials, led by Judge Jones and County Attorney Joe Lucas, who threatened to sue the city to force it to provide water to the colonias. IN AUGUST, the colonias won a major victory. The city water board voted to provide running water to some of the colonias those in the Socorro area that belong to the new valley water district contingent on a trade in which the city would get allotments of irrigation water. To be able to use the city’s water, however, the valley water district will have to fund somewhere between $7 million and $25 million in water and sewer-pipe construction, which would significantly raise local taxes in one of the most property-poor districts in the state. Ceaser, the community activist, and Jones, the county judge, consider the agreement a landmark in the long fight for water. But they say that it may still be several years before all the people of El Paso’s colonias can drink water from their taps, cheaply and safely. To Herbert Ortega of the Pan American Health Organization, the burden of El Paso’s waterless people should not be carried by this region alone. “Somehow the people in Washington have to realize that what happens in El Paso and Juarez is important to everyone,” he says. “This is where the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. is played out, where the problems first arise, and where solutions can bereached before it is too late. Unless you build sewage plants, good housing and provide adequate water do the things you need to do in a Third World country the sheer numbers of the poor are going to increase.” El 14 OCTOBER 23, 1987
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