Colonia Residents Seek Solutions To Hazardous Roads

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
June 22, 2016
NM Café
The dirt roads in some residential areas of Vado, NM turn into a thick clay after it rains making them hazardous to traverse.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Isabel Hidalgo poses with her father's favorite horse "Barbie." Her father died of a heart attack in December. Emergency vehicles got lost trying to reach her house because lots of roads in her neighborhood are unmarked.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Isabel Hidalgo and her mother visit with rabbits they keep in their yard. The family lives in a mobile home on a dirt road in Vado, New Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Benito Levario purchased land in Vado decades ago knowing that he would be responsible for maintaining the roads to his house. Subdivision ordinances now require developers to have infrastructure in place before selling plots of land.
NM Café
The unpaved roads in Vado, New Mexico, can be dangerous after it rains.

VADO — All it takes for the roads to become impassable in this rural community in southern New Mexico is a quick summer shower.

"When it rains you can't tell where the field starts and the road ends," said Johana Bencomo, a community organizer for the faith based non-profit NM Café in nearby Las Cruces.

Bencomo steered her white sedan across craters in the road. To her right, tiny sorghum plants were just beginning to sprout on a dirt field. To her left, a series of mobile homes sat baking in the summer sun.

Low-income communities in rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, known as colonias, have long struggled for access to basic infrastructure like water and sewage pipes. In Vado, the current focal point is bad roads. It's still a few weeks before the rainy season turns them into slick, muddy clay. The trouble now is dust.

"A community member that we work very closely with, her son has asthma…which we know can be caused by dirt roads," Becomo said.

Asthma is one among a list of problems locals blame on the roads. People say they spend thousands on car repairs they can scarcely afford. Many are immigrant families who labor at area farms, dairies or in construction. Some are retired veterans. School buses won't go near their homes. Children often miss class, are late or arrive in muddy clothes.

Despite the challenges, Isabel Hidalgo, a 14-year-old who lives in Vado with her mother and three brothers,  said it's a great place to grow up. Most of her friends live within walking distance.

"In the middle of the night, like at midnight, we'll be outside playing and I love that because I feel safe around here," she said.

But on the first night of December last year, Isabel's sense of security was shattered. Her father had a heart attack. The family called 911.

"They took so long to get here because of the roads," Isabel said.

First responders got lost trying to reach her house. The confusion is recorded in the emergency response report for that night. Many residential roads in Vado lack streets signs, and GPS is unreliable. A few days before her father's heart attack it had rained and Isabel said the roads were in bad shape.

Her father died before the ambulance could take him to the hospital.  

"I remember my dad saying goodbye to me," she said.

Families who live in colonias have often felt forgotten. This May Vado had an unexpected moment in the spotlight when presidential candidate Bernie Sanders decided to visit.

Locals used the opportunity to fundraise. They made $1,000 selling water bottles to Sanders fans—money they’ll use to transport 60 tons of recycled roof shingles from El Paso. A company donated the material, which can be used to lay over the roads.

Bencomo said it’s a temporary solution.

"We hope that it provides some relief as we continue to work with the county and state to really improve the system that has put these folks in these conditions," she said.

There are thousands of colonias like Vado spread across the U.S./Mexico border from California to Texas. Many sprang up decades ago, after big property owners sold off small rural plots cheaply.

“Let's just say that they were subdivided in a way that would be illegal today," said Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett.

Today, subdivision ordinances require developers to put in infrastructure like roads and utilities prior to selling plots of undeveloped land and get prior approval from multiple agencies, including the county. 

Most residents in Vado now have access to the full suite of utilities including water, electricity and sewer lines. They also have an elementary school and a community center. Principal roads, some managed by the county, are paved.

As for improving the dirt roads that remain in Vado's residential zones, the way forward is costly and complex.

Garrett, who represents Vado on the county commission, sat in on a meeting in January where locals pleaded for solutions to their road dilemma. But the county is limited in what it can do. The worst roads in Vado are on private property. And New Mexico’s constitution prohibits the use of public funds on private land.

“This is a really tough problem and it's not unique to Doña Ana County," Garrett said. "I think this is a problem along the border everywhere with colonias.”

One option is for colonia residents to deed the roads over to the county. The legal fees to pull that off can top $300,000 for one stretch of road. Another option is for the state legislature to approve the use of taxpayer money to improve these roads as a matter of public health and safety. Commissioner Garrett said he’s yet to find any political support for that idea.

“I've been working on this for five years," he said. "And we need to find some creative solutions.”