Citizen Colonia

Life and Love on the Bitter, Sweet Edge of Town

STANTON STREET WEEKLY | EL PASO, TX | FEBRUARY 14-20, 2002, pp. 12-14,23.

It was supposed to be a first step toward a better future, Anastasia Ledesma remembers telling herself more than 20 years ago. In her hope-filled imagination, she and her fellow Sparks colonia residents would travel miles from their community on the city’s eastern outskirts to a long-awaited meeting with El Paso County Officials. These men and women of the government would listen attentively to their concerns. They would take the colonias’ plight to heart and help bring an end to the decades-long struggle for such basic services as paved roads, and health care.


“But it didn’t happen that way.” recalls Ledesma, now 70. The meeting was over before it even began, she says. “The entire time we were there, it was obvious that their attitude was one of cruel indifference. If we were struggling in the colonias without water, without electricity, or without paved roads, it was our own fault for having moved there to begin with.”

With that, the county officials began exiting the room, one by one. And as the last representative of El Paso County headed for the door, Ledesma and her fellow Sparks colonia residents watched his hand casually glide down over the light switch – leaving the stunned and emotionally crushed colonia residents sitting in the darkened room.


The story of Ledesma’s first encounter with government representatives is familiar to El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones, who meets on a regular monthly basis with colonia community leaders. “It is the role of government to help and to intervene when there is no one else to intervene,” she says. “They want to partner with (El Paso County government). They don’t want us to be the sole solution. They want to shoulder some of the responsibility to seek alternatives and solutions.”

Ledesma and other Sparks residents knew full well that there was no water there, Briones says, “but they were told that it was coming. They were told this by the same developers who sold them the land in the first place. (Land developers) pointed to the electric poles and the telephone poles, and they pointed to the Petro station just across the highway and said. ‘It’s just right there. It’s just a matter of time before the water comes.'”

As one land developer after another repeated those words, the promise of water became gospel in the hearts of colonia residents, Briones says. “They had reason to hope and to expect that in the future it was coming as a natural process – not as an extra just for them.”

But in 2002, after 50 years of development, finding the money to get that done is a challenge. “In an ideal world it would take $350 million for us to provide water and sewage systems for all the (colonia) families who do not have those services today,” she says. “We’re pushing to the east. Those are our constituents. Those are our children.”

Colonia advocates say about 800,000 u .S./Mexico border residents and nearly 10,000 El Paso County residents live in colonias – impoverished communities deprived of basic services such as clean drinking water, paved roads, sanitation and sewer systems, electricity, and health services. At last count, more than 1,000 families call the Sparks colonia their home. The average colonia family’s annual income is below $10,000, according to Briones; the per capita income in the United States is twice that.

Since her less-than-pleasant introduction to political maneuvering, Ledesma has become a U.S. citizen, is learning to speak English, and has turned herself into a vocal and leading activist for colonia water rights. She is, Briones says, an “institution.” But more importantly, Briones stresses, Ledesma’s enthusiasm for her community’s growth and development has become contagious. She’s helped inspire others in El Paso County’s colonias to register to vote, take the future of their communities into their own hands, and work with elected officials toward that better future that she and her neighbors dreamt of when they first moved there.

“I think my eagerness–no, my willingness–to live in what is now Sparks was borne out of a need for a place to put a potted plant without fear that someone would say I didn’t have that right,” Ledesma says. The daughter of a Juarez curbside fruit and vegetable vendor, and one of eight children, Anastasia grew up in an environment where the freedom of owning your own land was a blessed thing. Her fondest childhood memories are of playfully chasing her mother’s chickens throughout the yard or helping her father tend to their family’s vegetable gardens.

From the day she fell in love with Frank Ledesma of San Elizario, Texas, thoughts of having her own large family, her own spacious yard, and her own “home” took root in her heart. “Frank was a farm boy. He had grown up in the Lower Valley and his idea of the perfect farm home was very much like mine,” she says.

Soon after the couple married in 1952, Frank began working for various El Paso area schools as a janitor, custodian, and maintenance worker. The low wages were just enough to keep the family fed, the bills paid, and a nest egg started. But there was one problem. Frank’s jobs often required him to live on school grounds either in a separate building or in classrooms that had been converted into living spaces. “I wouldn’t quite call it that,” Anastasia recalls with unexpected bitterness in her voice. “I was told to keep the door closed at all times. I had no yard to plant a rosebush in. No place to sit outside and read a book, or watch the sunset, or watch my children play. It was like a punishment. It sure wasn’t my home.”

Hope came in the form of a newspaper ad. The clipping is long gone now. But Anastasia remembers that it had the only words she and her husband needed to hear: wide open spaces, land, and cheap.

“We knew when we moved here that there was no plumbing and no water. What we didn’t know was how nearly impossible it would be to draw water from the ground. Frank thought it would be as easy as it was in San Elizario–just dig a hole and you’ve got a well. How foolish we were.”

Listening to her describe the family’s struggles without running water was painful. Overwhelmed by bitter memories of carrying heavy water jugs, sore muscles, and walking miles just to endure the humbling experience of begging for water, she is often unable to speak “I don’t want anyone’s pity. No one here wants anyone’s pity. That’s not the point. The point is that we want our suffering to be over. We want to be respected and treated like any other citizen in this (county). That is not too much to ask. is it?”

Longtime Sparks resident Yolanda Ulloa, 52 also comes from equally humble beginnings. But unlike Anastasia, Ulloa would not find solace and support in her marriage to face the challenges of colonia life. Less than a month after her family moved to Sparks in the late 1960s, her marriage ended and her husband left the family. Nevertheless, Yolanda and her children managed to build their home on their own. Each day she would walk her children several miles to a bus stop so they could go to school. And each day she would walk several miles to clean homes in Horizon City.

“Despite what people think, I don’t consider moving here a mistake. My need to come here wasn’t just about saving money and having a home of my own,” she says. “I was sick of watching my kids being exposed to all sorts of drugs, crime, and filth in our old neighborhood (in South Central El Paso). I saw a chance for a better life and I grabbed it.”

What activists like Anastasia or Ulloa lack in English skills or higher education education, they more than make up in their faith and deep love for their community, says Joe Rubio, director of EPISO, a group that has organized colonia residents into a political force to fight for water and other services. A real leader, Rubio says, is someone who has relationships
and who people trust.

“And that’s the type of people we’re talking about (Ledesma, Ulloa and other Sparks activists). They’re people with a lot of integrity. Their interest is the well being of that community. They understand the importance of politics – not politics in the partisan sense – but in participating,” he says. “There’s a different mindset out there in how you can participate in decisions that affect your life. They’ve embraced that. I’m in awe just at the faith that a lot of these leaders have. Imagine what it’s like to not speak English and have to go address public officials, at the county, at the state, in Washington, to explain to them the reality of your colonia. You’re definitely out of your element.”

Ulloa says it’s important for her that people vote and learn to defend their rights. “We pay taxes here. We have the right to ask for what is right. If we don’t organize we’re never going to accomplish anything or get our elected representatives to pay attention to us. Before, when I’d go do my thing and people like Mrs. Ledesma would go do her thing… well, (elected officials, local utilities) would ignore us as if we were a bunch of crazies.”

Mocked by both her neighbors and her now-ex husband, Ulloa ignored their criticism and focused on her desire to see Sparks’ water needs recognized and her children’s future ensured.

“I sincerely wanted Sparks to improve. I often appeared on television interviews asking our representatives to please help us get clean drinking water for our community. At the time I was still married. My husband would see me on television and come beat me. He’d say ‘It’s true what the neighbors are saying. You’re a clown. Look how ridiculous you look on TV!'” she says. “It was hard to organize people to take action about something. Nobody said this would be easy. The things that we need–clean drinking water, sanitation, paved roads, a health center–they’re not going to fall out of the sky for us.”

“Let me tell you a story,” Rubio says.

About five years ago, two men arrived in El Paso to head up some of the region’s leading businesses. “Their names,” Rubio says, “are not important now.” As with most introductions to El Paso, there would be a tour to offer a taste of Sun City life.

However, that day’s cruise through town didn’t make any stops at Scenic Drive or even to take the new arrivals out to munch at the funky taco joint where Julia Child once savored the local chow.

Instead, Rubio took them out for a heavy dose of reality. Their journey began in 79901–the poorest zip code in the U.S.A. They were witness to the roach and rat-infested, decomposing tenements of South El Paso and the sorrowful, ever-present shadows of drugs and crime–testimonies to the city’s seemingly unbreakable web of poverty, job loss, absent educations, and greed.

And the tour was just getting started.

Their next stop was still miles away – far beyond a once-thriving Downtown, away from the tidy, middle-class neighborhoods of El Paso’s up-and-coming Eastsiders, and past the sprawl of industrial warehouses that dot the city’s borders. Their final destination was a place whose very existence was once the U.S./Mexico Border’s worst-kept secret. A trip to El Paso’s colonias is a full-frontal assault on naive notions that Third World poverty is something you only glimpse at when your car zips its way around the Sun Bowl.

One can safely presume that Rubio–true to his cause–educated the two businessmen about the harsh realities of colonia life: Driving–or most likely walking–miles to nearby churches, gas stations, or businesses in hopes that you can borrow their garden hose and fill up a few washed-out milk jugs. Months–maybe even years–on a waiting list for electricity. Dusty, undeveloped dirt paths that cut their way through sand-covered, desert hills and up toward your aging mobile home–perched on cement blocks to keep snakes, lizards, and vermin from finding their way in. Or the endless weekends spent under a scorching sun, building your own humble home with blood, sweat, tears, and whatever building materials you can afford.

“After the tour was over,” Rubio muses, “one turned to the other and said, ‘If that was all you had to choose from where would you live? South El Paso or the colonias?’ They both agreed they’d live in the colonias.” Obviously, Rubio says, life in the colonias of El Paso is a struggle against powerful odds. But for many of El Paso’s poor, this lesser of two evils is the closest they will ever come to home ownership.

“The history of El Paso is one of displacement,” Rubio explained. “Look at the Chamizal Agreement. Look at the building of I-10. Basically they went through poor neighborhoods, displaced folks, and left them few options of where to go to.” But, like the CEOs–now two of EPISO’s leading supporters and allies–ask yourself: Where would you want to live?

Frank Ledesma didn’t live to see that first rush of clean, drinking water flow from his kitchen sink’s faucet On Feb. 14, 1990–nearly 40 years after the day he fell in love with and married the young girl who used to wash his clothes at a Juarez laundry – Frank passed away. But ln his final weeks, Frank gave Anastasia something she treasures so deeply that even speaking about it calls forth an instantaneous flood of emotion. “He told me he was proud of me,” she said as she choked back tears. “He was proud of me for fighting so hard and
working for so long to bring attention to Sparks and the suffering that our family and others here have endured.”

Anastasia Ledesma carries that last salute of admiration and respect with her now. she says. “Every time I walk around Sparks working a voter registration drive or I find myself meeting with elected officials–if I’m afraid because I don’t speak English, or I don’t know how to express myself properly–I remember that. It’s my fountain of strength.”

One thing, however, still puzzles her. In the last year of his life, and before he began to show any signs of ill health, Frank Ledesma asked his wife to join him in a pact. “He said to me, ‘Honey, let’s make a promise to each other, OK? If you die before me. you’ll go meet with God and whisper in his ear to bring water to Sparks. And if I die before you, I’ll do the same. OK?'”

It took him about five years, but it looks like Frank may have kept his promise. In 1995, Anastasia received a telephone call from EPISO officials letting her know that workmen would be on their way to connect her home with running water. “I decided that I would be like St. Thomas. I would believe it when I would see it,” she recalls.

The workmen did show up later that same week. “The man came and started tinkering with the sink and doing things with the kitchen plumbing. I wasn’t paying attention to him. I was busy knitting in my living room. I still didn’t want to believe it. Besides, I was busy knitting a blanket and it was going to be cold soon.” Anastasia says.

Shortly after, the workman told her he was done and her sink was now working. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1995/ My family has lived here for almost 30 years, most of them without water.” For nearly half an hour after the workman had left, Anastasia simply sat and stared at the kitchen sink from across the room. But eventually, curiosity got the best of her.

Deja vu was in the air. For years she had been tormented by cruel, vivid dreams of water: water in the yard, water in the toilet, water flowing out of every corner of her home. And water flowing from her kitchen sink, into a glass, and into her thirsty mouth. “I thought that if I turned on the sink, nothing would happen. I would wake up and cry again. I didn’t want to go through that.”

But she did turn the knob. First there was a slow, low-pitched rumble. Then an odd churning. Then silence. And finally, a powerful rush of clear water blasted its way into her sink. She immediately grabbed a glass and poured the water back out over her hand. She pinched herself. Hard. And pinched herself again. “It was real. It was real.” Seconds later, Anastasia was crying on the phone with a friend from EPISO. “Is it real? Am I dreaming?” she kept asking her friend. “I said to myself aloud, ‘Frank. Honey, we have water. We have water. We have water.”

An essay on the state of the El Paso colonias

by Frank DESALES

Throughout the years, colonias have been the focus of major research studies and projects by social researchers, educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental entities.

Historically, these have produced limited information on colonias, defining them as a major problem along the U.S/Mexico border (poor isolated communities facing numerous problems such as the lack of safe housing, social services, basic utilities transportation, youth programs, and medical services; as well as high unemployment rates, poverty rates, and low educational attainment). Although these studies have given visibility to colonia life, definitions and statistics have remained over-simplified in many publications, scholarly presentations, and government reports.

Though there is no doubt that prior colonia research is valuable, the cycle as portraying the colonia as the problem must be re-defined. We no longer can look at the colonia as the problem but as a symptom of larger social complications ~ affordable housing, educational opportunities, no jobs, and access to capital. By identifying problems, we will be able to plan, develop, and implement programs and projects needed to bring solutions, change, and progress.

EI Paso County has approximately 200 colonias with more 73, 000 residents ~ 30 percent of the families live without water/wastewater systems; endure major flooding problems; have an unemployment rate of over 20 percent in some cases; have a median family income between $7,000 to $15,000; are affected by 450 to 550 miles of unpaved roads; more than 85 percent reside in unsafe or dilapidated housing structures.

State lawmakers now recognize the problems we face on a daily basis, but this is a trend that should have been recognized and addressed many years ago. Colonias in El Paso have existed since the 1950s. Unfortunately, few bills are authored to meet the needs in the colonias, while even less are passed. As a voter, community member, and service provider, I feel a more aggressive approach must be made by our elected officials in order to meet the needs of our communities.

One of the most important issues that was totally ignored by our elected officials this legislative session was potable water–the most precious substance on earth. Without potable water, waterborne diseases will continue to affect our health. Without potable water there is no economic development. Without potable water, there are no state funds to convert deed contracts to more reasonable interest rates. Without potable water, families are excluded from participating in state housing construction or rehabilitation programs. Why is it so difficult to make lawmakers understand that water, the basic human necessity, will alleviate social stress among the more than 1,450 colonias along the Texas/Mexico border?

As organizers, constituents, elected officials, and colonia-serving non-profits, we must unite and continue to strengthen our efforts to develop a comprehensive and long-term strategic plan for affordable housing, socioeconomic, and infrastructure development. Demonstration of such unity will give us much-needed political clout and representation in Austin and Washington, D.C.

The mission of the Southwest Border Development Coalition is to create a unifying voice for colonia-serving non-profits and community based organizations to garner the attention and support of the federal, state, local, and private sector to invest in building the physical and social infrastructure of U.S./Mexico border colonias.

Our quest is to promote public policy and to systematically develop strategies for constructive institutional and social reforms. Coalition members Alianza Para El Desarrollo Comunitario, Inc., Sparks Housing Development Corporation, CETE, Bienestar Familiar, El Foro Ciudadano, and Habitat for Humanity have been at the forefront of strategic planning while at the same time garnering the attention and organizing site visits to El Paso colonias with the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, White House Interns from the Office of the President of the United States, and various other federal and state agencies.

With this in mind, we must continue to advocate for colonia families and embrace those organizations committed and dedicated to joining in this effort In the end, children and families are strengthened – which builds communities.

Frank Desales is Executive Director of Sparks Housing Development Corporation which aims to better the health and well-being of children and families residing in the Sparks Colonia and its surrounding areas. Desales is also the secretary of the Southwest Border Development Coalition. This column originally ran on the Web at


For more information about Sparks or other El Paso County colonias, visit the following Web sites:
El Paso County’s official Web site
The Texas Water Development Board’s official site for geographic information, maps, and photo studies of economically distressed areas.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Web site features a detailed background, history, and information on colonias.
The Texas House of Representatives’ April 1999 report on colonias, their history, and review ideas for colonial legislation.
The Border Low Income Housing coalition’s report on Sparks colonia information
The Texas Low Income Housing Information Service’s site for Sparks information
The Center for Housing and Urban Development’s colonia program information site.