Mexico, USA

On Pajarito Mesa, there's no running water, no electricity and only two roads. But there's plenty of patriotism.

There are no rich people in Pajarito," Juan Gomez Guerrero says. Guerrero, a small, wiry man in his late 50s, is helping a neighbor bang a pile of wooden pallets into a crude fence. He stops for a few minutes to talk about life on Pajarito Mesa, an 18,000-acre tract of land located just 15 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. He speaks rapidly and, like most people living here, in Spanish.

A drive around Pajarito, as residents call it, shows how right Guerrero is: The land is dotted with trailers in various stages of repair (or disrepair), a few cinderblock houses and lots of trash—mostly larger items like sofas and televisions. There are several large piles of old tires.

Pajarito began as a Spanish colonial land grant. It changed hands several times through the years and was acquired in the 1930s by a realty company that divided it into parcels of various sizes. As far as anyone can tell—and there's a lot of uncertainty when it comes to Pajarito—people started moving out here in the early 1970s.

"These were people who wanted to be off the grid," says Craig Acorn, a senior attorney at the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, which has been working with the Pajarito community since 2007. "They were scattered out in the far reaches."

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people began to realize that Pajarito wasn't just for hardy types who wanted to live off the grid; it was also a place where poor people could live cheaply. Nobody knows for sure how many people live here now, but a best guess is at least 1,200-1,500. Despite its proximity to Albuquerque, the community lacks running water, a sewer system and electricity. Roads of hard-packed dirt have sprung up haphazardly over time—the best ones are merely bad, while the worst make you wonder how vehicles survive out here.

"It's on the scale of a developing country," Acorn says.

Many of Pajarito's earlier residents never expected—or even wanted—infrastructure. But those who arrived later say that people selling the land—a complex mishmash of some 2,300 property owners—promised them infrastructure that never came.

Now, Pajarito's lack of services and informal traditions are causing tension. In order to prevent what they consider illegal development, Bernalillo County officials are trying to stop more people from moving to Pajarito. At the same time, they're ramping up efforts to enforce regulations on those who are already there. And they're meeting resistance.

"The county didn't know about Pajarito until two, three years ago," says José Molina, another mesa resident. "It's easy for a guy to say, 'I work for the county; you can't do that.' The thing is: we're already here."

Victor and Claudia Padilla have lived on Pajarito for a decade, in an old trailer on 10 acres of land. The couple came from Juárez about 15 years ago and settled in an apartment in Albuquerque, but they didn’t like renting.

“When you rent, it’s pay, pay, pay,” Victor Padilla says. “Here, this is mine…I own it.”

They knew when they bought land here that there was no water or electricity—but, Padilla says, the seller promised that utilities and other infrastructure would come.

When asked who sold him the land, Padilla would only say, “We bought this land legally from a man who has much land here.” Not only is it often unclear who owns what land on Pajarito, but many residents SFR spoke with were also unwilling to divulge who sold it to them.

“You see the big power lines out there, and people selling land out there point to them and say, ‘That’s the power we’ll be tapping into,’” Acorn explains. “[The buyers] end up being rapidly disabused of this notion by their neighbors.”

Some people buy generators; others, like the Padillas, use solar panels to provide the electricity they need to run their appliances. Solar energy seems relatively easy to access; people typically buy small solar panels and hook them up to car or truck batteries.

Water, however, presents a bigger challenge.

Until recently, the only water available to Pajarito residents was abajo, or “below”—in Albuquerque. That meant long drives, with mesa residents getting water from friends’ or relatives’ houses. Mónica Córdova, co-director of the Southwest Organizing Project, says her organization began meeting with residents about 15 years ago to discuss what was needed on Pajarito.

“One of the top issues was water,” she says.

Many residents began demanding the water they say was promised when they bought land. Finally, in May 2010, the county delivered—but in the form of a water station at the entrance to Pajarito. The water still doesn’t go directly to individual homes. Instead, residents must wait in long lines, sometimes for hours, to fill up the tanks strapped into the beds of their trucks.

“If you don’t have a truck, I don’t think you could live here,” Padilla says. “It would be very difficult to get water—maybe impossible.”

But in keeping with the way residents view life on Pajarito, few complain. Edger Tena recently bought 10 acres of land with the hope of building a house for his family later this summer. Having lived on Pajarito for several years as a teenager, he always wanted to move back—and he knows and accepts the challenges of living here.

“Is it better to carry water or watch TV?” he asks. “I’d rather carry water.”

His attitude is typical of Pajarito’s “can-do” atmosphere.

“People who live here are pioneers,” Tena says. “You wanna live up here, you gotta be a pioneer.”

Dean Philip Kaehele is one of the few Anglos on Pajarito. At 55, Kaehele has the bushy beard and long hair of a stereotypical pioneer. He was introduced to Pajarito by a friend after he’d lost his apartment in Albuquerque, and he’s straightforward in his assessment of life here.

“It’s a pain in the ass sometimes,” he says. “If you don’t know what you’re doin’, you shouldn’t live out here.”

In addition to Pajarito’s “can-do” atmosphere, until recently, there was also an “I can do what I want” atmosphere. People bought land and built cinderblock houses—or, more often, moved old trailers in and fixed them up as best they could. They’d stucco their trailers and tack on additions as their families grew. No one got permits because most people didn’t know they needed them, and no one was checking on them anyway. For decades, the county all but ignored Pajarito, and people were free to live as they pleased. But now, according to Acorn—whose work at NMCLP includes issues relating to Pajarito and predatory land sales—all of that is changing.

“Mostly, it’s been malign neglect as opposed to benign,” he says. “The county has ignored the people who live up there and their needs for many years.

They’ve only recently begun paying attention, and most of that attention has been negative.”

At the center of the county’s attention is development: people living in houses or trailers on land that’s zoned for agriculture and lacks water, electricity and—most importantly, in the county’s view—legal roads. Without legal roads, there are no addresses and there’s no way for emergency vehicles—police, fire and ambulances—to get to people.

“The county’s position is to try to contain illegal development [on Pajarito],” says Bernalillo County spokesman Andrew Lenderman. “We’re trying to do it in a humane and proactive way.”

Yet how the county defines “illegal” is, in Pajarito’s case, somewhat confusing.

“It’s not necessarily illegal to buy and sell land out there, as long as the title is clear and all the documents are in order,” explains Enrico Gradi, the community development manager at the county’s Department of Zoning, Building and Planning. But, he adds, if there’s no legal road to the property—and there are only two legal roads on Pajarito—the buyer can’t move onto the land.

“I don’t know if [the county’s] stepping in to prevent illegal development,” Acorn says. “They’re stepping in to prevent poor people from living on a place they bought to live on.”

For Acorn, the problem lies not with the residents who are buying land and “developing” it, but rather with the people who sell land on Pajarito without warning buyers that it’s probably not legal to live there.

“They know the land’s being sold for residential purposes…,” he says of county officials. “You can’t go up there and think this land is being sold for agriculture and grazing purposes. They know it’s not.”

The county’s views anger Ernesto Rodriguez, who has lived on Pajarito with his family for 12 years.

“If this isn’t a place to live, then why does the county let them sell land?” he asks.

Acorn says the NMCLP has tried to track down the larger landowners who are selling property on Pajarito without disclosing that it can’t be developed.

“We’ve looked at ways to get at [illegal land sales] through lawsuits,” he says. But, he adds, “They’re selling land under a variety of LLCs or shell corporations.

They’re difficult to track down.” (Acorn was unwilling to divulge any names to SFR.)

The county has taken some steps to warn people that buying land on Pajarito may be illegal. Large signs on Pajarito Road, just off Coors Boulevard, ask people in both English and Spanish to check with county officials before buying land. But just a little farther down the road, and at various spots around Pajarito, handmade signs advertise land for sale, tempting buyers with a promise of cheap land.

“We often deal with people not sophisticated enough—they buy the property…and come to us ready to build a home…and we look at the property and tell them, ‘There’s no road here,’” Gradi says. Often, after a buyer learns he can’t live on land he just bought, “those people kind of melt away,” he adds.

According to Acorn, this happens all the time on Pajarito, and it’s a very profitable scam.

“They sell a parcel of land to an individual who then tries to move onto it and is prevented from moving onto it,” he explains. “That person abandons the land and…The person selling it just sells it to the next person. This has happened over time on Pajarito. It’s pretty despicable.”

While the county does what it can to discourage more people from moving to Pajarito, it also must address a longer-term issue: what to do with the people who are already there.

José Molina is 34 years old. Originally from Chihuahua, he has a friendly manner that exudes confidence and optimism.

“It’s a little hard to live here, maybe,” Molina says. “You have to have a vision for the future and work hard. We need things like a hot water heater, but we’ll do it.”

Molina moved his family to Pajarito four years ago when they lost their home in the city. Like many people on Pajarito, he works in construction. And like many people here, he improved the used trailer he towed onto his property, completely gutting and refinishing it. The inside is neat and spacious and has a homey feel but lacks some amenities. There’s no hot water—water for bathing is heated in pots on the stove—or central heat. Each room has its own propane heater, and there’s a wood-burning stove in the living room. In winter, when it’s cold, two of Molina’s sons sleep together on a mattress in front of the stove. He would like to refinish the outside of the trailer, but he’s been told he can’t.

“I was here before they started requiring permits,” he says. “They ignored Pajarito before, and now they’re saying you need permits. I want to fix my home. Why is that wrong?”

It’s wrong, according to Gradi, because altering the structure may not be safe.

“A trailer or mobile home is manufactured to certain specifications,” he says. “If you alter it, you subject it to certain dangers—fire, for example.”

In February 2012, in an attempt to help bridge the communication gap between Pajarito residents and county officials, the county installed a refurbished portable classroom at the entrance to Pajarito Mesa. It serves as a place for the community to hold meetings, houses some after-school programs and—perhaps more importantly for the county—has an office for a staff person from the Department of Zoning, Building and Planning.

“One of the things that [County Commissioner Art] De La Cruz has done is…hire a person that’s bilingual, versed in different codes, and that person’s job is to do nothing but oversee this area,” Gradi says.

That person is Mike Gallegos, who has the unenviable job of explaining to residents what they can and can’t do.

“Michael’s not an enforcement guy,” Gradi continues. “He’s there to work with people, to build trust and relationships.”

Acorn doesn’t agree.

“Mr. Gallegos is a good person, but his main job is zoning enforcement…[and] preventing people who have bought land there from moving onto it,” he says.

“The job the county wants him to do is put the onus of bad development policies all on the back of the poorest people in the county.”

Bernalillo County officials did not allow SFR to interview Gallegos for this story. But Pajarito residents can attest to the fact that his presence—along with the county’s recent interest in the area—has caused confusion and resentment.

“Before, there was no law; the county didn’t care what you did,” Molina says. “Now, they say you can’t do things. It’s too late…If I’m told no, I’ll find the next guy. If everyone says no, I’d do it anyway. They don’t like it? Let them take it down.”

Plenty of challenges remain for those residents who have successfully settled on Pajarito Mesa.

One of the major health concerns is the lack of a sewer system. Acorn says getting a permit for a septic system is difficult, if not impossible, so many people find alternatives.

“I crap in a bag and burn it in a barrel,” Kaehele says. “I pee outside but make sure no one’s looking.” Others simply run a pipe from their toilet to a hole in the ground.

“They have a leaching field,” Acorn says, “which is inherently unhealthy, and oftentimes it bubbles up to the surface.”

Hilario and Modesta Maria Martinez wanted to put in a septic system for their trailer, for instance, so they tried to do the right thing by applying for a permit.

“They wanted to know how big the trailer was, how many bedrooms it had,” Modesta says. “We hadn’t even bought it yet.”

When the permit was denied, Hilario did what a lot of people on Pajarito do: “I put it in anyway,” he says. “It’s all done to spec.”

Acorn sees this as another way the county, which argues that it’s working diligently to make Pajarito a safer and better place to live, may be doing harm.

“What they need to do is stop focusing on punitive measures against people who have been living there for a long time,” he says. “They need to grant waivers to allow people to have some way to deal with their residential waste.”

Clearly, the county is in a tough spot. If they put in any kind of infrastructure—even something as basic as a water station—people may view it as an indication that other infrastructure (roads, electricity, etc.) is on the way. That, in turn, could encourage more people to move here.

And even if the county wanted to put in infrastructure, it could be impossible. The county says residents are too spread-out to make electricity economically feasible. And because Pajarito is private land, putting in roads would require permission from a couple thousand landowners—or, in some cases, the county would have to actually figure out who owns which property. Besides, Gradi says, when it looks like the county is helping Pajarito, people in other underserved areas can get angry.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he sighs.

Yet if the county doesn’t come to Pajarito’s aid, people will continue to live without the basic amenities most developed countries take for granted. And Acorn says the county could take more effective steps to bring Pajarito into compliance.

“I believe the county…using the subdivision laws…can step in and stop land sales,” he says. “They need to take some action, and they’re not.”

Lenderman responded with an emailed statement: “The county is taking an incremental approach to zoning and nuisance violations on the Pajarito Mesa…We do not comment on pending enforcement actions.”

While many residents resent the county, Acorn believes this can change.

“I think the county has to actually earn the trust of the people who live on the mesa, and they have not done that,” he says. “I haven’t given up hope…but there’s some work to be done.”

Many people living abajo see Pajarito merely as a place to dump trash and the occasional murder victim. (When asked about this, Kaehele replied, “That’s why you have bad dogs and good guns.” Of course, he has a pit bull. And she’s a sweetheart.) If people view Pajarito solely through the lens of poverty, they’ll miss the fact that residents take pride in where they live.

“There’s a bond between people living out here,” Kaehele says. “People wave when they drive by. If a car breaks down, someone will stop and help you. A lot of proud people out here.” He’s living on disability, in a small, cramped trailer with no running water, no kitchen and no bathroom. Yet outside his front door flies the American flag.

“I’m a patriot,” he says. “An American patriot.”

In spite of the challenges, there’s an amazing amount of optimism on Pajarito. People there are used to hard work, and they believe hard work will get them their piece of the American Dream.

“People are industrious, who are up there,” says Acorn. “Most people up there are hustling all the time to make ends meet. They do all kinds of work: construction, [they’re] domestic workers, and many are doing something on the side.”

As Kaehele puts it, “Any man who has a truck and a lawn mower can always make a living.” And while they hustle to patch a livelihood together, they look toward the future.

“I bought this land so my sons can build houses,” Padilla says. “Right now, you can’t build, but I think later, it will be allowed. I have trust that the law will change, that it will be possible to build houses again on Pajarito. It will be prettier here in a few years. We’ll have streets, water, electricity. My dream is to have a house, a large house, a pretty one. I’ll build it myself. If I had permission, I would build it now.”

All Photos by Joseph Sorrentino.

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