Frontier of Grit: No electric lines or easy water. Bad roads. County warnings. Yet about 350 families, many from Mexico, prefer this plateau of dirt to the drawbacks of Albuquerque 12 miles away. And the settlers continue to come, their mobile homes and the American Dream in tow.

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

PAJARITO MESA — Logistically, it was a fairly simple move.
Three men in a truck hauled a mobile home three miles across a latticework of rugged roads to a place called Pajarito Mesa.

But the change of address to a place without one was an event of huge proportions in the lives of Joel and Nelida Gonzalez.

Their relocation, to this remote settlement on a plateau above Albuquerque, was a dream nearly four years and two countries in the making.

By 21st-century standards, the Gonzalezes’ dwelling in the shadow of a mountainous tire pile isn’t much.

Their new home, like many on the parched land 12 miles southwest of the city, doesn’t have the basic services that most New Mexicans took for granted decades ago.

But to Nelida, Joel, Adrian, Luis, Susana and Joel Jr., getting this home felt like heaven.

“At first, it’s hard to adjust, to flipping the switch and there’s no water or electricity. But up here, we have our own place, away from the city, and much more tranquil,” said Nelida, 26.

“Up here” is an unincorporated but fast-developing area that some see as an eyesore at worst and a colonia at best. Nelida, her four children and her husband are among about 350 families who reside atop the rural highland.

The story of Pajarito Mesa is as American as it gets one of people forging a homeland out of next to nothing.

But it’s also a Mexican-American tale; about 85 percent of the inhabitants are from Mexico or are of Mexican descent, residents estimate.

Each family some flung out on the mesa’s 22,000 acres and others huddled together in clusters has a different tale of moving to the dusty tabletop of land.

Some are undocumented immigrants whose families double or triple up in tiny trailers; others are city folk who got tired of the hustle and bustle, the bullets, the traffic.

Some own their land and homes. Others rent. Some stay with friends.

Many are happy to live in a place where Downtown Albuquerque is less than a speck on the horizon.

“I’d rather live here than in the city. I think it’s a lot safer for my kids, and they have a place to play, a place to go,” said Nelida Gonzalez, who for a time tried life in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

Others live here, seemingly decades from the lifestyle many Albuquerqueans enjoy, because it’s cheap.

The residents’ choice to live away from it all leaves Bernalillo County officials with a decision of their own: whether to evict some of the mesa’s residents, who they say essentially live here illegally.

County Manager Juan Vigil said that some parts of the mesa weren’t subdivided in accordance with zoning laws although other areas, some with single homes on 20 or more acres, do follow county zoning rules.

“That’s the dilemma,” Vigil said. “By enforcing our zoning ordinance, we could evict some of the residents. But we have to consider: Is that the right thing to do?”

The county, Vigil said, has known about Pajarito Mesa for about seven years. But as the area like other places at the edges of the city and county has grown, officials say they have been forced to consider doing something now to avoid larger problems in the future.

Already the county has fired a legal warning shot.

In the past two years, officials have posted signs in English and Spanish, informing would-be residents that they must have a set of proper permits for their mobile homes before moving to the mesa.

County officials say they could evict residents and red-tag trailers that don’t have the right paperwork, but so far they have been reluctant to do so. Instead, they say, they are trying to work with residents to bring them into compliance with county regulations.

In any case, some residents say it’s doubtful those alerts have stopped many people from coming. About 40 new families moved to the mesa over the past two years, residents said.

Officials also have met with residents to address their concerns about a lack of emergency services a major problem in a place where the nearest hospital is at least 15 miles away.

Clearly, bringing this community into the modern era will involve several layers of work. But things like paved roads needed to carry the trucks that would be used to install the services likely are years away, Vigil said.

In the meantime, and with more growth possible, the county will likely become responsible for more services here at a time when it’s already a struggle to provide fire protection and flood control in more populated areas like the South Valley and East Mountains.

“It’s been very difficult,” County Attorney Tito Chavez said. “We’re trying to balance wanting well-meaning people to live in that area with what our rules are.”

In many ways, the history of the mesa settlement is as complex as the series of lomas, cerros and arroyos that carve through it. It’s a complicated set of stories, different for nearly each settler in the various development pockets along the horizon.

While government planners and lawyers fret over the area’s past and future, many residents here are concerned with today. And while some say they’re happy with life on the mesa, even without the basics, others complain that, despite owning land and paying taxes, the county has done little to help them.

The situation has created uncertainty both for residents who want services and the county, which says it can’t do much until it has a better sense of how various lawsuits concerning land development and ownership will turn out.

This month, county officials are expected to receive the results of a $100,000 study trying to determine landownership and a more precise population count.

The study, started nearly two years ago, was also to look at where easements for utilities could be made.

Residents say they keep guarded hopes that the land history will be sorted out and they will get services.

To many elsewhere, the thought of difficult-to-obtain water, no sewer, no telephone and no ambulance service would be intolerable. But to understand the patience of the settlers here is to understand where they were before.

Living outside the wired world, Nelida Gonzalez says, is still better than what her family could have eked out in her native state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

“I don’t think we could have owned a home there,” she said in Spanish, looking out one of her two back windows at the arid terrain.

“It’s similar to Mexico. But we live better than that, especially with the money Joel can make.”

Joel, a meatcutter in the South Valley, earns $1,000 a month. Much of what isn’t spent on food for the six family members goes to payments on their $4,000, three-bedroom, brown and white mobile home.

It also goes to make their portion of the $18,000 land payment they split with other members of their family, who occupy two other trailers on the shared 2 1/2 acres.

Nelida works at home, spending nearly all of her time taking care of her four children. Or her sister’s three children. Or her neighbors’ children. Or all of them.

For the Gonzalezes, water comes from a well at the top of the mesa, dug less than a year ago.

Some of their neighbors in the area buy water in the city and truck it up the hill in buckets, tanks, whatever they can find.

While Joel works to keep his family’s generator full of gas to create power in their home, other homes run on solar energy.

For some, an outhouse is the bathroom. The Gonzalezes have their own septic tank.
Some residents use and reuse water, maybe at first to wash hands or clothes, and then to water plants.

It’s a simple life, although simple isn’t easy.

The Gonzalezes at least choose to see it as an adventure.

To get to this point, the Gonzalezes left their native Mexico in 1998 with a walk across the El Paso-Juarez border 260 miles to the south.

They had visas then, which have since expired.

“At first I didn’t want to go,” Nelida said of the mesa, a place her family had heard about from friends. “I thought, that’s not a life for kids.”

But after initially locating on the mesa and spending time with other families, she realized it could work.
“It seemed complicated,” she said. “But you get used to it. You figure out how it works.”

Making it work means sharing space with rattlesnakes and wild dog packs. Living among teens who drive up at night, looking for a remote place to party. Living among intermittent piles of trash, stacked tires, burnt cars and shot-out washing machines along the sagebrush. With coyotes and large beetles.
With little more than cracked flyswatters to get at the swarms of flies.

With neighbors who stop by to chat, for lack of much other entertainment.

Without a doctor.

Which was hard for Nelida Gonzalez when she became pregnant with her third child nearly two years ago.

For a time, the Gonzalezes decided to move out of the home they were sharing with another family on the mesa and into a South Valley apartment.

There they stayed until Luis, now 1 1/2 years old, and then Adrian, now 5 months, were born. But life in the valley although close to medical help and a more modern lifestyle wasn’t for them, Nelida said.

“Down there, he ran into traffic and almost got run over three times,” she said of 2 1/2-year-old Joel Jr.
“Then this one,” she said, pointing at her 8-year old daughter, Susana, “started talking about bank robberies, as if they were cool.
“I decided we needed to move back.”

So they returned to Pajarito Mesa with enough to make the first payment on a mobile home of their own.

That was just more than a month ago.

In a way, they are starting a different life, like many on the mesa. Again.

But this time, Nelida Gonzalez says, there is a difference.

“I don’t think,” she said, smiling and pulling back her long black hair, “we’re going back down there.”

Published Sept. 6, 2001