October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Colonias in New Mexico
Disease and a cold spring reduced the New Mexico chile crop by 30
to 40 percent, doubling chile prices and decreasing farm worker
employment and earnings.
Interviews with mostly Mexican-born chile pickers reveal that most
worked only three to four hours per day in 1995, compared to nearly
full-time employment in past years. The Centro Legal Campesino, part
of Southern New Mexico Legal Services in Las Cruces, is overwhelmed
with wage complaints.
Sorting blighted from good chiles slowed down picking and, as a
result, many piecerate workers complain that they have not been
receiving the minimum wage of $4.25 to which they are entitled. The
poor chile crop has had ripple effects on employment in chile
processing plants. Farmworker under employment and lower earnings are
reflected in an increased demand for emergency food.
The Union de Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterisas (Border
Agricultural Workers Union) claims that the surplus of workers has
led to a situation where sometimes workers "asking for a
[wage] receipt are replaced." Wage receipts are necessary to
collect unemployment insurance, get food stamps, and sometimes
emergency food aid.
An estimated two-thirds of the agricultural workers in southern
New Mexico commute from the El Paso-Juarez region each day. Others
settle in colonias, usually unincorporated subdivisions on the U.S.
side of the border lacking paved roads, drainage, and water and sewer
systems. In New Mexico and Texas, colonia has become synonymous with
Colonias with the worst conditions are concentrated in Dona Ana
County, New Mexico, bordering Mexico and Texas. Most residents of the
county's 35 colonias are seasonal farm, dairy, or construction
workers--colonia residents are about 22 percent of the county's
population. Many colonia residents use butane tanks bought in Mexico,
which do not meet US standards, for heating and cooking.
Marjorie Lilly, "Hard Times in the Chile Fields," Crosswinds,
October 1995; Deborah Baker Associated Press, "Life in the Colonias,"
New Mexican, June 5,1995.