There is Tijuana and there is a New Tijuana. Tijuana is easy. You don’t have to look very hard to find it. As soon as you walk over the border you’re in the thick of it, a dust-encrusted Candyland where you can buy a churro, pharmaceuticals, a miniature guitar, sit on a droopy-faced donkey painted to look like a zebra, all while being serenaded by a group of hungry looking mariachis-for-hire in loud pants. (Literally—there are bells clipped to their outer seams.) You’re on the Mexican side of the border, but here in Tijuana that palpable feeling of barely concealed, easily dischargeable, violent tension that was so strong in Juarez is missing.
Lest you be lulled into complacency, New Tijuana, on the other hand, is a different story. It’s everywhere to the east, in the pale masses of washed-out shantytowns and factory housing. It is more difficult than Tijuana – you have to go looking for it. It is where there are estimated to be over one million people living, comprising almost half the total population of Tijuana in a parallel zone primarily occupied by factory workers, migrants, and laborers. In Tijuana 95 percent of the city’s homes have a solid floor; in New Tijuana that number is closer to 25 percent. New Tijuana is where nearly 80 percent of people lack running water and an operational sewage system, but where simultaneously the unemployment rate is less than 1 percent (Mexico’s average national unemployment rate at the same time was 7.4 percent). The percentage of the population that works in New Tijuana is 10-15 percent higher than the rest of the city and it has been supposed that there are in fact more jobs than available workers. 35 perecent of New Tijuana’s workforce is employed in the maquiladora sector. The lack of an adequate workforce provides opportunities for immigrants from all over South America, who, in turn, comprise more than a third of New Tijuana’s population. Those people need housing. New Tijuana expands by five acres each day. New Tijuana is the future.
The growth of the Tijuanas in the last 25 years is unprecedented. It has been frenzied, loose, and extremely informal. No cohesive formal plan exists. It’s a new model of improvisational urbanization that requires neither long-term thought nor infrastructural support, but rather quick thinking, cleverness, and adaptability. Shit moves fast here. Speedy Gonzales isn’t some kind of crude cultural stereotype; he’s something to aspire to. City infrastructure can only try to keep up with the manic pace of construction. By loosening the bonds of city infrastructure, potential newly liberated schemes for urbanization arise. And moving in lockstep with the creation of the new is the decay of the old. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty introduced the concept of entropy into the constructed ecology of the West, and the settlements of New Tijuana provide another example of the productive, transformative value of reappropriation and entropy. The surplus piles of tires become walls and fences, discarded vinyl advertisements become weatherproof roofing, palettes, cinderblock and plywood are mixed at will. Like the Spiral Jetty rising out of the Salt Lake anew, New TJ is constantly reassembling itself into some new amalgamation with the remains of the old. Tijuana warrants a retroactive manifesto to parse and make sense of what has happened here in the last 25 years, a manifesto that will formulate a constructed argument regarding alternative future potentials for other built environment based on uncovered models that exist here in the border region. The argument would start with the speed of the informal settlements.
They build 20,000 houses a year in New Tijuana, constructed from whatever mix of available building materials and cast-off detritus that can be recycled and reconfigured into something that vaguely resembles inhabitable space. Here, the only demand is that it have a roof (and even that seems somewhat negotiable), and without regard for anything so outmoded as building codes or permits, they build wherever and everywhere they want, armed with only the most provisional of land ownership titles. In Tijuana squatting is considered an inalienable right. Architecture can’t compete with that. No way—it’s too slow, too dependent on ego and sponsorship. Tijuana is fast, self-determinate, and horizontal. This is why so many architecture schools love to use Tijuana as a site, every frustrated architecture student sees themselves in each resident of Tijuana, a place where the people daily recreate and then transcend the abstraction of the studio and provide a setting where it really is possible to dream something up and build it, with your own hands, devoid of those slow, un-fun things like budgets and engineering seals of approval that architects struggle with every day, but seem so oppressively foreign to a student in a studio environment. In Tijuana you don’t have to worry about any of that, it’s design/build without any formalist pretensions.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to romanticize what are, in essence, dangerously unsanitary habitats lacking in many cases even basic, minimum quality-of-life essentials like light, clean water, sewage systems, and electricity. But that kid standing there in the dark, next to an open sewage canal, lighting a candle is wearing a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey and blasting the Black Eyed Peas on a Panasonic boom box that was probably manufactured less than a mile away. You can’t help thinking about all the other boom boxes that were exported North, and all the people who then bought those same boom boxes, and the relief and comfort all those people felt at seeing the same everyday low prices they’ve grown accustomed to, and would probably angrily demand be provided back to them if somehow the torrential flood of cheap goods were suddenly cut off.
Anybody can see that manufacturing a crate of boom boxes for $15 makes more sense than shelling out $90 for a unionized, benefits-hogging American worker to do the same. I mean, I don’t begrudge the idealists and their inescapable feelings of First World Guilt. The twin cities of the border have always engaged in an exploitive economic embrace, one twin is bigger, the other is richer. But when confronted with the overwhelming realization that this situation is so inevitable, so completely entrenched and self-perpetuating, just bemoaning the North’s entitled status seems too passive and pretty boring. Anger is one way to go, and that typically arises from the sight of the slums, the Lakers jerseys, the Ford trucks, and the maquiladora housing all impossibly coexisting, and the urgent thought that can’t be resisted—that somehow, this is all our fault. And you have to deal with that in some way. Or, you can try to idealize the situation, in a getting-back-to-the-basics, “authentic” kind of way.
The North American communes of the late 1960’s tried this, but they were only self-consciously adopting some of the principles of informal developments and, not surprisingly, they quickly and inevitably collapsed. While the California communes, including Morningstar Ranch and the Whiz-Bang Quick City, were superficially similar, they lacked something like the desperation of New Tijuana. (I hesitate to use the word desperation, but I think what you see in New Tijuana is akin to something along those lines.) New Tijuana is less a home and more of a way station to compose a strategy for escape, which is a pretty desperate concept in and of itself. The other way to confront it is to approach it from a position of self-congratulatory benevolence. And when Architecture with a capital “A” does try to get involved, well, that way lies the madness of modernism. The oppressively bureaucratic, welfare-state housing policy approaches from the mid-20th century have unquestionably failed, sometimes explosively (or more excitingly: implosively, seePruitt-Ingoe).
Tijuana is bigger than all that, and I guess that’s what I find so fascinating about it, the tangled up mix of impossible ecologies that make a city like this seem on one hand so inevitable and yet strangely great and new, not in spite of, but because of the conflicts and paradoxes. Whatever your opinion on globalization and the exploitation of capital, the necessity of an interventionist or weak urban policy, the vagaries of national security, whether you’re pro one side or the other, you should spend a little time in Tijuana. You’ll come back convinced of the necessity for both, all at once, unable to formulate why this simultaneity of opinions is thoroughly inexorable.
But it is. So where does that leave architects? As an architect, I’m naturally disinclined to argue for my own field’s redundancy, but it’s hard to deny that the traditional top-down, architectural design process lacks the frenzied urgency that Tijuana demands. They’re building 1,600 houses per month because there’s a vacuum there where people need housing, and they have the ingenuity to fill it. But what’s being built now is really only serving the narrowest of stakeholders’ interests, whether that is a gated subdivision for upper-middle class families, migrants’ informal slums, or the maquiladora industry’s need for rows of factory housing. You have everything that runs the gamut from the rigidly planned to the totally out of control, and somewhere in there architecture can stake out a position, somewhere in that sweet spot between the formal and the informal, where architecture can interweave all the threads of rich and poor, old and new, individual and community. But anytime architects try to force their way through that hierarchy of competing interests, the initial vision becomes muddled beyond recognizability. For instance, I’ve seen amazing designs languish in the development hell of the “design review” process where every stakeholder from the mayor to the donors to the various owners each have to tweak something to their liking, which by themselves aren’t that big of a deal, but taken in aggregate begin to compromise whatever measure of integrity the architect believed existed in the first place. Trying to maintain any sort of unified creative vision in the face of that kind of opposition is ridiculous. And that’s in a normal situation.
There’s nothing normal about Tijuana, however, but if style is cyclical then you can’t help but notice that the answers the radical urbanists were playing around with in the late 1950s and ’60s were certainly prophetic in anticipating the urgent necessity for new solutions to housing the masses of displaced people and migrants caused by the second World War. And here, as in Tijuana, the solutions were cheap to manufacture, simple to transport, and infinitely variable.
But where it got really interesting was when these guys – especially the Israeli Yona Freidman – started thinking that the architect really wasn’t as important as modernists thought. Form became something that was undefined and primarily subservient to the needs of the inhabitants. In other words, a functioning city is not made up of the material buildings, but rather the infrastructural utility networks and systems of streets and walkways. The architect’s first responsibility is to ensure that these systems are in place, and this should precede all other formal proposals. The network of systems in play in Tijuana vastly exceeds the grasp of a singular architect. How could any one architect plan and design for an inhabitant whose needs are constantly in flux—especially in Tijuana where changes can be drastic, fast, and dirty, and thus impossible for an architect to foresee?
The answer lay in the realignment of the artist-spectator relationship. The user — the inhabitant — would become the creator of his or her own built object and the architect would provide the infrastructural support for the user to plug in to. Process becomes the paramount driver of creation, while the final result remains an amorphous ideal. In this way, Friedman sought to codify the unpredictable nature of human behavior. And in his holistic world view, the erratic nature of each user’s individual actions is allowed to disintegrate the false nature of central planning. However, a major contradiction is found within Friedman’s Mobile Architecture. Friedman, the architect, still designs the framework — the system — into which the user is granted a somewhat specious level of freedom.
Elemental Do-Tank actually built something along these lines in Chile with amazing results. In an evolution of Friedman’s “frame” and “infill” architecture, they took the minimum necessary program for a livable house and transformed that into the frame. The spaces between the homes are left as an open infrastructure for the people to infill with any program they may want. The infill accommodates everything from car repair shops to beauty salons, interwoven with another program.
But as great as these projects are, they are still something to be applied to Tijuana, not to be withdrawn and applied elsewhere. That’s where things get more difficult and have to remain open-ended. That the future is fast and cheap is unavoidable; that speed and ingenuity will supplant history and the starchitect; that the amorphous and accidental will trump the defined and planned has to all be taken as a given. In the end, we have to stop worrying and learn to love the best of Tijuana-ization while overcoming the worst. In a world where the existing urban environment is a prisoner of sorts to its own aging infrastructure, Tijuana’s notions of quickly composing and re-composing urban space in response to future events seems increasingly relevant. And the radical reimagining of the role of the architect, something rooted in modesty and a sincere desire for change in keeping with the possibilities afforded by technological advancements and popular participation, has to continue to provide new possibilities for a profession that suffers from a dearth of bold ideas.
It’s eighteen feet tall. The vertical steel pylons are set closer together than the width of a truck to resist the force of direct a hit, thereby avoiding the possibility of any punctures or vents. The pylons are infilled with an anodized metal mesh, a mesh that flaunts heartbreakingly clear views through to the other side, which, however, is at the same time dense enough to prevent all but the smallest of fingers and toes from finding purchase. A man wielding bolt cutters was shot here by a Border Patrol agent eighteen months ago. (boilerplate response: “the Mexican government opposes the use of lethal weapons in situations that do not represent a proportionate risk.”) The concrete base is over three feet wide to withstand a potential rocket attack and extends six feet into the underground bedrock layer to deter any would-be tunneling. It cuts through the desert for 690 miles, heedless and ignorant of laws designed to protect and uphold environmental protection, endangered species reserves, migratory bird paths, antiquities, Native American graves and religious freedoms, among thirty others. To the U.S. Government it is not a wall, it is “tactical infrastructure.” And no one wanted it here.
Two neighbors are meeting at the terminus of their properties and inspecting a damaged rock wall that divides their lots in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” The narrator is playful, almost goading and pushing the neighbor into articulating the necessity of rebuilding the wall. These are the last five lines of the poem:
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
That second guy, the one moving in darkness, the recalcitrant and plodding neighbor, a blind slave to the cliches of the father, that guy is Michael Chertoff. As reported in the Washington Post of August 2007, El Paso Mayor John Cook stated: “Most people in Washington really don’t understand life on the border …They don’t understand our philosophy here that the border joins us together, it doesn’t separate us.”
The context of Cook’s statement was a lawsuit filed by the City of El Paso, El Paso County, the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, among others, against the Department of Homeland Security. In 2005, Congress tasked DHS with the “the expeditious construction of barriers” to construct the border wall and granted Chertoff power to void any federal law that would prevent that expeditious construction. Thirty-six laws protecting environmental quality, historical resources and native American sites were waived. El Paso believed the waivers were detrimental to the health of the region and found them unconstitutional. In September 2008 a Federal District Judge granted the DHS’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. El Paso lost, and the fence was quickly rushed to completion before a January 31, 2009 deadline. With the damage already done, in June of 2009 the US Supreme Court denied the city and county’s appeal. The court upheld that Congress had legitimately granted Chertoff the power to dismiss any law that could potentially deny his given mandate.
Except in matters of national security, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., are remote and disengaged from the workings of the border. Today it is largely up to the local governments and organizations along the border region to resolve persistent local urban problems in the area, such as zoning and water rights. The border region has frequently been defined as a “third space,” with competing government agencies, and NGO’s occupying this new territory. However, the lawsuit showed that no matter how far removed, the Federal Government can still trump local concerns.
Even in an administration bursting with hubris, when defending the border wall Chertoff stands out as a fount with a number of choice quotes. Among them being, in defending security at the border from El Paso concerns: Chertoff claimed the city “had no idea how difficult it is here at the border.” And considering the detrimental repercussions a steel border would have for economic and cultural future of the conjoined twin cities of El Paso and Juarez, Chertoff stated that in response to DHS actions that, “We don’t want to destroy the border in order to save it.” (Even hearing a government official obliquely reference Bến Tre logic in a domestic setting is both ridiculous and pretty frightening.)
But in the end, Chertoff is no different than the neighbor in Frost’s poem, unable to comprehend the inane necessity, but nevertheless pushing forward with all expeditious concerns, all the while ignoring the difficulty of justifying its existence does not preclude actual construction. As an essential infrastructural component, the wall was rushed to completion and now stands as a thin monument to fear and paranoia.
Succintly summed up, and quoted in BreitBart, the border fence “is a political initiative meant to satisfy conservatives in Congress who have played to fears about all immigrants being terrorists, criminals, and living off the dole,” El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez, the point man in one of the lawsuits, fumed.
Immigration had become a national security priority. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez grow at an annual rate of 6.3% and 5.3%, respectively. Most of this growth is attributed to immigration from within Latin America. It is estimated that over 33% of the cities’ populations originated from outside the state of Chihuahua. Of those that emigrate from Tijuana and Juárez, 95% go north, to the United States. This has created a nomadic class of people, with aspirations for a better life elsewhere. The Mexican side of the fence is less a home, and more of a strategy for escape, which in turn creates an American side ‘under siege,’ – the U.S. builds increasingly higher walls and more gated communities.
A quick note about the second photograph: say what you will about Border Patrol Agents, they’re nothing if not efficient. Less than two minutes after pulling off the road, and about 30 seconds after taking a picture I was boxed in by two white trucks. A cursory glance showed that I was not a Mexican, and a more thorough glance showed that there were in fact no Mexicans stowing away in the trunk.
This would be one of many inadvertent interactions with the Border Patrol. They’re ubiquitous, most notably in the compulsory check points scattered all along the highways of the southwest. Typically they’re pretty casual, and I can’t help but think that there’s always some half-concealed disappointment at my glaringly non-immigrant, Caucasian-ness. And it’s important not to confuse the Border Patrol with their stern-eyed, grim faced cousins – the Custom Agent. Those guys don’t joke around. But the Border Patrol is different. Even odds are they haven’t been on the job that long – the number of active agents has doubled since 2001. What makes them even more interesting, and endemic of all border complexities, is that they’re typically Hispanic. Which means that statistically they themselves are less than two generations removed from being Mexicans living in Mexico. This is something I’d like to ask this guy about. I’d also like to ask whether they ever experience a sense of futility in what has to be a frustratingly obvious system that expends such vast sums of man hours, time and money just to briefly detain illegals in over-crowded processing centers, then deport them back across the border as part of a never-ending cycle of catch and release. And while they’re certainly fraught with complex issues of identity, nationalism and duty, issues that I can’t begin to understand, those are all of the things I wanted to ask about. But standing under the border wall floodlights along a dark, lonely road, I couldn’t muster the courage.
A pretty good indicator of the economic health of El Paso is found in the number of stores tucked into the Sunland Park Mall that deal in only one type of good (clothing) that, storewide, all ring up for the same price (a price less than a student-discounted movie ticket in nyc); as it stands that number is at least three. Think dollar stores. There’s the store where every clothing item is $8.80 (but not $8.88!), the store that only sells Mexican-flavored cowboy hats for $7 (where the arcade used to be), and the store that is basically Puff’s $12 Zoo but now has a different, less-cool name. Most of the national chains left the uniquely predetermined claustrophobia that defines the enclosed-mall for the cheap, ample and available land around the desert that was waiting for strip malls.
But, on the other hand, a really good indicator of the economic health of El Paso is found in census data which shows that the city’s poverty rate tops 27 percent, and the median income hovers significantly below the national average of $48,000 at around $35,600. El Paso’s population is also over three quarters Hispanic, while a quarter of the population is foreign-born. Really, however, neither indicator provides an adequately clear picture of the unique trans-national partnerships that allow the border region to work, and prosper.
Actually, the best indicator of the economic health of El Paso can be measured by the extent of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ progress in erecting a border wall along the Rio Grande, dividing El Paso and Juarez. In a last ditch effort in the fight for its own economic and cultural self-survival, the city of El Paso sued U.S. Homeland Security to halt construction of the wall. In January of this year, the Supreme Court denied their appeals. They lost.
If you’re a fan of talk radio, or are familiar with the rancorous fulminations over the very existence of legal and illegal immigration – part of that broader, more general right wing fear of the “other” – it must come as a surprise that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country, not to mention the happiest. El Paso is the third safest urban center (after Honolulu and New York) with only 18 murders in 2007 in a city over 700,000, and was recently ranked by Men’s Health Magazine as the second “happiest” place in America. The title of number one happiest place in the country went to Laredo, Texas, another border town north of the river. That El Paso is safely ensconced in an embrace of jocularity across a shallow river from blood-soaked Juarez is another indicator that in spite of seemingly contradictory evidence, the border provides a delicate alternate model for economic growth, one that is beset by constant danger by overblown concerns of national security and ever-higher barriers.
How does it work? When former Juárez mayor Gustavo Elizando states that the only way “the cities in this region can make it, is to forget that a line and a river exist here,” he is referring to an economic co-dependence. El Paso and Juarez have generated a series of overlapping economic and functional circulation realities between the cities that circumvent the traditional gatekeeper role of boundaries. Culture, family, a never-ending supply of labor pass back and forth in an asymmetrical relationship of twin cities, one twin richer, the other bigger, that leads to a mutual beneficence. However, there is a constant danger that the pass will be choked off, doors will close, and the cities will drift.
In a Reason Magazine article titled “The Miracle of El Paso,” the author argues that El Paso defies the belief that poverty leads to crime not in spite of “its high proportion of immigrants, it’s safe because of them.” By 2050, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. will outnumber non-Hispanic whites; one out of every four will be Hispanic. With population increase comes greater political influence. El Paso provides a handicapped preview version of what in the future will become a political and cultural reality, one that is, and was, avoidable in the post-2001 rush to close the borders. A premonition of the mutual benefit to be had in monetary and spirit well-being that come from accepting that culture, economics and politics are entwined and nurturing the open, cross-pollination of people and ideas – that the lowering of the wall – can allow everyone along the border to thrive.
That belief is losing. The wall is winning.
In Juarez they don’t even bother trying to keep an official tally of missing women anymore. Once you start getting into the thousands it’s futile for an overworked (and incompetent, corrupt, complicit) local law enforcement system to record so contemptible a number that in the end only serves to underscore the enormity of their own failures. It’s easier just to count the bodies. Which, according to Amnesty International, since 1993 now number over 400. Typically workers in the maquiladoras, the victims are a mix of local and South American immigrants, universally poor, and their bodies are found weeks and months later abandoned in the desert, oftentimes tortured and sexually desecrated.
That in and of itself is profoundly depressing. What is also truly disconsolate is how through its sheer ubiquity, great evil becomes banal. Street after street of yellowed missing persons posters shatter the fragile veneer that there is controlled order to this place and lead to the realization that all is not right, that the strong do prey on the weak, and that the powerless have no recourse. It’s not apathy so much as acceptance – a resigned shrug that this is just part of the urban space here.
The urban space is contested on multiple fronts. After the third open-top humvee, complete with six-man coterie armed with fully automatic assault rifles rolls by you become aware that the streets are being reappropriated as a staging ground in a long running, low-level civil war between the state and the federal police. After spotting the fifth hummer (complete with mounted anti-armor .50 cal gun) parked in front of a taco stand outside Plaza Benito Juarez, the novelty of being able to walk over a bridge and in the span of five minutes be immersed in two very different realities began to fade.
But don’t get me wrong, I think Juarez is still a worthwhile place to visit. Probably not in a let’s drink tequila and buy prescription drugs recreational kind of way, but rather in a bleak, let’s honestly see how the border space between two asymmetrical nations is constructed and how do we as Americans respond to that way. Juarez is not Mexico and El Paso is not America. They are more complex, global nodes. A nomadic, aterritorial space, symbiotic in nature, and, while arbitrarily split, maintains a cultural porosity. Here is where the aspirations of a whole class of people wash up against an increasingly inward-looking first world barrier. To be a consumer in America is to be a part of this system of NAFTA accommodating, cheap-goods-producing maquiladora factories. And however loathsome it may be, this is its reality.
Here’s the setting: 4pm at the Mercado Juarez, the enclosed market in the city center, the best place to hone your haggling skills if you’re looking for leather goods or turquoise jewelry. That in all honesty is also the best place to immediately be pegged as a gringo tourist and get taken for a ride for stuff that’s actually pretty cheap looking and that you probably wouldn’t even look twice at if you weren’t in Mexico, but that’s beside the point. It’s a fun place, or at least it was. This is the exchange between Mauricio (who’s trying to charge me way more than I can afford -$20- for a wallet). He tells me I’m the first person in the market that day. I ask him why no Americans are coming to Juarez anymore.
Mauricio: “They think it’s dangerous here.”
Me: “Well, isn’t it, a lot of people have died.”
Mauricio: “Yeah, amigo, it’s dangerous for us, but not for you.”
I bought two wallets and walked back over.
“No.” He said. “You can get used to anything. But it’d be nice for my kids.”
He was short, born in Mexico (as I later found out), sported a well manicured Pancho Villa mustache with a friendly smile underneath. His name was Carlos, and I took his waving as a sign I could resist the urge to jump back in the car and quickly drive the 30 miles back to El Paso. I walked over, and after brief introductions we started talking about life in the Colonias – the unincorporated improvised settlements at the Eastern edge of El Paso city limits – specifically this one, named Dairyland after the nearby dairy farm.
Aging trailers, abandoned crumbling masonry structures, plaster and tin – this is what affordable housing looks like in El Paso County. Priced out of the identical middle class housing developments that are forever encroaching further out into the desert or higher up the Franklin Mountains, where they perch atop artificially created plateaus, the Colonias are individual, jury-rigged and like the rest of the region, they’re expanding. As journalists from the University of California at Berkely found out, 80,000 people in El Paso County live in Colonias, members of the more than 400,000 Texas-wide Colonia residents.
While the homes are temporary, the numerous late model trucks and suv’s attest to the nomadic situation the colonia residents find themselves in. The homes themselves are fast, quickly assembled out of a mix of available materials and limited only by the skill level of the builders (from cinderblock, to balloon framing, to corrugated metal), or the cost of a pre-fabricated trailer; however, it is the vehicles that are permanent and reliable. This is a largely migrant population. This generation has travelled a great distance to attain a small measure of the American Dream, born in Mexico or more rural areas of the southwest, they made the trek to the border region because of the promise of abundant jobs. And the jobs were plentiful – until NAFTA.
There’s ample debate about the effect of NAFTA on maquiladora growth, with pro-business groups believing NAFTA actually stymied maquiladora growth. However there is no question that the goal of NAFTA was to allow corporations to easily and cheaply create goods in Mexico, and ship them north – duty-free – for assembly. In a cruel twist, the well-paying factory job Carlos crossed over from Mexico to find, and kept for 10 years, left him behind, and jumped the river into Mexico. This is only one link of the chain of exodus that companies are chasing to find the lowest legally allowable hourly wage. While a factory worker in Mexico can expect to earn somewhere in the ballpark of two dollars an hour, a Chinese worker will do the same for less than a dollar an hour. To a multi-national corporation the math is simple, and according to Voice of America news, 170 factories and 100,000 jobs have been lost to China from the Juarez region. For Carlos, rather than follow his job back across the border for a fraction of what he was earning, he has been struggling as a day laborer, helping build middle class homes in the desert around Horizon City, a planned town just north of Dairyland. However, now that is starting to dry up, and oddly enough, in a reverse Depression-era migration pattern he says he’s thinking about leaving for Oklahoma, but he also said he’s proud of his home here. A home in a Colonia is still a home and he worked hard to get it.
The 2000 census put El Paso’s population at 563,000. A U.S. Department of Defense study from July 2009 projects the county’s 2012 population to balloon to 994,000. The El Paso Times stated in their July 20th headline: “El Paso Braces for Spike in Growth.” While some seemed to welcome the implied respectability that a seven figure population affords.
“I can’t wait for us to hit 1 million. I think it will give us the respect we deserve,” native El Pasoan Claudia Solis said. “I just hope we are ready for all the new people. I don’t want us to be in trouble.”
The newspaper seems to know better and implicitly understood the necessity to “brace” before the deluge of growth overwhelms El Paso infrastructure that may be lacking in viability to support the future 1 million El Pasoans and the ceaslessly growing population of over 2 million in Ciudad Juarez.
The growth of the Colonias runs in parallel to the growth of the region. This area is already being carved up via dirt roads into proposed subdivisions that are a parody of their West El Paso counterparts. Yet while the west El Paso developments follow along the massive Heizer-esque gas and water line, out here in the Colonias the county has no authority over land use questions. The Texas legislature attempted to control the growth of Colonias by passing “the Colonias bill” in 1995 that required developers to provide basic infrastructure, including water and sewage, as well as utilities on any land sold for Colonias. However, developers were able to easily skirt the law by selling the land as commercial use, explaining the ubiquitous “commercial land for sale” signs that I saw dotting the desert landscape.
Which brings us back to water.
Water to the El Paso/Juarez region is supplied by two main sources, the Hueco Bolson and the Rio Grande River. Both sources are shared by both parties in a tentative partnership – a common theme in the border, what Michael Dear calls a “third nation.” Where issues of hyper-security and segregation between the sister cities also must co-exist in a symbiotic relationship of integration and mutual interdependence. However fragile this arrangement is, it is in no way equal when it comes to water use. Juarez with double the population uses per-capita half the average gallons per day of water as El Paso. There are no green lawns in Juarez. With unprecedented border growth, the Hueco Bolson is predicted to be tapped dry by 2020. El Paso is taking steps to bring water in from the Antelope Valley 80 miles to the East.
People in Dairyland get their water from only one place; a man with a truck comes by every month and fills up their various containers for storing gray water. Adjacent to nearly every home is the industrial black cylinders with thousand gallon capacity that store water. They frequently fill with algae, require constant cleaning, and are inefficient on a cost per dollar equation. Drinking water is another issue, and has to be brought in almost daily from Horizon City. It’s a tedious and often frustrating situation. But like Carlos said, he got used to it. It’s part of the inherent contradiction of the Colonias, he weighed his options, and saw that the opportunity for home ownership outweighed the drawbacks.
So, the heart of the problem is really one of growth and infrastructure. In Juarez, migrants from all over South America are pressing up against the border fence, drawn to the promise of plentiful NAFTA jobs, and after realizing they’d been duped, the jobs went to China, they’re attempting to cross over in the hopes of something better. In El Paso, a low cost of living and the designation of second happiest place in America is creating internal population growth as more latinos start families. Yet this spike in growth is obviously straining the infrastructure of the region. Limiting growth is equated with limiting cultural and economic revitalization in a region desperate for respect. Yet opportunities exist for new solutions outside of trucking in more water from ever greater distances. The border region could become the global leader in sustainable development, water treatment and distribution, rainwater reclamation. Solutions that would give people something to be proud of besides the number of inhabitants –an achievement which shouldn’t really count anyway if 15% of that number is kids that don’t have a flushing toilet.