Community clean-ups, wise women, and reflections
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine consciously throwing out all the garbage and large, overused furniture into the natural landscape – but as with most things in colonias and low-income outskirts, this practice is not so much a result of a lack of care for the area as a lack of choice. If a district or city is not providing electricity or water as services to a community, it is even less likely that they are providing other city services like trash collection, stray animal pick-up, etc. It can cost a family upwards of $20 per load of trash to bring it directly to the landfill, and when you’re paying $100 per month for non-potable water, and then also having to buy bottled or filtered water to drink and use for cooking – not to mention other costs like food and your child’s education – spending that amount of money on getting rid of trash becomes a lower priority. The practice of using the desert as a free landfill, or the front yard as a junk yard, is certainly a big challenge for these communities which, at its outermost layer, can seem self-inflicted. However, reality as always is more complex than a simple and free choice, and it is important to remember that the context of income and lack of city services factors heavily into the situation.
As a way of the community confronting the issue, the organization Keep El Paso Beautiful recently organized a community clean up in the colonias, mobilizing youth groups, residents, volunteers, and a slew of donated labor and equipment from the city’s trash collection agencies. After being invited to film the event, Katy and I headed out along an increasingly familiar stretch of I-10 to the Socorro / Sparks area of east El Paso. Gathering at a community center in Sparks, volunteers spread out in about one-third of the Sparks colonia to cleanse the desert landscape, which was saturated with tires, plastic bags, mattresses, and many other dumped items. With Katy’s expert desert driving skills and my attempts at holding the camera steady out the window, we drove around the neighborhood and documented the groups of people as they hauled unimaginable amounts of garbage out of the desert and piled the pieces on the side of the road to wait for trucks. We particularly enjoyed a light-spirited group of teenagers who joked and teased each other as they hauled things out of the sand.
Also in the last few days, we did two in-house interviews with Ofelia (“Ofie”) and Mary, older residents of Campestre, a small area in Socorro, Texas. Ofelia, as Katy mentioned in our last post, knits and sews everything. We have created her own page on the site, so definitely check out the intricate and beautiful pieces she allowed us to promote for her. She told us about building her house with her husband many years ago, gesturing to imitate what it had been like to lay the concrete and paint all of the walls and furniture white (a consistent choice she made for most things in her house, except for her exceptionally pink bedroom). After completing the house and living in it for many years, it has become a menagerie of her creations, most of which are from materials that were gifts or garbage scraps. In her brightly-lit porch room, ivy and other plants glow a happy green and her many birds whistle and bob their heads as she enters through the doorway to sit at her work bench. Ofie’s age is something of a mystery to us, but she has every air of having lived through a century, watching many souls come and go, living through poverty on both sides of the border, and ultimately coming to rest peacefully and independently in this white house which she has lovingly built and decorated.
Similarly, Mary (also a resident of Campestre) has lived a very full life, starting in Mexico and ultimately settling here on the border with her husband, building their current house in the aftermath of a traumatic loss of their son in an accident. As someone who has experienced many waves of loss and grief (only two of her five children are still living), Mary is something of a modern-day healer: the garden wraps around the entirety of the house, full of lush trees, short shrubs, sprawling vines and flowers, and patches of seemingly-indistinguishable herbs. As we walked around with her in the blazing sun, she would lightly touch a leaf or a flower or a piece of bark, as if greeting a close friend, and would recount the remedial qualities of the plant for everything from the common cold to diabetes to cancer. In the back yard, three sheep wandered around under the fruit trees, and she told us how she uses their wool to make blankets. Just like with her canaries in the living room, she would call and beckon rather affectionately to them, but they were a bit camera shy, so they only peeked at us from afar around the base of trees. A homemade well, 35 feet deep, was sunk into the center of the yard to provide water for the many forms of life.
I won’t spoil the next post by giving too many details of our plans for the coming weeks, but we are certainly staying very busy and are lining up more and more stories to be collected. This work, we are learning, is both extraordinarily rewarding and extraordinarily exhausting – and thus, we take time off to tune our new ukelele, to make jewelry, to read poetry and novels, and to experiment in the kitchen. This past Monday was our day off from anything project-related (a regimen that Katy is better at than I am, for which I am eternally grateful), and so we took a day trip into New Mexico. We didn’t visit just any state park, but one with a vast river! Flowing natural water after weeks in a desert, hallelujah! With some coaxing, I got Katy to join me in playing in the shallow, cloudy water and at the base of a dam, which served as a waterfall. Afterward, we had lunch and wandered around the historic town of Old Mesilla, New Mexico, and returned that afternoon to El Paso to watch a movie and relax.
In reflecting on it, Katy and I were extraordinarily lucky to spend these afternoons with elders like Ofie and Mary, and were completely blown away by the level of knowledge and talent that both women showed in their respective vocations. As with almost every other colonia resident we have met, there is also an incredible (and well-deserved) pride that people here invest in their homes. Whereas some of us simply move into an already-finished home, replete with running water and electricity, the residents in colonias are intimately connected to each layer of their living space – something they create and nurture over a lifetime of hard work.
With some weeks already flown by and five more to go, I am feeling very grateful for the whole experience, really. No offense to higher education, but our summer has emerged as this crossroads of learning that outstrips any classroom: we are learning as we go with filming, catching mistakes and doing it better the next time around; we are learning the story and history of environments and communities directly through their experiences as well as our own; and we are learning about human relationships and what it means to build trust, empathy, and understanding across vast differences of life experience. We are doing our best to capture snapshots of real life and to then reproduce it in a way that returns the favor of allowing us to film, but there is no doubt in my mind that the greater gift will always be the moment that we are invited into someone else’s struggle, history, and life story.