Stories from Lomas de Poleo
Four times now, we have walked across the arching bridge over the Rio Bravo border and entered Ciudad Juárez – greeted by the hot sun, a host of small roadside tiendas selling gum and small snacks, and the relative bustle of “downtown,” a famous and historical area of town which radiates out from the crossing point. A blend of federal police and military personnel are scattered around the street corners. Our friends and community contacts in Juarez pick us up in their jeep or truck, and then we weave along the Mexican side of the border until we reach the stretches of less-and-less-populated desert, west of the city.
We have had the gift of spending two long days interviewing residents, sitting in groups under the shade of their trees or make-shift porches or inside their homes. From their narratives and testimonies, this is the history as we have found it:
Some 40 years ago, people began to move onto the nationally-owned land of Lomas de Poleo, obtaining legal documentation from the government and assurance that it was available for residential purposes and small farming operations. After the initial settler, Luis Urbina, more and more families came and began to settle. There used to be local stores; the official public school in Lomas used to be full of children; electricity was eventually provided by the city, and residents had happily begun to pay their electricity bill by the early 2000s. In spite of their 30+ year residence and legal documentation, Lomas de Poleo has endured a seven-year period of violence and intimidation, which lead to the steady drain of the 200-some families that used to reside in the colonia after being threatened or bribed to leave their farms and homes. Why?
Upon the value of the land increasing significantly with the plan to build another border crossing in the area, the Zaragoza family of Ciudad Juárez have fabricated their ownership of the land, claiming when asked that it is private property. Mostly, though, the Zaragozas are not pursuing legal means to assert control over the land, but are rather resorting to intimidation and violence to drive away the community that has lived there for decades – they claim to planners of the new crossing point that “there’s nobody there.” They have committed a whole host of uninvestigated crimes: they built a fence around an entire section of land; they harass the people who live inside and force them to go through only two gates, which are constantly guarded by armed thugs; they steal food for livestock or simply kill the animals that provide sustenance for the farmers; bulldoze any houses that are left unattended for any length of time; and resort to extraordinary violence, which has lead to the death of an older resident as well as two children, not to mention numerous beatings and injury to other residents. Only 18 of the original 200+ families remain in Lomas Alto, inside and outside the fenced in area. The authorities have done nothing, and have sometimes accompanied the thugs or “cholos.”
Despite these experiences and incredible amounts of suffering, each resident we have spoken to firmly and articulately emphasizes that they are not going anywhere. They will not abandon their land, they will not give in to the lawless violence. It is the inheritance of their children, farming is in their own ancestry, and it is simply unjust that an economically powerful family can operate above the law. Although the struggle to remain has been immense, there was an unwavering commitment that shone through in every narrative we recorded.
Besides this grim determination, there is also resilience, humor, and the continuation of daily life. We spent today intermittently being schooled in the various stages of grinding corn, adding water, shaping tortillas, cooking them, and then gently cutting them open length-wise to make gorditas. We admired a large collection of birds, from parakeets to doves to sparrows, and a very well-cared-for house, despite the fact that it was previously knocked to the ground in the absence of its owners. They are still rebuilding, using many recycled materials (who would have thought that bed springs turned on their side would be such a good fence?), and still caring for some livestock even though the prospect of protecting them is precarious. We found all of the residents to be extremely warm and welcoming people, willing to trade stories and experiences with us as we sat in the sparse, tranquil shade in the remote desert.
We’re extremely grateful for the opportunity, and look forward to using our video work to support their struggle to survive and live in peace.