NO WATER OR ELECTRICITY BUT BOUNDLESS SPACE
LIFE ON THE MESA VIDEO
The Pajarito Mesa, a treeless plateau never licensed for housing but home to more than 400 families, is one of the largest communities, other than some on the Mexican border, to exist off the grid. More Photos »
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: April 18, 201
ALBUQUERQUE — Fermin Roman knew he was a pioneer when he bought his homestead on the Pajarito Mesa, a treeless plateau outside Albuquerque. But the seller assured him that water and power would arrive in a year or two.
Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Lacking electricity, Alicia Montes, with her grandson Jairo, relies on a wood-burning stove. More Photos »
Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Fermin Roman uses elevated water tanks to feed his showers, toilets and kitchen sink. More Photos »
The New York Times
This month, the mesa is to get a single metered water spigot. More Photos »
“I’m still waiting,” he said the other day, nearly 20 years later.
Now home to more than 400 families, the mesa is one of the largest communities, other than some along the Mexican border, to survive entirely off the grid — without running water, electricity, streets or mail. Here is a maze of unnamed dirt roads, with nary a grocery store or barbershop in sight. Adding to the sense of dislocation, Albuquerque’s skyline shimmers, Oz-like, on the horizon, a half-hour’s drive away.
Mr. Roman, like many of the hardy residents of the mesa, has improvised a frugal kind of comfort. Working evenings after his construction job, he wore out three wheelbarrows leveling an arroyo to build his cinder-block house. He hauls purchased water to elevated tanks that feed the kitchen sink, showers and flush toilets. Four solar panels run lights and television, while the refrigerator, stove and even his wife’s hair curler run on propane.
Many more recent arrivals are far less comfortable, crowding into dilapidated trailers, running noisy generators for electricity whenever they can afford the gasoline, using buckets for bathing and ice chests to keep milk.
The Pajarito Mesa community, scattered over 28 square miles, is 90 percent Hispanic and mostly poor, and includes an uncounted but large number of illegal immigrants. But they are not squatters: residents buy or rent their plots, and the owners pay property taxes, one of the many oddities of a community that is isolated in plain sight.
Access to water and electricity has been stymied by a legal mess and a lack of political power in the largely nonvoting community. The mesa was never legally subdivided, no streets or rights of way for power lines were set aside, and the area was never licensed for housing.
In a small step forward, this month the mesa will finally get its first water supply — a metered spigot at a single site where people can fill their barrels, instead of having to drive anywhere from 10 to 18 miles. Getting even this much took 10 years of organizing residents and pestering state and county officials, a campaign led by Sandra Montes, a former housewife who moved to the mesa in 1997 “without realizing how hard it was going to be,” she said.
In 2005, Ms. Montes, who now works for the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, corralled Gov. Bill Richardson during a public appearance in distant Las Cruces, describing the plight of the mesa and getting him to provide state aid for the water project.
Progress has come in small increments. Doctors from the University of New Mexico have started offering free medical care in a mobile clinic once a month. A new neighborhood association has worked with the county to give each home a Global Positioning System address so that sheriffs and ambulances can find their way to emergencies, rather than waiting for a guide at the base of the plateau.
Art De La Cruz, who was elected last year as a commissioner of Bernalillo County, has taken an interest in the mesa and hopes to straighten out land rights and eventually bring basic services. But no one has illusions about how quickly this will happen.
“In a nutshell, it’s an illegal community,” he said. “But I think that on a humanitarian level we have an obligation to help.”
“There’s no political capital for me in this at all,” Mr. De La Cruz added. Spending tax money on the mesa is not popular with many in the valley below, who feel that the settlers benefit by avoiding regulations and license fees that others have to pay, yet are now demanding equal services, he said.
Mr. De La Cruz hopes to get a federal grant to develop a master plan for the area. The dirt tracks used by mesa residents cross over neighbors’ properties, and the biggest expense of such a plan, he said, would be buying rights of way from landowners.
In meetings on the mesa, the commissioner has had a taste of the feisty individualism that could slow things down. “Almost certainly, some will say, ‘I don’t want a road splitting my 10 acres,’ ” Mr. De La Cruz said.
For all the hardships — including, in the spring, skin-stinging dust storms that turn the cobalt sky brown — many of the settlers like the remoteness, and they have adapted to life with minimal water and energy, conserving by necessity. Many love the stark vistas, the elbow room and the waking up to roosters, and are even feeling a bit wistful about the prospect of development.
While they want running water and roads that will not turn to slime in thunderstorms, some worry about the higher prices, traffic and crime that would follow.
“I’m very happy to be up here,” Ms. Montes said, expressing a typical sentiment. “We like the open spaces, and kids can wander safely.” Neighbors help one another, and the main crime problem, she said, is illegal dumping by outsiders — of trash, stolen cars and the occasional murder victim.
Maria Sandoval and her husband, who is from Mexico, bought two and a half acres here four years ago “to get away from utility bills and a big mortgage,” she said. “My husband loves it here,” she said. “If he got a job, he’d buy more animals.”
They share a trailer with their boys, 10 and 14, while her parents live in another trailer with a niece and a nephew.
While the extended family has created a homey compound, with chickens, goats and a vegetable garden, they cannot afford solar panels or a propane refrigerator, and the recession has pushed their thriftiness to a harsh extreme. Ms. Sandoval’s real estate job petered out, her husband cannot find carpentry work and her unemployment benefits will soon expire.
Ms. Sandoval, now studying to become a court reporter, said that nearly all their money goes for gas for the car and generator and for basic foods like corn, rice and beans. “It’s tough now,” she said, “and we seldom have meat.”
Bernadette Soto, who moved here four years ago to cut expenses, is less romantic about life on the Pajarito Mesa. She does not have an elevated water tank and must carry buckets to the sink and toilet. She runs a generator when she can afford the gas, burning up to four gallons a day “so I can watch my soap operas,” she said. Sometimes she uses a car battery, and “sometimes we just have candles.”
If offered a modern apartment in the city, “sure I’d move,” she said. “Then I could take a shower every day.”