Photo by Ken
Tourists may call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, but its also a Land of Poverty.
Last January, St. Anthony Messenger visited parts of New Mexico often invisible
to tourists to see whos receiving grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development
(CCHD) and how that money is being used to eliminate poverty.
CCHD is primarily funded by an annual November collection in most U.S. parishes. Its grants
have gone to almost every U.S. state, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. (For
the most recent report, visit CCHD.)
Homes, jobs and child care are three necessities for moving out of disenchantment and
disenfranchisement toward sustainable success. CCHD grantsfrom people and for peoplehave
assisted New Mexicans to improve their living conditions. Other grants enable entrepreneurs
to create jobs and train workers. Still more grants have led to better choices for child
Why focus attention on New Mexico? With 17.7 percent of its population living below the
poverty threshold of $18,100 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,
New Mexico ranks first in people with the least.
Welcome to the United States of America, community organizer Ruben Nuñez
says with a wry smile. We are standing in dusty Las Palmeras, a colonia. Nuñez
gestures toward scattered, sagging trailers: You see here families living in such
conditions that most people will not believe they can be living here.
For Las Palmeras and 36 other communities within 150 miles of the Mexican border, safe
water, adequate sewage systems and passable roads languish on various government agency
to-do lists. Ruben is lead organizer for the Colonias Development Council (with funding
from CCHD). Its his job to help local residents identify their needs, learn who canand
shouldhelp, and persist until the problems are solved.
Ruben knows these problems. He and his family live in Salem, also a colonia.
Why do colonias exist? In the 1970s and 80s, when housing was in short supply, unscrupulous
developers sold unimproved farmland to Mexican immigrants, who proudly sank their modest
earnings into land. Most had only enough money left to plant secondhand trailers on their
Las Palmeras landowners were led to expect that, when all the parcels were sold, the basics
would follow. Meanwhile, many dug their own crude wellsand waited. After all, they
were citizens in the prosperous United States.
Citizen and La Palmeras resident Blanca González is proud of her new manufactured
home. The Colonias Development Council assisted her through a lengthy application process
to acquire this three-bedroom home with one and a half baths. Blancas contract is
for a below-market-value price to be repaid over 20 years, from which she may not profit
by subletting or selling her home. She, in turn, has intensified her activism for neighborhood
What are Las Palmerass most pressing needs? Blanca ticks off natural gas,
a drainage system, a park, a bus to pick up the children for school, a paved road. To
live here has been, for Blanca, a beautiful experience, but difficult.
Blanca and the 70-some other families who call Las Palmeras home are encouraged by current
improvements. Voter turnout is high here, because residents want officeholders who will
Manuela Mendez, in Montaña Vista, another colonia, hopes the power of the ballot
box will help her community of 150 families, too. Montaña Vista has no electricity,
water, gas or improved roads, even though its legal residents battle a lot, she
says. The county requires so much for so little. Sometimes, the cooperation
of several water associations is required to get faucets flowingand thats one
sticking point in Montaña Vista.
For now, Lorenzo, Manuelas husband, hauls a 50-gallon drum of water every day from
his fathers house. With four grandchildren in their home, that doesnt go very
far. And even a New Mexico winter can be hard without heat.
a House a Home
To the north, in Albuquerque, women like Blanca and Manuela and their families can own
homes with heat, water and paved streets through the Sawmill Community Land Trust, funded
in part by CCHD. Near Albuquerques fashionable Old Town, the neighborhood now known
as Arbolera de Vida (Orchard of Life) has been resurrected from land that long ago
held small farms, orchards and acequias (irrigation canals).
At the turn of the last century, these 27 acres became the site of the largest lumber
company in the Southwest. A particleboard manufacturing plant spewed particulates into
the air and contaminated the groundwater, compromising the health of the working poor nearby.
In 1986, those residents said enough. In 2003, theyre saying, We want
the whole enchilada.
What do they already have? First of all, the trustbegun by local residentshas
the land, acquired from the city of Albuquerque in 1995 through a competitive process.
The city has rezoned the area from industrial to mixed use. The trust has built 11 energy-efficient
town homes around an inviting plaza and 12 detached single-family homesand has plans
for further development, even including small businesses.
Homes in the Arbolera are available only to first-time homebuyerslike Laurencita
Chavezwho earn less than 80 percent of area median income. The land trust teaches
homeowner skills and sound fiscal management and helps if anything goes awry in the house.
The land belongs to the trust, which leases it to the buyers. This land trust model ensures
that these homes will not be lost to low-income buyers through an influx of higher-income
While the details seem complex to this observer, the results are easy to appreciate: People
who couldnt imagine home ownership now occupy cost-saving, environmentally friendly
dwellings anyone would envyin a neighborhood safe for children. In her old neighborhood,
Laurencita worried about Steven, her teen son. No more.
Employed by Honeywell, Laurencita lived near the sawmill as a teenager and moved into
her beautiful town home three years ago next month. Nobodys treated us wrong, Laurencita
says, with a mixture of gratitude and amazement. The land trust, she says,
having made the Sawmill slogan her own, is building a neighborhood, not just houses.
Returns for High-risk Loans
Owning a home generally requires income, which usually requires a job. The Catholic Campaign
for Human Development has awarded many grants for projects that create work with dignity.
It takes money to make money, its often said, and this is certainly true in job development.
But big banks back off from high-risk loans such as start-up businesses. So CCHD has placed
a lot of confidence and some of its funds in The New Mexico Community Development Loan
Max Turcios, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1984, was confident he could revive the
custom door and fine cabinetry business where he had once been employed. It was now bankrupt
and Max was out of work.
The Community Development Loan Fund, which counts Max and Adobe Doors as just one of its
many success stories, doesnt just dispense small loans. It teaches clients how to
price, how to manage, how to succeed. Vangie Gabaldon, executive director of the fund,
says that the fund now averages 70 loans a year, but holds a vision of multiplying loans
like loaves and fishes.
CCHD has encouraged the loan funds ambitious vision with at least six grants for
planning, development and capacity-building. Among its clients are the Sawmill Community
Land Trust and the Colonias Development Council. Another is the Southwest Creations Collaborative
Joan Leahigh, CCHD director for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, sings the praises of SCC,
a company which thrives on contracts for machine sewing, silk screening and handwork. Women
who didnt [have the confidence to] look up are now professional, confident and look
up. CCHD, says Joan, shows that the Church is interested in everyday
life. It demonstrates faith in people.
Southwest Creations gives off a pleasant, industrious buzz. Susan Matteucci, collaborative
director, began this business nine years ago in an Albuquerque church building. In 1996,
they moved to their present site, now bursting at the seams with seamstresses and other
CCHD has awarded five grants to the collaborative, which operates on a collegial model.
Seven women serve rotating two-year terms on its board. These women make the big decisionsabout
customer contracts, working conditions and benefitstogether.
Flora Lopez, who has worked at SCC almost from its inception, calls the business a gift
from God. The women are familia to her, especially since Floras extended
family is in Mexico. This familia offers fringe benefits such as vaccinations, diagnostic
clinics, financial management and English classes: Whatever we need to make our lives
better, says its director.
For many women working at Southwest Creations Collaborative, on-site child care makes
their lives betterand their work possible. Working mothers can still breast-feed
their infants. Mothers can lunch with their little ones. These mothers need not fear for
their children while they work to feed their family.
What about our children? is a common dilemma among the working poor. SCC offers
one innovative solution. In Columbus, New Mexico, national and diocesan CCHD grant monies
have enabled Mujeres en Progreso to found another: Columbus Child Development Center.
Five mujeres (women) were the original dreamerswho thought they could improve
their living and working conditions. One of their dreams was triggered by a real-life nightmare:
Two young children in Columbus were locked in their home by desperate farm laborers who
left them at home while they worked. Those children died in a house fire.
The mujeres were horrified and wanted to ensure a safe, affordable, stimulating
Some husbands called the dreamers mujeres in regreso (backward women), but six
years later 36 children are enrolled in a clean, new, safe facility, with a capacity for
32. (Some children attend only before and after school. Others arrive later and leave earlier.)
Husbands who doubted were won over and even dug the postholes for the surrounding fence.
the Desert Will Bloom
Jesus came from the desert, muses Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Las Cruces
Diocese. The desert is full of life, but most of it is very tiny. Invisible,
the bishop suggests. Beautiful. Fragile.
Bishop Ramirezs diocese is home to many projects with funding from the Catholic
Campaign for Human Development. These grants enable the gifts of many New Mexicans to flourish
in the desert.
Joan Leahigh sees CCHD as an act of faith. She says, It does affect
us that there are people on the margins in New Mexico. When we care about the people on
the periphery, we all benefit.
We are one. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the Churchs community
action on that gospel message.
CCHD Works to Break the Cycle of Poverty
There is a place where people are working to change things, community
organizer Ruben Nuñez says. The Rev. Robert J. Vitillo is executive director
of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Its aim: to fund the people who work
with a will to change things.
CCHD, founded in 1969-70 by the Catholic bishops of the United States, is the largest
private funding source for organizations that empower the poor and work to eliminate
poverty and injustice in the United States. Largely, its grants serve as seed money,
helping applicants to develop other sources of income. CCHD requires that the projects
it supports be controlled by the poor and low-income people served.
The weekend before Thanksgiving (November 22-23), the annual CCHD collection will
be held in most Catholic parishes. One fourth of every diocesan collection funds
projects in the home diocese. CCHDs national office handles the rest of the
grants. Need, not religious affiliation, is the number-one qualification, though
all projects must conform to the moral teachings of the Church. The diocesan CCHD
director is an important contact in the process of grant application.
New Mexico may have the largest percentage of persons living in poverty, but the
U.S. Census Bureau reveals that poverty touches every state, all ethnicities and
races, ages and family types. One in 10 families, one in eight Americans and one
in six children in the United States lives in poverty.
CCHD has a twofold purpose: It intends not only to assist the poor to develop economic
strength and political power, but also to educate Catholics about the Churchs
social teaching and about poverty. Prayer, money, education and action are four avenues
for joining in this national effort. Visit www.usccb.org/cchd to
Carol Ann Morrow, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger,
and Ken Touchton, freelance photojournalist based in Virginia, traveled with other
Catholic journalists from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Albuquerque last January. They visited
eight sites where CCHD funding has made a difference. Readers can visit www.povertyusa.org to
take a journey of their own.