CHAPARRAL, N.M. — You just can't get there from here. Not by bus, at least.
I learn that lesson the hard way when setting out to visit the unincorporated colonia of Chaparral, situated in a dusty basin on the Texas-New Mexico line behind a wall of 6,000-footers known as the Franklin Mountains. I've read a thing or two about voting irregularities in Chaparral in 2012 and figure it's worth a minor detour off the Greyhound route during my winter swing through the Southwestern United States. Minor detour indeed.
When my attempts to locate a public bus to Chaparral come up dry, I set my sights on the nearby city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, some 35 miles northwest. According to Google, there's a Greyhound station downtown where I can transfer to the state-run Gold Route bus headed south to El Paso. If I catch the morning bus, and if the driver makes his promised stop along Interstate 10 in the town of Anthony, I'll stick up my thumb or leg it the last 12 miles along the Ohara Road to Chaparral. God willing, I'll arrive before nightfall, when desert temperatures drop.
As it happens, Google and Greyhound aren't exactly in sync. When my overnight bus to Las Cruces pulls up outside of Chucky's Convenience Store eight miles north of the city, I figure we must be one more stop away. "Nope," says the driver, showing me the door. "Changed to this location a couple of months ago—for convenience." No matter that all you can see for miles around are pecan orchards and the occasional mobile home; Chucky's is as far as my ticket will go.
With no chance of catching a bus or taxi into town, I tie my shoelaces, hoist my pack, and begin the three-hour trudge along the sandy shoulder of El Camino Real. So much for catching the morning bus from Las Cruces to Anthony and reaching Chaparral that night.
By the time I approach downtown Las Cruces, the winter sun is high in the sky and I've nearly exhausted my daily supply of bread and nuts. Fortunately, while plying the empty road into town, I manage to reach Mariaelena Johnson by phone. She's with a local faith-based organization whose name and number I came across in my research on Chaparral. As luck would have it, she is free that afternoon and agrees to show me around the colonia, where she grew up. She even offers to put me up with her parents, Andy and Maria, in Chaparral—easily the best piece of news I've heard all week. After three consecutive nights of fitful sleep on the bus, I'm ready for a home-cooked meal and a bed. The meal I will later enjoy is refried beans on a toasted tortilla with a squirt of ketchup, served by the kindest old lady you ever met. The bed is a ratty old couch with protruding springs in the tidiest, most dilapidated trailer you ever saw.
Mariaelena, who goes by "MJ" for short, is 36, with the heart and verve of a 19-year-old aching for justice. A sturdy five-foot-eight with a shock of thick black hair and a ready, dimpled smile, MJ's three passions in life are her husband Mark ("Being married to your best friend is awesome!"), her son Hudson ("Sometimes I think he comes from this generation of destruction, but he's a good kid and he understands that we need peace"), and her on-again-off-again job as a community organizer ("The work has to go on, Dan!") Although she left the Catholic Church at age 18, she would make the biblical prophets proud with her commitment to serving "the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the poor"—categories of hardship with which she is intimately acquainted as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. The only thing missing on that list, I soon discover, is "the disenfranchised."
"Widow" and "orphan" are familiar roles to her, if not in the conventional sense. MJ's biological mother—like millions of other young and unwed moms in poverty—became a widow of sorts when MJ's biological father stopped playing his part as a dad. It's a story she's heard too many times and she doesn't much care to elaborate.
When her mother's bouts with bipolar disorder rendered her virtually unable to be a mom, MJ became an orphan in effect—another common affliction of the low-income set. But MJ has no complaints: While many in her position might have found themselves cooped up in orphanages or sent off to foster homes, she had relatives to rely on. Andy and Maria, a middle-aged couple at the time, adopted both MJ and her mother as their own. "They're my parents," MJ says with unvarnished affection. "They raised my mom and me."
Then there's "the foreigner" and "the poor." From the moment MJ picks me up in Las Cruces, I can see that her vow of poverty—"it's the only way I can do the work I love"—is not a joke. Years of running around the unpaved, pot-holed roads of southern New Mexico organizing immigrants have taken their toll on the family's rusted-out Honda Civic. The car is held together by duct tape, giving the dash, both doors, and the floor a silvery sheen. There's a wrench in place of the crank to open and close the windows, the ceiling lining has long since come undone, and the one remaining sun visor on the passenger side keeps knocking against my hat as we drive. The gas tank is in a perpetual state of "E" for "enough."
Their poverty does not end there. As I learn over the next two days, MJ and Mark are doing their best to raise their 11-year-old son and help keep her aging parents afloat on a modest non-profit salary, which recently stopped coming when the organization she works for ran out of funds. Having attended a few years of college, MJ can always go back to substitute teaching in the local public schools, but that job pays a paltry $800 a month, no benefits—assuming there's work at all. In a good year, teaching will take them less than halfway to the poverty line of $19,000 for a family of three. She's praying her non-profit position gets refunded soon.
Meanwhile, Mark is busy completing his computer-programming degree at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He hopes to parlay his new skills into a decent-paying job before long—one that allows him to do more than just pay back his mountain of student loans. Until the family is able to relocate to a district with better schools, their son will have to settle for second best: plenty of love from his parents but little in the way of academic enrichment at his low-performing public school. At least their little "box" of student housing in Las Cruces, priced at $660 a month, comes with utilities and is convenient to work and school.
Looking beyond the Johnson family alone, poverty and foreign status go without saying in MJ's part of the world. Chaparral, where she lived the better part of her life, is little more than a stone's throw from the Mexican border, and drawing distinctions between the two is almost beside the point. With its early-20th-century roots as a makeshift community of migrant farmworkers, the unincorporated colonia is racked by a slew of troublesome extremes. With a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people (depending on who you ask) it is too big to be considered an autonomous outpost in the romantic frontier sense. With its sandy Chihuahuan soil and ring of mountains all around, it is too arid and infertile to support agricultural production, and too remote and inaccessible to attract meaningful investment. Most disconcerting of all, says MJ, is that Chaparral—with 84 percent of inhabitants Hispanic and half of them foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census—is far too brown and politically bankrupt to command political clout. Five percent of the adult population voted in the last election, according to MJ, and that was an improvement.