“If we look at it from the legal perspective, living here is a crime,” explained Susana Salazar, gazing out over snaking dirt roads, powerlines, and the patchwork of improvised homes that over 10,000 families call home. Salazar lives in Colonia Colosio, reportedly the largest squatter settlement in Mexico, which sits less than five miles from the Arizona border in Nogales, Sonora. “But, if we look at it from a humanitarian perspective, this is fulfilling a need.”
This need—to adequately house a burgeoning population of migrants, deportees, and maquila workers—is currently transforming Nogales’s urban landscape.
A massive concrete water tank sits on a hilltop at the edge of Colosio, near Salazar’s home. As one of the highest points in the area, this is a convenient location for a municipal water tank, but residents of the Colonia do not receive its water—instead, most buy water at high prices from tanker trucks that prowl the neighborhood. The tank, meanwhile, supplies water to Las Bellotas, a subdivision packed with uniform row houses that nudge up against Colosio.
These urban developments—and the challenges of living in them—embody contrasting visions for a just and livable border city. Unfolding in parallel to the migrant detention and deportation crisis in Arizona, housing dynamics on the Mexican side of the border are another outcome of the free trade and immigration policies that have converged on the Sonoran Desert.
“Nogales has been growing like mushrooms, spreading out from the center and filling in any place it can,” explained Carlos Guzmán, an inspector in Nogales’s Department of Planning and Urban Development. Guzmán has seen his city explode in recent years with the rapid growth of the maquila low-wage manufacturing industry, and sprawling developments to house workers and migrants. Officially, the population of Nogales, Sonora, in 1960 was just under 40,000. By 2010, it had soared to over 220,000, though some estimates have it closer to 350,000.
Like the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border region, U.S. trade and immigration policy has been an important driver of this demographic explosion.The city was founded in 1884 as a waystation along the railroad connecting Mexico to the newly acquired U.S. territory of Arizona. Steam engines filled up on water at a spring surrounded by walnut trees – nogales in Spanish.
Nogales’s population growth took off when Mexico instituted the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) in 1965, which incentivized U.S. manufacturers to set up factories on the Mexican side of the border. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 spurred further industrialization and population growth by phasing out all tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico. As a result, millions of peasant farmers who were driven off their land due to U.S. competition migrated north in search of higher wages. While many of these migrants crossed into the U.S., more remained along the border to work in factories or were deported back to Nogales.
Today, trade continues to flow through the same international corridor that the railroad initiated in the 1880s. Officials in Hermosillo, Sonora, and Phoenix, Arizona, are attempting to re-brand the transnational trade zone as the “Arizona-Sonora Megaregion,” to promote cross-border collaborations in industries such as aerospace, automobile manufacturing, and mining. As Samuel Arroyo, director of Nogales’s Department of Planning and Urban Development, put it, “We’re sitting on top of a vein of gold here.”
Socioeconomic inequality has been another ongoing factor shaping urban development throughout Nogales’s history. Powerful land-owning families have influenced decisions about the city’s growth, favoring development in its rugged western hills. According to Guzmán, “From that point, the city began to grow in favor of those who had the most power. A lot of the problems that we have with urban planning today are related to decisions that were made between the 1940s and the 1960s.”
The Kyriakis family is a case in point. Demetrios Kyriakis emigrated to Nogales from Greece in the mid-twentieth century, soon becoming a successful businessman and landowner. According to Guzmán, the Kyriakis helped attract the maquila industry to Nogales by selling land to developers. In 2006, the family inaugurated the Nogales Mall, with the aim of “modernizing the city” and anchoring a commercial district near some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The Kyriakis continue to shape a vision of Nogales as open for investment and tourism— in short, a vision far removed from the daily experiences of the majority of Nogales residents. The United Nations and several Mexican government agencies recently ranked Nogales ninth among 152 cities nationally in an index of prosperity. The ranking took into account the city’s ability to attract investment and to promote the growth of jobs and housing construction. But, according to official 2010 statistics, 34 percent of Nogales residents live in poverty and another 5 percent in extreme poverty.
As systemic forces funnel migrants from other regions of Mexico and Central America toward Nogales in search of a better life, a market for low-income housing—both formal and informal—has been booming. Local landed elites and housing companies from other parts of Mexico are developing subdivisions to profit off the increased demand. At the same time, with votes and access to labor on the line, both the municipal government and the maquila industry have tried to influence housing policy.
With so many powerful competing interests at play, Nogales’s housing does not always meet the needs of migrants and factory workers, according to Juan Rábago, an architect in the planning department. In many subdivisions, or fraccionamientos, he explained, homes are built cheaply with little thought for quality of life. As he drove through one of the Kyriakis’ subdivisions called California, he pointed to areas of “green space” that amounted to little more than dry grass and litter. “The Kyriakis don’t care about Nogales. All they care about is making money,” added another planner in the department, who asked not to be named. The Kyriakis family company did not respond to our request for an interview.
Nogales is not unique in that housing for its poor and working class has become profitable for investors. Construction and finance sectors across Mexico have profited from a booming “affordable housing” industry. As political scientist Susanne Soederberg has charted, a complex network of public and private institutions extends housing loans to new populations while providing massive subsidies to construction companies. Mexico’s mortgage industry, she argues, increasingly follows the U.S. model that helped tank the global economy in 2008.
On face value, the resulting homes satisfy Mexicans’ right to housing—a basic human right enshrined in Article 4 of the country’s constitution—but they are often tiny, poorly constructed, and inconveniently located. La Mesa, for instance, is a residential development 13 miles from Nogales’s center and a relic of pre-2014 federal housing law, when the development of new land was on city outskirts. For La Mesa’s residents, the long commute for work, healthcare, or other daily business has caused some to move away from the fraccionamiento, as evidenced by its high rate of abandoned homes.
One proposed solution to La Mesa’s isolation is currently taking shape. In August 2016, construction began on a 70-hectare industrial park to generate jobs for La Mesa’s 5,000 families. At the groundbreaking, developer Antonio Dabdoub relayed his vision, that “the growth of housing and of the maquila go hand in hand” and that the industrial park would “support all the people who live here and that it be like a big family.” According to Arroyo, director of the planning department, “this action will help mitigate the sense of isolation that people feel there.”
Beyond concerns with livability, the requirements of loans and federal housing subsidies still exclude millions of low-income Mexicans from even entering the affordable housing market. The Mexican government touts INFONAVIT—its federal housing credit program for the working class—as “the main Mexican state institution for ensuring that families can exercise their constitutional right to decent housing,” citing that the program grants seventy percent of home loans issued nationwide. Yet, given the insecurities of factory work and often-transient nature of border populations, many Nogales residents cannot afford the monthly pay-in –which can be as much as 30 percent of their salary–or provide required evidence of steady employment. Such dynamics also contribute to the rates of abandonment in La Mesa, where many of the houses are financed through INFONAVIT.
Low-income housing developments are often envisioned as a utopian alternative to informal settlements like Colonia Colosio – but the results are often far off from their idealizations. For the urban planners and architects who work under Arroyo in the planning department, the way to meet the housing needs of nogalenses is through regulation of building codes and collaboration with developers. “Everyone has a right to Nogales—that is the vision that we have,” explained Arroyo. He added, “But, if we don’t prepare, we’re going to keep growing in anarchy.”
Indeed, visions for the city’s future often take on an idealistic quality. A case in point is the Lisboa development, which replaced an abandoned mall, a space where Rábago from the planning department recalls neighborhood kids going to smoke. In contrast to neglected spaces that he said attract “delinquent activity,” Lisboa is organized to promote healthy, productive, engaged citizens, with its neatly ordered streets, manicured public spaces, and homeowners’ associations.
According to Alma Quetzalli Tolano, an architect from the firm that designed Lisboa, living in one of their subdivisions requires a cultural adjustment. “Many people comment that our houses are too small, but when you ask them where they lived before, they usually come from the country…we need to teach them the culture of how to live in a place like this.”
Centauro de la Frontera, a housing project approved in 2010, was hyped as an innovative solution for addressing informal urbanization. The project was set to contain 22,000 low-income houses, as well as schools, clinics, shops, and parks. In the words of Mexico’s then-Secretary of Social Development Heriberto Guerra, Centauro would “modify the paradigm of life of those living in irregular zones.” Uniradio Noticias called it, “the first step in the Nogales of the future that is better organized and better urbanized.”
What came to pass was much different. The project fizzled after a series of scandals, most notably, the disappearance of 29 million pesos – roughly 1.6 million dollars - designated for infrastructure projects under Mayor Ramón Muñoz (2012-2015). Employees of current Mayor Cuauhtémoc Delgado’s administration wear neon green t-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon rat decrying the previous administration’s fiscal delinquency.
Whether or not low-income fraccionamientos can serve the same populations as informal settlements is debatable. For some factory workers, it might be a question of preference, but for others – particularly recent migrants – the price point and mortgage requirements of the most affordable subdivisions are unaffordable.
For those who do choose life in a low-income subdivision, informal adaptations help make the homes livable. At every turn in fraccionamiento Las Bellotas, which abuts Colonia Colosio, there is evidence of the tiny homes’ transformation to better suit inhabitants—extra rooms added to a house, or an entryway converted to a small shop. Along the main road, residents have painted murals to provide character to the neighborhood’s otherwise planned uniformity.
Such modifications technically violate the rules of the planning department, but inspectors like Guzmán recognize that such alterations come from a place of necessity. “Developers have adapted these homes to the price needs of the common family, but in terms of size and design, they’re not adequate,” he admitted.
In 1995, Susana Salazar, a migrant from a small town in western Sonora, along with six hundred other settlers, marched up a stream bed on the west side of Nogales to an oak-studded hilltop. They began building homes out of discarded plywood and shipping pallets. They named the settlement in honor of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the populist politician from Sonora who was assassinated in 1994. “We chose Colosio as our ‘flag’ because of what he stood for, the struggle for the people,” explained Salazar.
Today, Salazar estimates the settlement—known colloquially as an invasión—is home to roughly 10,000 families: 8,000 permanent residents and the remainder she describes as “floating.” These are migrants who arrive at the border looking for work—or are deported— and have no place else to go. Salazar was one such migrant, coming to Nogales in 1995 to cross the border. After several months working in a produce packing facility in Arizona, she was deported and lived on the streets of Nogales before joining the Colonia Colosio settlement.
As a founding member, Salazar knows Colonia Colosio’s history well. Before “invading” the land, the settlement’s leader marked out lots on the hillside. According to local reporter Cesar Barrón, “whoever is the leader of an invasión makes good money,” by charging settlers for this surveying service.
This aspect of life in the colonia –an informal neighborhood that often lacks adequate infrastructure and basic services – did not sit well with Salazar, leading her to break ties with settlement leaders she saw as “profiting from the needs of the people.” Today, Salazar works in the municipal government as a promotora, helping people in Colonia Colosio and other neighborhoods connect to social services. “We’re like ants,” said Salazar. “We’re not the ones making headlines. We’re the ones working on the ground everyday, getting things done.”
When the settlement began, Salazar knew they were occupying land illegally, facing intimidation from people she described as “thugs,” hired by the landowner, Gómez Briones. More recently, relations with Gómez Briones have improved, and the settlers have been making progress in getting official recognition of their occupation. In portions of the neighborhood that have been “regularized,” as this process is called, residents can begin the process of getting connected to basic services like water, electricity, and sewage.
The list of problems in Colonia Colosio is long. Many, for instance, lack running water. Yet, in Salazar’s summation, “Here, what is most abundant is the lack of adequate housing.”
Salazar has helped marshal a long list of programs to improve access to these services. Through federal programs such as Piso Firme (Solid Ground), and support from private charities such as Mariana Trinitaria, people have converted their dirt floors to concrete. The municipal government has built basic concrete structures for hundreds of families, which can be expanded to accommodate their needs. Through these sorts of programs, the colonia has slowly transformed from a scrap-wood landscape into one of concrete blocks and tin roofs. The Border Environment Cooperation Commission—an affiliate of the North American Development Bank— along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Mexico’s federal government are currently looking to extend water provision to 12,000 people in Nogales, including in Colosio.
Despite the material deprivation, many residents expressed pride in the neighborhood. Commenting on the fraccionamientos, Julia said she prefers to live in a place like Colosio. “Everyone lives all stuck together there. Here, my seven grandchildren have space to play. I was just grinding corn to make tamales—that’s something you can’t do in those places because there’s no space.” Cristina Navarro, another resident who lives in a two-room house— one plywood, one concrete— crinkled her nose at the suggestion of living in a formal development. “Those houses are not highly recommended. They’re more expensive and not well constructed. Here, at least, I’m free,” she said.
Acknowledgements: Research for this story was conducted as part of a course on “Reporting in the U.S./Mexico Borderlands” led by Professor Celeste González de Bustamante at the University of Arizona.
Emma Lawlor and Noah Silber-Coats are doctoral students in geography at the University of Arizona. They each have varied research interests in the geography and politics of Latin American environments and communities.