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New Mexico community left with few pandemic relief options

Jeff Gore, a longtime resident of Chaparral, says the community is a quiet one that is not trusting of the government or the media.
Reyes Mata, III
Jeff Gore, a longtime resident of Chaparral, says the community is a quiet one that is not trusting of the government or the media.

All we had out here was a dirt road. We picked out a patch,” recalled Madrid, remembering how his father stood out amid the desert sand and mesquite trees more than 50 years ago scanning the land that would become the family’s home. “He picked it for one reason – it's got good soil, and it is still very fertile land," said Madrid.

Chaparral is an unincorporated New Mexican colonia with roots going back to the 1920s as a small farming community. With a population of about 14,000 people, Chaparral today serves as a rural bedroom community for families of area military bases and for people commuting to work in the nearby cities of Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas.

Still predominantly rural, Chaparral has an odd overlap of political representation. It is governed by two different county commissions – Doña Ana and Otero – and has one state senator, and no local government.

During the pandemic, the federal government poured money and aid into communities to help them survive and recover. But the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative found that Chaparral faced major challenges when it came to accessing those funds. That left the relatively poor community with great needs and few resources – a situation aggravated by the small town’s complicated governance.

“Nothing has happened for Chaparral for decades and decades. It has always been last,” said Madrid, who now represents District 53, including Chaparral, in the New Mexico House of Representatives.

Chaparral is 59 square miles of desert shrubs, small homes and trailers. A 15-minute drive takes you across vast empty grasslands and over the Texas state line. Another 20 minutes takes you to the Mexican border overlooking Juarez, a giant metropolis of nearly two million people.

In spite of its ties to sprawling metro areas like Juarez and El Paso, Chaparral itself feels isolated. On the western horizon are the ranges of the Franklin Mountains, soaring and immovable, and in all other directions are vast stretches of desert, crisscrossed by the Texas-New Mexico state line and the perimeters of two immense U.S. military installations, Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range.

Like many regions of Southern New Mexico, a large portion of its residents – 33 percent – live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, and only 10 percent of its population has a bachelor's degree or higher. Most residents speak Spanish, and one out of every four residents are immigrants.

Because Chaparral is unincorporated, it can’t receive direct federal aid and the complicated governance made getting pandemic aid locally difficult. Aid sent to the small community would have needed to come from whatever pandemic monies were allotted to its two governing counties – Doña Ana and Otero.

Charles Sallee, deputy director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, which oversees New Mexico’s budget development, said in an email that Doña Ana County received $42 million in federal aid for COVID, and Otero County received $13 million. Chaparral’s aid would have needed to come from that shared chest of $55 million, he said.

Officials from Doña Ana County stated that they allotted $243,211 to Chaparral's COVID relief. Anita Skipper, chief public information officer for Doña Ana County, emailed a breakdown that showed that $146,000 came from the CARES Act small business grant fund; $3,299 came from the CARES Act rental/mortgage Assistance fund, and $93,912 went toward emergency rental assistance.

Otero County, which received $13 million in COVID relief aid, did not allocate anything specifically to Chaparral businesses, a county spokesman said, because of the federal government's "stringent requirements" that eliminated funding opportunities for Chaparral.

"We advertised on the web, we had flyers and did outreach," but no businesses from Chaparral successfully applied, said Matt Clark, Otero County spokesperson and director of emergency services.

Madrid said he was concerned that people in the community had an "inability to take advantage of all of the assistance that was available."

"The small businesses in particular," he said. They had to prove they’d lost a certain amount of business. "Well mom and pop shops don't operate with books to that specific point, so it disqualified a bulk of my people who did not keep books like that. They did not get help through the pandemic. It did drive some people out of business," Madrid said.

Every effort was made to inform businesses, Clark said, but the businesses either did not apply, or they did not qualify for COVID-related assistance. He said business owners frequently did not live in Otero County and thus couldn’t get aid from it.

Clark said that Chaparral saw "indirect funding" from improvements to Otero roads and communications systems, and said it was difficult to provide an actual dollar amount that went to Chaparral.

"Every effort was made to make sure to get money where it could best be used," he said.

Chaparral's legal residents did benefit from the $5.5 billion in stimulus checks released to New Mexicans. Immigrants were not eligible for COVID stimulus and had difficulty accessing much of the government aid (https://www.afsc.org/blogs/news-and-commentary/millions-immigrants-are-being-left-out-coronavirus-relief) for pandemic relief. (https://www.afsc.org/blogs/news-and-commentary/millions-immigrants-are-being-left-out-coronavirus-relief)

Another barrier to aid – and to COVID response in general – is that Chaparral can be a private place where it’s difficult for outside entities to gain residents’ trust.

“Chaparral is really tight-lipped, I guess,” said Jeff Gore, a longtime resident. “Very few people want to talk about anything that goes on out here. I can understand that because it is hard to trust, especially the government and the media.”

Madrid agrees. He has seen the community grow from a few dozen families – many of whom were immigrants who embraced the amnesty opportunities offered by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – into the community of today.

"It's hard to know about a lot of things here," he said. "Communities like this always begin because of one of two reasons: People have got to get away from something, or people are trying to avoid something that they have done.”

He also pointed to the large number of immigrants who make their home in Chaparral. "If one person in a family is here illegally, then the entire family will not talk, as a way of protecting that one family member," he said.

COVID’s toll on Chaparral has been heavy, Madrid said. When asked about how many in the small community have died from COVID, he said he wasn’t sure.

"I don't want to know. It would make me cry," he said.

Tracking COVID deaths in small communities like Chaparral is difficult. Those numbers are only available at the state and county level, New Mexico Department of Health Communications Manager Katy Diffendorfer stated in an email.

The New York Times COVID data tracker (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/new-mexico-COVIDcovid-cases.html) shows that Otero County has recorded 201 deaths as of July 27, and has a COVID death rate of .86 per 100,000 people. Doña Ana County has recorded 845 deaths, and has a .98 death rate per 100,000 residents. New Mexico has recorded 8,209 deaths as of July 27 and has a COVID death rate of .62 per 100,000 residents.

The COVID death rate in the United States is .13 per 100,000 people.

Residents in Chaparral say they hope the pandemic’s deadliest days are over.

Marisa Torres, a student at New Mexico State University who works as a cashier at Stella's Grocery in Chaparral, said she tries not to think about the early period of the pandemic when fear and dread gripped the small community.

"It's like a blur to me," she said. "There were a lot of people who got sick, and a lot of people lost their lives. I'm ready to move on. It's a new sunrise and a new day."

Reyes Mata III is a freelance Journalist working in southern New Mexico and the borderlands.