Three Catholic nuns working in southern New Mexico envisioned building a community with affordable, environmentally sustainable housing for low-income people. When Sisters Joan Brown, Jean Miller and Jean Durel founded Tierra Madre Land Trust in Sunland Park with 18 local families in 1995, they translated this vision into reality and changed many people’s lives for the better.
Across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Sunland Park has a population of 15,000. The federal government designated it a colonias community because of its proximity to the U.S.- Mexico border, low income levels and wages, environmental problems, and little access to affordable housing.
Undeterred by such challenges, Tierra Madre first leased 20 acres from the New Mexico State Land Office. Sunland Park subsequently annexed the property to provide access to its sewer and water systems. Residents constructed a 6,500 sq-ft. playground. In 1998, The Loan Fund converted a $500,000 low-interest loan from Catholic Health Initiative into a line of credit, allowing Tierra Madre to build 30, 1,536 sq-ft. strawbale homes (straw bales are the insulation of choice due to their very high energy efficiency). Construction costs then were $24,000 per unit ($70,000 currently) because residents contribute much of the labor. Tierra Madre now boasts 38 homes.
Retirees Augustin and Ramona Ruiz are two examples of how lives have been changed at Tierra Madre. When the couple first arrived, they were coping with serious health problems. Through a jobs program sponsored by Goodwill Industries, Augustin became the gardener and Ramona the maintenance person. With renewed purpose, their health has dramatically improved.
What does the future hold? The Sisters have retired, and Executive Director Cece Rodriguez envisions Tierra Madre becoming a self-sustaining enterprise—with residents eventually taking over all management functions. The Loan Fund has consistently been a “good friend,” Cece says. “They have always supported us when we needed help – almost like the big brother looking after the little brother.”