Life without electricity in central New Mexico
Photographer Peter DiCampo photographed residents in Pajarito Mesa, New Mexico, where their settlement lacks basic services.
November 22nd, 2011
02:24 PM ET

Life without electricity in central New Mexico

Nights are extra-dark in one settlement outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Several hundred people live there, but the brightest lights are several miles away, or come from a full moon.

Most of the people in New Mexico's Pajarito Mesa have low incomes, but they jumped at the chance to own their own land, even if it came without some of the things you’d find in a modern subdivision. Because the land they bought wasn’t zoned for housing, they live without many of the trappings of municipal life, like roads, hookups to water and sewer service or access to the power grid.

Instead, many scrape by with improvised solutions: propane stoves, generators, flashlights, ice coolers, candlelight, and, for a few that can afford it, solar panels or homemade wind turbines. The city of Albuquerque recently installed a water pump in the community, but residents still must fill tanks or buckets and then haul them to their homes.Photographer Peter DiCampo spent four weeks in 2010 and 2011 capturing images of what it’s like to live there – in a community where, if you want electricity, you have to provide it yourself.

DiCampo examines the lives of the 1.4 billion people worldwide who are living without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Most are living in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, and DiCampo recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund photography in more places.

But DiCampo's latest installment focuses on a tiny sliver of that number living in New Mexico .

See DiCampo's images from Pajarito Mesa, New Mexico, on CNN Photos

Drawn by affordable land and open spaces, hundreds of families have settled on small plots and sub-plots on the mesa in the last three decades. An estimated 300 families live there, but it’s difficult to get an accurate count because the community, just  a 10 minute drive from downtown Albuquerque, doesn’t officially exist. Most but not all of the families are of Mexican or Chicano descent, and while some are immigrants, some have lived in the United States for years.

DiCampo said living without electricity ends up exacerbating the effects of poverty, because some of the workarounds needed to make life work are more expensive than obtaining electricity directly.

“Economically, it’s a real burden,” DiCampo said. “One of the main families I stayed with was using [gasoline-powered] generators. They would run out of money to then buy fuel for their cars to go fetch water. It’s all related.”

Impoverished Texas border town grows from shacks into community

Carlos Proffit, who moved to Pajarito Mesa in 1985 with only a camping trailer, has gradually managed to build his own zero-energy home, run entirely on wind, solar and battery power. He built everything by hand, over several years, but is now energy self-sufficient.  He estimated the whole setup cost him a few thousand dollars. He recognizes that he might be more fortunate than some of his neighbors.

“The rest of the community, if you can pony up the money, it’s the best money you’ll ever spend, but it’s hard to get that money up front,” he told DiCampo in an interview.

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Filed under: Economy • Ethnicity • How we live • Latino in America • Social justice • Technology
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Cuervo Jones

    it would be a great spot to install a solar system and see how it translates into a feasible small community power source I lived in Santa Teresa, NM where we had great wind in this high desert area. 1 big windmill would probably heat their homes with electricity

    November 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raul

      What a triumph. When you told me of the story it sndoued worthy of a CNN focus. I'm delighted for you and Joe that it was featured.I hope NPR pick it up for an extended interview on Talk of the Nation or another of their great programmes.Good luck.

      July 2, 2012 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
  2. bubba

    I can't feel bad for them when this is the life they chose to live. Personally, If i wanted to live on a campground, I could do it for free. The good news for them is that eventually there will be municipal hookups and their property value will skyrocket since soo many people live there. I think someone would be wise to buy up some more land there and hold on to it for a few years.

    November 24, 2011 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. estimationary

    they choose to live in a place with no electricity or running water, good for them, it is apparently what they want. their decision was that owning a plot of land in the desert was worth going without those standard utilities. we shouldn't feel bad for them, they don't need our sympathy or help hyst because their choice is costing them more money than if they lived someplace civilized. If they don't like it there, they can move someplace with lights. We all have to make our own choices in life and accept the consequences for them. It's simply a matter of preference.

    November 23, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. yannaes

    sad, but true. I was in Turkey and women would have a yolk around their neck and would go to the stream to fetch water and we think we have it bad.

    November 23, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. HERP


    November 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kenneth

    I refuse to pay any more taxes to the federal government when they still allow illegal Mexican or Illegal aliens of any race or creed into America and still give them federal aide such as Tanif or food stamps... This is America my ancestors Came from Russia to New York Threw Ellis Island an were happy enough to learn how to read write and speak ENGLISH... an become natural US citizens when now all you have to do is cross the southern boarder once your in America it doesnt make you American... The government needs to get on the ball or else " the people " will rise up against the Government very soon.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cuervo Jones

      Good luck beating the gov't out of money.. Please don't try to refuse when they haul you off for not contibuting to Ceasar what is his. ask Gordon what's his name how that worked for him.. yea you can't ever. you can avoid income tax. no job.(Texas has no income tax, but the property tax? other fees?tax on food? horrible) live in a state with no sales tax ( NH) don't buy gasoline/fuel oil etc. Live in a state with no tax on registering your vehicle? is that possible?/reasonable/realistic.? or make our own way like these folks. i lived so in the early 80's with a camper and about 8 car batteries that actually can charge quickly off a car alternator and last for weeks. then i got married and had kids and mama said "I don't think so". You hate cause people get something to eat? please. compassion is for sissy's. got it

      November 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. RichP

    It sounds interesting and a great bunch of pioneers. This is a like a blank canvas that has some excellent potential especially since it has water available which is a major stumbling block for desert areas. I wonder if there are any local engineers and techs that are getting involved in advising and helping these people to do it right.

    November 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Emelia

    Sounds like a place I'd like to see! =D Adding it to my list~

    November 23, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  9. oilfeilds

    my hats off to them,, some of the riches pple in the world by heart

    November 23, 2011 at 6:32 am | Report abuse |
  10. tamara reina

    Someone might want to turn on some lights around here?

    November 23, 2011 at 6:15 am | Report abuse |