There are so many political issues “trending” right now it has been hard to keep up with the pace. Between President-elect Trump’s jaw-dropping cabinet picks and the devastating war in Syria; between Fidel Castro’s death and the future of Cuba and the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, sometimes local concerns and issues seem to take a backseat to these national and international crisis.
This is not so on the U.S.-Mexico border. Currently, there is a local group of activists, academics, politicians and residents attempting to resist urban renewal plans that will devastate a major historical area on El Paso’s Southside. Their efforts are forcing the city government to contend with an informed community bent on protecting historical sites and homes still inhabited by residents in this traditionally ethnic Mexican barrio. As developers salivate over this potentially lucrative opportunity, developing $180 million multi-purpose indoor arena, residents and activists alike are coming together to fight the destruction of one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods and the potential displacement of dozens of families and businesses.
Since my own research on reproductive rights is concerned with the area south of the train tracks, I was excited when a walking tour was announced to show city residents the breadth of the proposed development project and the effects the demolition of these city blocks would have on El Paso’s residents and to the city’s legacy. My mother-in-law, Susana Morales (Martinez is her maiden name) had planned a trip downtown to purchase some trinkets for her grandchildren (my daughters) and I asked if she would join me on the walk later that afternoon. “Sure mija!” she exclaimed, “You know I grew-up on South Leon near Overland.” Her family has long ties to the border region and throughout her life has lived in some of the most historic areas of the city, but this was the first time she mentioned Duranguito.
This essay is about Susana Morales, who serendipitously ended up at a meeting to save the Duranguito neighborhood and who lived in this barrio in the mid-1940s and throughout the 1950s until her mother was able to secure a home in the now historic Sunset District. It is a short story about a young girl growing-up in this small, but historically important area minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border and how she understood the significance of the meeting she attended just a few days ago.
On the evening of December 5, 2016 the meeting to save Duranguito began with a tour of the designated area where the City Council (with very little input from the community) decided it would build an indoor entertainment arena destroying homes and buildings many that date back to the late nineteenth century. We arrived a few minutes late and as we walked to keep up with the large crowd that had amassed for the guided trip, she began to retell the stories of her youth and her life on those very streets.
Susana’s mother, Lorenza, had lived in Ciudad Juárez with her husband, but after a dangerous fire spurred the death of her infant brother through pneumonia, Morales’s mother brought the family to live with Susana’s grandparents on 314 South Leon in the heart of Duranguito in El Paso. She was born soon afterwards in 1945 and recalled her first twelve years of life living in her grandparent’s home. Martha, her older sister, attended Franklin Elementary school, until Lorenza was able to secure a “fake” address so that her two daughters could attend Vilas Elementary School in the neighborhood of Sunset Heights. Susana remembered that the areas where demarcated through the use of language. When in Sunset, Susana was strongly advised to only speak in English, but was free to return to her mother tongue once back in the confines of Duranguito. At the time Franklin was known as one of the “Mexican schools,” thus the de facto segregation that ruled El Paso’s public schools during most of the twentieth century pushed Susana’s mother, who herself did not complete high school, to seek the best education for her children. Susana recalled the long walks from Duranguito to Sunset Heights so that she could attend a “good school” and then the walk back to play with her neighbors on her street in Duranguito. Franklin Elementary was leveled to lead the way for further urban renewal just a decade ago.
As our guide passed homes and businesses, my mother-in-law recounted her childhood memories on Leon Street. “Our house had a side porch and it was enclosed with a greenish brown picketed fence,” she explained to me. “The house had a huge backyard and at the very end of the yard was the outhouse, you see we didn’t have indoor plumbing at the time.” Her grandparent’s home no longer exists. It was destroyed to build the current fire station near the corner of Leon and Overland.
She stood where it would have been and continued, “If you faced our house on the left side was Papa Joe Fernandez’s place, in fact he owned our home, too.” Susana mentioned that Papa Joe owned several properties on the block including a small converted garage and some shacks behind her home. “My tio Cecilio, the tailor, lived in one of those shacks, and my grandfather Eulogio Duran used to keep his tools with my tio Cecilio. My grandpa worked for the railroads you see, but he also worked some construction and needed a place for his tools.” Papa Joe had a son Manuel Fernandez who lived with his wife Blasita Fernandez, next door to Susana. Manuel had three children, Delia and Patela, his daughters and Manny, his son. Manny was Morales’s play buddy along with Velia Turrieta, who lived half a block away on Overland between Leon and Durango Streets. A woman named Wala lived on the right side of her house—she was well-acquainted with all the news in the barrio. Susana also remembered her local grocery store, Martinez Grocery, on Chihuahua and Overland owned by Matilde Martinez.
The journey through her past galvanized my mother-in-law’s interest in the fight to save the neighborhood of her youth. We joined the crowd that gathered into the Rock House Café in order to listen to discussions between academics, politicians, and barrio residents about the significance of the movement to save Duranguito. As we listened to a 50 year resident of the neighborhood describe the wretched conditions of the area fifty years prior, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, “It wasn’t like that when we lived here with my grandparents. It was a good neighborhood.”
Antonia “Toñita” Morales (no relation) explained to the large audience who had gathered at the Rock House Café that when she first moved to Duranguito in the mid-1960s, the area was a cesspool of gang violence and drugs. Those living in the area, with some assistance from outside groups, helped to “clean it up” and make it safe again for their children. I was struck by the stark differences in describing the neighborhood between the two Morales women. Susana remembered a friendly, clean, and vibrant neighborhood, where working-class ethnic Mexicans could own homes and businesses up to the mid-1950s, while Toñita Morales recalled the destitution, violence, and filth that pushed her to become a strong advocate for her community just a decade later.
Although, historians of El Paso have celebrated the revolutionary history of the city—it played a crucial role in sparking the 1910 Mexican Revolution—little work has been done in regards to the longue durée of ethnic Mexican life in this region. What can El Paso as a so-called “majority-minority” city tell us about the lives of Mexican-origin people in the twentieth century? For instance what policies caused neighborhoods like Duranguito to change so quickly from a model of working class upward mobility to a ghetto from the 1940s to the 1960s? And in 2016 how has this neighborhood become prime real estate for the city as they seeks to raise any and all remanence of the ethnic Mexican communities that made El Paso thrive? My mother-in-law asked, “I don’t understand why they want to destroy all this? Why do they want to erase these memories?” The proposed arena is not merely an attempt to “modernize” the traditional ethnic Mexican enclaves of South El Paso, but it is about erasing the history of people’s struggles, the memories of defiance against racist city governments, and the reminiscences of survival that remain within the old buildings in Duranguito.