Today, on el Dia de los Muertos, we re-publish a blog from last year about the beauty of remembering our ancestors!
This week Pixar’s movie Coco opened to glowing reviews. I took two of my grandchildren to opening night and at the end of the film, the audience applauded. People sat in their seats during the almost interminable list of people who had worked on the film, intrigued I think by this film that finally presented our cultura in a beautiful and complex way. I think every generation can identify with the film, from the young like my grandchildren who recognized in Miguel their own struggle to follow their own dreams to those of us who recognized the 1950s black and white movies starring handsome Mexican entertainers (in the movie, Ernesto De La Cruz, a handsome entertainer wildly beloved even in the afterlife.) For those of us fortunate to have known our abuelitas or who have witnessed our own parents age, abuelita Coco reached our hearts with her beautiful, wrinkled face and her childlike smile.
In the film, the Rivera family, renowned for their skills as cobblers, have rejected music for generations. Coco’s father, a musician, abandoned the family when she was a child and her mother, once a lover of music blessed with a beautiful voice, forcefully eliminates music from their lives. In obedience to the family tradition, five generations of family live without it. As Miguel grows, he must hide his love of music and his talent as a musician and singer, retreating to a secret hideaway, filled with tributes to his idol De La Cruz.
The film is framed by el Dia de los Muertos, increasingly popular in the United States as a day of face painting and parades, altar building, and celebration. Traditionally, it is a day when our dead visit us and in a twist, Miguel ends up in the land of the dead, a glorious place of shining lights and shimmering buildings. Accompanied by his dog Dante, the film gives us a nod to Mesoamerican traditions where a xoloitzuintle acts as our guide in the underworld.
There are so many ways to write about this film. As I watched the film, alternately laughing and crying, what stood out to me most was how beautifully it presented intergenerational healing. My maestras and maestros have taught me that it is possible to heal across generations, backwards and forwards. As a historian and a healer, I have often reflected on the ways knowing our history can heal us. History is a tool of oppression and of liberation. It is a reflection of power and resistance.
Over the decades as an educator sharing little known histories with my students, I’ve caught glimpses of this healing. Once, a student told me that she thought her family was “crazy” and “stupid” because they had returned to Mexico in the 1920s after already having migrated here. “It was something about getting land,” is all she knew. When I told her the history of the Mexican government offering land to entice Mexicans back to their patria post-Revolution and how so many saw this as an opportunity for their families, she looked at me wide-eyed. “So they were not crazy. And that story about land was true.” Her ancestors were not crazy, illogical people. They had the family in mind as they made the momentous decision to return to their homeland. They had future generations in mind. They had her in mind even though it was decades before she was born.
Teaching the history of Mexican-origin people in the United States has given me the opportunity to witness many such moments. In this article, I write about how learning about the vicious, violent policies against speaking Spanish in the schools took Spanish away from generations of people who were so traumatized that they didn’t teach Spanish to their children. These children grew up often resenting their parents for having taken away the gift of being bilingual. It was a decision that made sense to our ancestors, however, who were thinking about us, the future generations. They did not want us to experience the violence they had confronted.
In It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, Mark Wolynn centers recent research that shows that a family trauma, even if it is forgotten or silenced, can live on generation after generation. These trauma manifests themselves through behaviors, depression, obsession, anxieties, and addictions. In an interview, Wolynn talks about the “ancestral alarm clock” that goes off when we hit a milestone related to the traumatic event we may not even know occurred. For decades, Indigenous scholars have written about intergenerational trauma. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart and Dr. Eduardo Duran are pioneers in these discussions. You can view a summary by Brave Heart here.
As I watched Coco, I wasn’t just thinking about Miguel, however. I was thinking about his great-great-grandmother who had been abandoned and about her daughter, Coco, and his abuelita and his parents. I thought about the dead who also needed healing. Hector, who helped Miguel navigate the land of the dead, mourned that his photo had never been placed on an ofrenda and that soon, no one would remember he ever lived. He would experience the final death, the end of memory. I believe that the dead call on us to remember them.
It is not easy to heal the traumas. There are stories that we cannot speak. In my own family, I was not allowed to ask my tia abuela about my family's repatriation back to Mexico in the 1930s even as I conducted research on the million Mexican origin people who returned under duress, including hundreds of thousands of US-born children like my cousins. It would be too painful to remember, my mother told me. So I scoured newspaper articles, government reports, and the interviews of other repatriates to understand my own family's silenced history. My younger aunt, Maria Jesus, had died in Mexico City and it was a source of great grief that she had died so far from home. One year on a visit to el DF, I went to the Cathedral and paid for a mass to be said in her name. I wanted her to know that she was still remembered.
Our dead want to be remembered. They need to be acknowledged and loved. Whether we know their particular traumas or not, we can learn the broader histories in which they lived and acknowledge them that way. We can pray with them and for them. We can reach out to them through meditation and reflection. We can honor them by thanking them for helping bring us to the world. We can share their stories, both the happy and the sad, and remember them that way.
I cried when Coco ended because knowing that learning the true history healed the living and the dead. We, too, can heal ourselves and our ancestors and our descendants. And we don't have to wait until El Dia de los Muertos. Our dead, our ancestors, are with us always, in our DNA, in our favorite foods, in our anxieties and our character strengths. Remember them and may we all heal.
I remember the day I discovered that my mother was American. I was in Mexico City with a friend doing research. She invited me to her suegra's house and after a couple of bus rides, we found ourselves at a lovely home, welcomed by her in-laws. Her mother-in-law had prepared a wonderful meal based on the traditional cuisine of Veracruz, her home state. She was very proud of her roots and her ability to offer me the delicious dishes of her homeland. As we sat around the table, she asked me: "¿Cuál era la comida tradicional que su mamá cocinaba?" What was the traditional dish that my mother cooked? I thought for a while: what was my mother's traditional food? I wanted to say something very Mexican because I thought of my parents as very Mexican.
"Meatloaf," I answered abruptly. I loved my mother's meatloaf.
The suegra wasn't sure what I was talking about and my friend laughed. (How would you say meatloaf in Spanish, anyway?)
That was the moment I realized my mother was American.
My mother in front of the presidio apartments where she lived in El Segundo Barrio, 1920s.
My mama crossed the border from Chihuahua to Texas as a nine-year-old, eventually entering El Paso's first "Mexican school," Aoy Elementary. When the school district was first created in 1883, students who did not speak English were not allowed to attend. In 1887, a newcomer arrived, Olivas Aoy, and with the support of Mexican parents who wanted an education for their children, he founded the Mexican Preparatory School. Later, after his death, it was renamed in his honor. Aoy, a Spaniard, is an enigma and not much is known about him before he arrived to the United States. In a newspaper interview, Aoy told the reporter that until a child learned English, he remained "just a Mexican." By the time my mama entered Aoy in the early 1920s, the idea of Americanizing Mexican and Mexican American children was entrenched in the curriculum and in practice.
Policies against speaking Spanish in the "Mexican schools" were widespread across the Southwest. Teachers and administrators humiliated, mocked, and corporally punished students for speaking Spanish on school grounds. Yet, in the so-called "American schools," white children were taught Spanish since they would be the future employers of Mexicans. In the 1960s, with this policy still in place, teachers castigated my older cousins who attended one of the historic "Mexican schools" for speaking Spanish. As I prepared to enter first grade, my parents forbade me from speaking Spanish-- they didn't want me to be punished. They continued to speak only Spanish to me while I responded in English. What they didn't know was that my elementary school was one of the "American schools" and I attended Spanish class my entire time there.
After being fluently bilingual as a small child, this new rule to speak only English while my parents spoke only Spanish confused me. It made them seem even more "Mexican" to me. My mother laughed when I tried to speak Spanish so eventually I stopped. I remember my mother's older sister laughing at my mother's Spanish. "Ay, you don't even know how to speak Spanish," she would say. My mother's face took on a pained look. I didn't understand why my aunt would say that-- Spanish was my mama's language. My aunt, who was fifteen when they crossed the border, had attended school in Mexico. My mother had been educated here. My aunt saw my mother as pocha as my mother saw me. Pocho, long used as a pejorative term indicated a Mexican American who was not fluent in Spanish.
As a teenager in the twenties, my mother wanted to be like the other American teenagers. She asked her father if she could cut her hair in a bob. He said no. She did it anyway. She worked washing dishes for neighbors in order to buy enough red bandanas to make a dress. When her father saw it, he tore it up. A popular 1920s song from San Antonio, "Las Pelonas" ("The Short Haired Women" or flappers) captures my mother's story:
Los paños colorados
Los tengo aborrecidos,
Y ahora las pelonas
Los usan de vestidos.
And now the flappers
Use them for their dress.
Sometimes, even in her sixties and seventies, she would dance the Charleston in our living room, recalling her days as a pelona.
My flapper mother in the late 1920s
I heard these stories my entire life but that day in Mexico City put them in another perspective. Growing up as the English-speaking daughter in a Spanish-speaking home, I uncomfortably felt very "American" and my mother seemed very "Mexican." Now, I could see that she was indeed American, the product of Americanization programs and American popular culture. I felt close to her in that moment, pocha to pocha.
Title: Detained at the Refugee Camp. Creator: Walter H. Horne, 1883 - 1921 Date: ca. 1910 - 1918 Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.
The photographs startled me as I sat in the serene setting of the University of Arizona Library Special Collections that day, 23 years ago. The refugees stared at me from the black and white photographs. Women and men and children stood still for the photographer. Some serious. Some with confusion in their eyes. The children sometimes looking blank and sometimes smiling. There were photos of their preparing food on camp fires. Photos of families and children standing in front of tents or accompanied by soldiers. The captions told me that the location was Fort Bliss in 1914.
Following Pancho Villa's victory against federal forces in the Battle of Ojinaga, a battle with over 1,000 casualties, in the winter of 1913, thousands of federal troops and civilians crossed the Rio Grande at Presidio. Throwing themselves at the mercy of the US government, this "steady stream of suffering humanity," as one government official put it, walked four days to Marfa, accompanied by US troops. There they were transported to El Paso via train. Fifty babies were born along the way.
According to historian Nicolas Villanueva's The Lynching of Mexicans (University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 5,000 refugees were "corralled behind barbed wire as 'guests' of the United States." Why place refugees behind a barbed wire fence? Villanueva writes that Americans feared that the thousands of refugees would enter the nation and "swell the impoverished neighborhoods in El Paso." He writes that the American press characterized the internment camp as so wonderful that hundreds of El Paso's Mexicans tried to break into camp. There is no evidence of this other than the English language media's propaganda. Historian Ligia Arguilez has uncovered another history-- one of fear, trauma, escape attempts.
This is the history that came rushing back when I heard the news that on Tuesday Fort Bliss had been chosen by the Department of Homeland Security to house 12,000 asylum seekers, families. Fort Bliss will house families while Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo has been chosen to house children. This is not the first time in recent history that children have been detained on military bases. In 2016, Fort Bliss housed hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Under the Obama administration, numerous military bases were used to house children crossing the border.
A century after the "steady stream of suffering humanity" was corralled behind barbed wire at Fort Bliss, we are witnessing the upcoming internment of possibly 12,000 refugees on the same military base.
"How close can I get to you and yet do I really want to get that close?"
Art work by Lucia Martinez (2004)
On Saturday, July 30, hundreds of thousands of people will march in "Families Belong Together" rallies. In DC, 300,000 are expected to participate. The rallies have been organized in every state of the Union as well as at international locations. It is a strong response to the question posed by Melania Trump in her recent visit to a children's detention center in Texas on June 21. "I don't care. Do u?" Yes, hundreds of thousands of us care enough to rally in public for families and children. As I sat in the offices of the Border Network for Human Rights last night in a room full of people making posters for the upcoming rally, I knew the answer.
Here on the border, in El Paso where Fort Bliss engulfs us more and more with each passing decade, we know we have to be vigilant beyond the rally. Growing up less than two miles from Fort Bliss, I thought of it as the place my daddy went to work every day to inspect the clothing and items left behind by soldiers who had left. Today, I know it is the largest Army base with 1.2 million acres that spread from West Texas to Southern New Mexico. It is located in the Chihuahuan Desert. In the summers, it is unbearably hot. 12,000 refugees can easily disappear into this behemoth.
Rallies are important-- we've seen the impact that they have. Beyond the rally is just as important. People have asked me how to help, especially if they are far from the border. Keep up with the news. Donate if you can. Spread the word.
For more information, check out these orgs.
Families Belong Together
Border Network for Human Rights (El Paso)
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
This Saturday I will march with my 12 year old grandson and hundreds of thousands of others to tell the federal government that Families Belong Together and not behind barbed wire.
I saw a photo of Maria Jesus once-- she was beautiful like her mother, my great-grandmother. A small girl, slender with long hair and sad eyes, she stood with her mother and sisters. They called her Cachuy. She died in 1931 but her story lived on for decades in my mother's tears.
In 1931, part of my family left behind a thriving small business to move to Mexico City in the midst of the Great Depression and the virulent anti-Mexican atmosphere that spread throughout the United States in response to the economic crisis. As a child and even a teenager, I didn't understand why they had moved. When I entered college and learned about the massive deportations and repatriations of Mexican immigrants and their US-born children, I discovered that my family was part of a larger history.
This week, I uncovered Cachuy's death certificate. I learned that she died at 10 in the morning on October 10, 1931 of typhoid fever in el Hospital General de la Ciudad de México. She was 14 years old. It was the first documentary evidence I had uncovered of her life, yet I had already begun the work of healing the interrupted story. In 2004, while visiting Mexico City, knowing that she was buried there, a thousand miles from home, I went to the great Catedral and had a mass offered in her name. Then I went to my hotel room in el Hotel Histórico Central, prayed and wrote a poem. Sometimes that's all we can do to heal-- pray, remember, and write. And it is a powerful combination.
Today, I share that poem with you. Remembering Cachuy who died so far from home because of economic and political events that she had no say in.
This is so that people will remember
That you were born in Chihuahua
when the nation was at war with itself
That you were the youngest daughter of five
That you were the middle child of ten
That your eyes were green and your hair light brown
That you were the one who smiled
That your sisters told you that they loved you the most.
This is so that people will remember
That you spent your short life migrating
From Chihuahua to El Paso to la Ciudad de Mxico
That your young life was shaped by Revolution
and economic crisis
And the day to day wonders
Of your mother's tortillas and your baby brother's eyes.
This is so that people will remember
That your mother died when you were ten
That when your father left you
He crossed the border to drink himself to death
That your sisters cried each night alone
Missing your mother's touch... her soft gaze.
This is so that people will remember
That you were not alone
That a million others joined you
Pushed out of the land of opportunity
by violence and poverty and hope that
Somewhere else would be better
Some imagining a long lost home
Others returning to a land they did not know.
This is so that people will remember
That your last thoughts were of sitting at the kitchen table
Listening to your mother hum softly as she cooked
That the pain in your stomach could not
drown out the memories
Of walking home from school laughing
That at the end you let go without fear
this is so that people will remember
That somewhere in this massive city lay your bones
Laid to rest so many decades ago
In an unmarked grave in the sacred ground of Tenochtitlan
That for seventy years your sisters cried
To have left you so far from home.
From ATejana in Tenochtitlan
June 29, 2004
Photo courtesy of ApproveMAS Facebook
The headlines caught my attention. The Dallas Morning News declared "Texas board of education approves a Mexican-American studies course (but they won't call it that)." The Texas Tribune's headline stated "Texas education board approves course formerly known as Mexican-American studies." One article asserted that the change came because, as the headline boldly asserted, it was "Too dangerous to be called Mexican-American Studies." After years.... no, after decades of fighting for Mexican American Studies in K-12, advocates and educators found the Texas State Board of Education finally agreeing to a course. At the suggestion of conservative SBOE member David Bradley (R, Beaumont) who said he found "hyphenated Americanism to be divisive," Mexican American was removed from the course title. The new name is now "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent." The new name was approved by a majority of the board, nine white Republicans, as well as El Paso's representative Georgina Celia Perez, a Democrat. The other Democrats, — Ruben Cortez (D, Brownsville), Erika Beltran (D, Fort Worth}, and Maria Perez-Diaz (D, Converse)-- argued against the erasure of "Mexican American" in the course title. The name change has been controversial to say the least, especially among those educators who have worked for years for an MAS course.
Some school districts in Texas already offer Mexican American Studies. In fact, years ago I guest lectured at an MAS class in El Paso. It's not about allowing school districts to teach MAS. As news articles have reported, the TSBOE class will be modeled after Houston class. What the TSBOE vote does is provide support to school districts state-wide by developing TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and centralizing the class. It will provide resources to school districts.
"So what's the big deal?," people ask. The course was approved. Students will have access to a course they didn't have before. And politics requires pragmatism and negotiation. And a name is just a name. Those are some of the arguments that have been made in support of the name change and TSBOE member Perez. Sounds reasonable. At least on the surface. But names make all the difference. Names can either erase historical connections or they can nurture the consciousness of connection.
I had a reminder of that this week. I have a xoloitzcuintle dog, perhaps the most ancient breed in the Americas. Considered sacred by many Indigenous peoples, its image can be found in pre-European contact codices. It is a guide and a healer. It is a national symbol of Mexico. A few days ago, my 12 year old grandson looked at my xolo and said, "You cute Hispanic dog!" I laughed at the characterization but it was a striking example of how labels make a difference. Over almost three decades of teaching Mexican American history, I've witnessed the label "Hispanic" emerge as the normalized and often the preferred label among Mexican Americans. By calling my xolita "Hispanic" my grandson unknowingly erased the deep Indigenous history of my beloved dog. There is nothing "Hispanic" about a xoloitzcuintle. Labels can erase connections.
Xoloitzcuintle from Borgia Codex and my xolita.
Erasing the "Mexican American" in Mexican American Studies echoes the Arizona attacks on MAS that these courses are "divisive." It's a tired, old trope that's been used by right-wing conservatives across the Southwest.
Renaming MAS separates the class from its history and from its academic roots. Would the TSBOE decide to rename political science? Biology? Computer science? As journalist Elaine Ayala writes, "Mexican American Studies is also an established field of study recognized by institutions of higher learning. The academy has accepted the work of fellow scholars of MAS and how they’ve chosen to self-identify that scholarship: the books, research projects and classroom work."
If the name doesn't matter, why did Bradley move at the last minute to change the name? MAS was founded because we claimed the right to name ourselves and because we believed our history was worth teaching. What the TSBOE is saying is that they will benevolently allow us to offer a class but we, as scholars, don't have the right to name ourselves or our field. In fact, Bradley told a journalist, “They just can't figure out how to say thank you.” In 2013, "Hispanic" students became the majority of Texas students. Do we need to "thank" the TSBOE for providing relevant education to our youth? Aren't they there to respond to the needs of the students they serve?
The TSBOE vote is a tragic but classic example of creating an interruption whose consequences will trickle down through generations. It doesn't have to be that way, however. We have the right to name ourselves. We have the right to respect for our academic scholarship. We won't be erased.
For a video of the vote, click here: "Texas Approves Mexican American Studies."
Photo courtesy of Ana Reza.
Beauty is a bridge between the past and the future.
Recently, I wrote a blog post about Barrio Duranguito, a south side El Paso neighborhood that has been under siege for a year and a half after the City Council voted to demolish it for an arena. We could say it's been under siege for decades, a victim of purposeful disinvestment by its property owners and neglect by the City. The interrupted story of the barrio has been utilized to create an image of the neighborhood as one that is ugly, worthless, and old and its people disposable. The true story of Duranguito has been interrupted by the actions of the City government, the property owners, and sometimes the media.
Since voting to demolish Duranguito in October 2016, the City has allowed it to fall into further decay: a drive by demolition in September 2017 caused damage to many buildings. A vacant lot has been allowed to become a dumping place. Homes are boarded up. Gardens, fenced in by the City, are dying. It reminds me of a scene in the 1981 movie Zoot Suit. As the defendants were nearing their trial, they were not allowed to bathe or shave or change clothes. They appeared before the jury looking disheveled and unclean, just what the 1940s White jury imagined Mexican Americans to be: dirty Mexicans. The powerful create the negative image that society expects and then justifies injustice by pointing to the dirty Mexicans or the unsightly barrio as not worth saving. That is part of the interrupted story: we are kept from the true images of Mexican American youth who take meticulous care of their appearance or the beloved barrio where residents paint their apartments, plant geraniums and fruit trees, and sweep the sidewalks in the early mornings.
A historic building on the corner of W. Overland and Chihuahua Street following the demolition attempt. Photo courtesy of Paso del Sur.
In this scenario, what can we do? The residents and allies of Barrio Duranguito don't have the millions that its enemies have. We don't have access to the political power that its opponents have. But we do have something important: we have our bodies to put to work and we have hope. Those are powerful. In recent weeks, we have been bridging the interrupted story by creating beauty.
The vacant lot is slowly being transformed into a garden. Windows are painted beautiful colors. A drab chain link fence is transformed by red plastic cups. Duck tape spells out the words "Viva Duranguito!" Trees are wrapped in colorful yarn and children paint the sidewalks with chalk. A walkway by the once beautiful rooming house, The Mansion, is cleaned of its clutter. We are people from different backgrounds, in ages from elementary school to 90, who are from El Paso and who traveled here from other cities. We are all called together by our vision of what Duranguito truly is: a place of beauty. Creating beauty is our form of resistance against forced uglification and destruction.
Photos courtesy of Ana Reza.
In her 2013 book Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted Out Cities, psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove outlines the steps to restoring joy in distressed neighborhoods and cities by describing nine elements. Element 3 is "make a mark." She writes, "As urbanists, we make signs to start a new dialogue between people and their spaces. Whether we are noting history or current events, beauty of horror, we are indicating that the space is important. Signs are the beginning of the change we need to make." By creating spots of beauty and art in a barrio under siege, we are making a mark, declaring joyfully "This place is important."
In her chapter on "Element 3: Make a Mark," Fullilove writes that "art calls us." We have seen this happen before in barrios under attack. In 2010, we opened Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon, in El Segundo Barrio. Working with muralist David Flores, we commissioned a mural to commemorate pachuco culture, whose roots were in that very neighborhood. As he worked on "Chucos Suaves," residents and students found inspiration. Soon, they asked if they, too, could paint murals and with permission of the property owner, they began their work of beautification and resistance. Soon, the tenement courtyard was filled with smaller murals painted by barrio residents, mostly young men, that called people in. I remember once, while sweeping the courtyard on an early Sunday morning, a woman in her 80s who was walking home on her way back from church, asked if she could enter. A striking mural of the United Farmworkers Union eagle had caught her eye. She shared with me the story of a strike she had participated in in the 1950s and pulled out a tattered UFW union membership card that she still carried with her. Art calls us and beauty encourages hope and imagination.
Monet Munoz and Sandra Enriquez on Museo Urbano opening day, standing in front of the UFW eagle mural painted by a resident.
Left to right: Detail from "Chucos Suaves" by muralist David Flores; UTEP MEChA students painting their own mural; Visitors from the Boys and Girls Club taking notes on the community-painted murals they are viewing.
The interrupted story has the power to hurt us, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, cities, and even nations. To bridge the story is equally powerful. Bit by bit, we are bridging the story of Duranguito by making a mark and affirming that this place and these people are important.
Antonia Morales Fall 2016
UPDATED April 27, 2018
On September 12, 2017, I stood in the early morning coolness with 89-year-old Antonia “Toñita” Morales as we watched a bobcat tearing into the buildings surrounding her home in Duranguito, a barrio on El Paso’s south side. We tried to yell above the horrifyingly violent noise of the machine for the workers to stop; the demolition crew member stared blankly at us as he maneuvered the bobcat back and forth. As it tore into the brick walls, the dust flew around him and bricks thumped to the ground. Workers standing around him mocked us as we yelled that we had an injunction against demolition. It was a surreal moment as I walked around Chihuahua Street surveying the damage, especially the ragged craters left by the bobcat in the corner of each historic home. Unlike other demolitions, the crew had not destroyed any one building entirely. Instead, they had damaged most of the residences and businesses on Chihuahua Street: the old Martinez Grocery, the homes just recently occupied by the Francos who sat outside each evening visiting with neighbors, Don Lupe who tended his beloved garden every year, Olga, and others.
As I walked along the street, I thought of the many residents who had been pushed out in the months leading up to that morning, most under duress after months of threats and harassment. One said he was happy to leave but he was a newcomer to that barrio with no particular ties to the place. Fellow Paso del Sur (PDS) member Dr. David Romo and I had walked that barrio many times over the previous year. We had stood on porches and sat in living rooms listening to the histories, the fears, and the dreams of the people who had lived in Duranguito sometimes for decades. Duranguito is more than its architecture. It is the stories of people who made their lives there.
Duranguito residents meeting, Fall 2016.
How did we get to that horrible October morning event? Eleven months before the demolition attempt, in October 2016, the El Paso City Council voted to demolish El Paso’s first neighborhood in order to build a sports arena that even their own employee testified in court would be utilized perhaps a total of two months of the year. The vote to displace the long-time residents in October 2016 was followed by a reversal in December 2016 to not demolish the neighborhood then followed by a renewed commitment to destroy the tight-knit neighborhood in January 2017. The year and a half of fighting to save their community had taken a toll of people’s health: high blood pressure, depression, and other stress-related illnesses spiked. It has also created a stronger resistance to displacement. Toñita often said that she would fight for her community to the end.
Barrios are complex, living beings. They can grow and thrive and they can experience disease. They develop over time as relationships are created and strengthened, both the relationship of the neighborhood to the city and the relationships among the people. When parts of them are destroyed, whether it be the demolition of a building or the dislocation of a resident, it is as we had lost a limb. With the displacement of each resident, the life essence of the barrio begins to decline. The decision to destroy the barrio was much more than simply “economic” and “political,” it was what the municipal government hoped was the final blow in a decades-long campaign of disinvestment, ignoring the code violations of negligent (and wealthy) landlords, and efforts to disappear the history of the place. The City and the developers hoped that by interrupting the true story of Duranguito's rich history and the contributions of generations of its residents, no one would oppose the demolition and displacement.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed the ways in which stories are interrupted within individual lives and within families—trauma, shame, forced forgetting, and even not caring. For neighborhoods like Duranguito, the interrupted story is just as insidious because the history has been purposely kept from the people of the neighborhood and the residents of the city. As importantly, the living histories of the barrio, the people themselves, have been characterized and treated as disposable people, without history and without value.
The residents of Barrio Duranguito are a vulnerable group. The neighborhood’s average income is $10,000/ year and many survive on monthly Social Security checks of $800. The great majority are renters (who have few rights in Texas) and Spanish is the primary language. The rent averages $350 a month. They are almost all Mexican and Mexican American. Women outnumber men with many older women living alone. The average age is 65. Most have lived in the area for decades. When PDS met with the residents in October 2016, we offered our help. Unanimously, they told us they wanted our help to save their homes. Next, they wanted their landlords to bring the buildings up to code.
Although the events of October 2016 were shocking, their roots lay in a revitalization plan adopted by the City ten years earlier in October 2006. Around 1999, a group called the Paso del Norte Group, with a secretive membership made up of the elites of El Paso and our sister city, Ciudad Juárez, formed in order to create an economic plan for both cities. On both sides of the border, low income communities were targeted for displacement in order to bring what developers called “progress” and “revitalization.” In reality, the "revitalization" would enrich their members. Low-income people and almost all El Pasoans were left out of the discussion of how "progress" would be envisioned for our community.
Glass Beach Study 2006. On the left: El Paso now. On the right: What El Paso could be.
The battle against displacement through the Paso del Norte Group plan has brought an important question to the forefront: who is disposable? In 2006, the City of El Paso paid $100,000 for a branding study conducted by the Glass Beach Firm, which didn’t exist before or after this particular contract, contrasting what El Paso is now and what it could be. There were several images that stood out as we reviewed the study, in particular the one referring to people. The words used to describe El Paso’s current population included “gritty,” “dirty,” “lazy” -- words that had been used against Mexican-origin people since the 1820s when Anglo Americans first came to Texas. It also included the descriptors “Spanish-speaking” and “uneducated.” The last two could describe many of the residents of the south side, including Duranguito—Spanish is the primary language in these barrios and many residents have not had the opportunity to acquire formal education. These two images made it clear who was disposable in our community.
Much of the narrative, both in the case of El Segundo Barrio and Duranguito, revolves around history. In attacks against the south side both in 2006 and 2016, the City and their representatives said there was nothing historical in either El Segundo Barrio or Duranguito. Notably, of nine historic districts in El Paso, only one is South of the freeway, south of the railroad tracks.
In 2016, the City attorney argued that Duranguito could be demolished because there were no historically designated buildings there. Of course, it was the City’s decision to go against their own 1998 archaeological study that recommended historical designation for Duranguito so it was circular logic. The City decided not to validate Duranguito’s history as significant and then turned around and said they could demolish it because no one had designated it historical. Yet, we know that the neighborhood, which dates back to the 1850s, a neighborhood built on top of an 1827 Mexican land grant, which in turn was built upon the ancestral land of the Manso people, and whose buildings have been deemed architecturally significant by experts, is replete with history.
It was not just the architecture that was historic. (And no question that the beautiful architecture is significant.) The living history, the people of the barrio, was important. In 2006, PDS began utilizing the concept of living history to describe the residents of El Paso’s south side barrios. Our history is embodied in the buildings, yes. But our living histories are embodied in the people themselves, the fronterizos whose lives and experiences have created our city. Their lives embody the history of migration, economic development, of Mexican and Mexican American culture, of women’s work, and life en la frontera. As Toñita often says, she doesn’t have to read history; she has lived it.
Last fall, our Mayor invited a self-proclaimed historian to talk about the significance of Duranguito. He is known for speaking against south side barrios and dismissing their historical significance in support of City-backed demolition plans. The mayor allowed him to speak for over 11 minutes in a vitriolic rant against Duranguito. (The last time I spoke before the Mayor and City Council about Duranguito, I was allowed one minute.) He reassured the Mayor and Council that Duranguito was not worth saving, that the historians of Paso del Sur had everything wrong and that we were, in fact, chupacabra historians. Chupacabras, you might know, are mythical creatures who suck the blood out of livestock. The mayor laughed with glee at that city council meeting as he proclaimed “Historian throw down!” On May 1, the El Paso City Council plans to appoint him to the Historic Landmark Commission. While it was a ridiculous scene, there was an underlying acknowledgement that history is powerful.
The women of Duranguito visiting with each other before their displacement.
How do we bridge the interrupted story of a neighborhood? For Paso del Sur, we started with the people. We listened as they spoke and shared their stories of raising families, of migrating to the United States, of working for decades to contribute to the economic growth of our city. We listened deeply to understand how they saw themselves as historical actors. We listened deeply to what they loved about their space. Listen to an example here. And we researched the deep history of the place. Dr. David Romo has conducted meticulous research on Duranguito and generously shared it on our Facebook page. You can find it here. Two particularly beautifully researched and written examples are here ("The Forgotten Lessons of the Ponce de León Settlement Acequias") and here ("Doña Benancia: The Woman Behind the Gold-Digging Men"). Interrupting the historical story can create disease and demoralize people. Bridging the story can plant the seeds of dignity and healing.
Photos courtesy of Paso del Sur (Facebook page: PasodelSurEP)