Segundo Barrio, (1975) by Los Muralistas Del Barrio, Arturo Avalos, Gabriel Ortega, Pablo Schaffino and Pascual Ramirez. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1976, UTEP student Cecilia Vega asked Soledad Olivas why she lived in El Segundo Barrio. She responded that it was close to downtown and to Ciudad Juárez and it was all that poor people like her could afford. She described a neighborhood comprised not just of vecinos; they were family. Soledad was born in Chihuahua in 1909 and migrated to the United States in 1914, growing up in El Segundo Barrio where she remained for decades. She described the barrio of her youth as “una cosa hermosa,” a beautiful thing.
In the 1970s, the City of El Paso planned to demolish a large part of the barrio through the Tenement Eradication Program. Much of El Segundo had already been lost to demolition and in 1974 organizers and residents responded by creating La Campaña Pro La Preservación del Barrio. Chicana and Chicano activists including Carmen Felix, Oscar Lozano, Juan Montes, and 65 year-old Soledad Olivas were among its founders and earliest members.
La Campaña stated that it formed so “that the unique ethnic cultural and religious character of South El Paso not be destroyed to the detriment of its population by economic interests.”
The residents believed, and with good reason, that the City would replace their homes with stores in an effort to draw shoppers and tourists. The City eventually requested federal monies in order to redevelop El Segundo through a combination of public and private funds. Residents wondered where over four hundred families would be relocated. They argued that they had not been included in the planning.
La Campaña employed numerous strategies to draw attention to the inadequate housing and institutional neglect by the city that allowed landlords to rent apartments that were not up to code. As the city demolished tenements, rents increased although the tenements lacked plumbing and hot water in many cases. Residents took action, Soledad Olivas recalled, walking the streets with protest signs, speaking before the Mayor and City Council, picketing businesses, creating a tent city, and negotiating for landlords to implement a temporary rent freeze. The El Paso Board of Realtors opposed the plan and vowed to go to City Hall, Austin, and even Washington.
Although the Campaña eventually disbanded, it left a legacy in El Segundo of cultural preservation, murals, youth activism, and a community that united to stand for itself.
“Interview with Soledad Olivas by Cecilia Vega, 1976, by Cecilia Vega, 1976,” Interview no. 251, Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso.
Sandra Ivette Enriquez, "¡El Barrio Unido Jamás Será Vencido!: Neighborhood Grassroots Activism and Community Preservation in El Paso, Texas.” (PhD Dissertation, University of Houston, 2016)