Traditional Mexican foods by Project Chicomecoatl. Photo by Mercy Salazar.
What makes Intangible Cultural Heritage significant to Chicanxs in the 21st century? Our community needs to preserve our culture for our own well-being. According to UNESCO, ICH contributes to food security, maintains good health, sustains livelihoods, respects a sustainable environment, resolves disputes, and strengthens social cohesion. As researchers explore what they label “the Latino paradox,” a somewhat controversial theory that Latino immigrants have lower mortality rates and better mental health than non-Hispanic whites, despite poverty and fewer economic opportunities. We need to look at what our culture can teach us, and others. At a time when Mexican and Mexican American culture is under attack, often under the guise of controlling immigration, we need to know that our culture has something to offer.
In El Paso, a city with an 80% majority Mexican American population, resistance to Mexican American cultural preservation among the “keepers of history” is still strong. Our city tells its history as a story of Spanish conquistadores and cowboys. In 2007, the City of El Paso unveiled the largest equestrian statue in the world, a statue depicting "the last conquistador," Juan de Oñate who passed through what is now El Paso in 1598. Supporters, both Euroamerican and Latino argued that it was about time that the city highlighted Latino history. Opponents argued that spending $2 million dollars (40% came the City) on a monument to genocide and Spanish colonization was a travesty. During recent debates over the creation of a Hispanic Cultural Center, funded by a quality of life bond sale approved by voters in 2012, the chair of the El Paso Historical Commission opposed the designation of the center as Hispanic or Mexican American because the city’s cowboy culture and gunslingers should be highlighted. When the Historical Commission recently developed a plan to create a historical district that included El Segundo Barrio, they did not consult with anyone from the barrio, asking instead for a blessing of barrio leaders after the fact.
I am the director and cofounder (with Dr. David Romo) of Museo Urbano, an award-winning public history project of the Department of History at UTEP. We are a museum without walls focused on reclaiming, preserving, and interpreting the history of the borderlands. Through our work, which involves everything from museum exhibits and historical booklets to community dialogue and pachangas, we invite people to think critically about history, their place in history, and to act. What I have learned over the past decade of working with Museo Urbano, both in its grassroots form and at the university, is that cultural preservation without action, history without social justice, has a hollow ring to it.
Museo Urbano started on the streets of El Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, grounded in the values of respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and social justice. We emerged in 2006 as part of a grassroots struggle against a wealthy group of real estate developers, who with the backing of the City of El Paso, planned to demolish one of the most historic Mexican immigrant neighborhoods in the United States—the Second Ward, the Ellis Island of the Mexican diaspora. It was in El Segundo Barrio that hugs the US-Mexico border, where Spanish is heard more often than English, where half the residents are immigrants, where 60% of the people live below the poverty level and 42% live below half the poverty line that we learned most poignantly about Latino heritage preservation and its meaning to our community. It began with two questions asked over and over “Why do you care about this barrio?” and 'What’s so important about this barrio?”
Once when David Romo and I were leading a group of our students on a walking tour of S. Oregon Street, in the heart of the barrio, we stopped in front of the Pablo Baray apartments, telling the group that the run-down two story tenement had once housed a number of literary presses and Spanish language newspapers. We told them it was there that Mariano Azuela wrote and published the first great novel of the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo. A man who had stopped to listen asked somewhat incredulously, “Can anyone live there now? Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” He couldn’t believe that such an important historical place stood unknown and unnoticed in the middle of his neighborhood.
As we researched that one street, building by building, learning the stories of Mexican revolutionaries and refugees from the Cristero Rebellion, of Don Tosti (Edmundo Tostado) the first Latino musician to sell a million albums with his song “Pachuco Boogie” in the 1940s, the African American jazz musicians who in the 1950s and ‘60s performed in small night clubs to a mostly Mexican American audience, to the great Chicano poet Lalo Delgado, author of “Stupid America,” and the Chinese immigrants who lived on the periphery of the barrio, we saw that this one street was connected to the nation and the world. We understood that this history was the patrimony of two nations. One the border, stories always transcend the political dividing line.
Like Kuatemok, the last great leader of the Mexica who during the Spanish occupation of central Mexico in the 1520s urged his traumatized people to “hide all that our heart loves, that which is our great treasure,” until “our new sun rises,” our abuelas and abuelos have often kept their stories and their histories held close to their hearts. The time has come to teach our youth and to allow ourselves to remember, to bloom with the histories that we hold in our memories, in our bodies, in our language, in our food, and in the urban streets of our city. The time has come to enact Kuatemok’s great desire that his people would never “forget to guide your young ones/ teach your children/while you live/how good it has been and will be.” In the midst of war, disease, and death, the children were not forgotten. Then, as today, youth are our hope, the dreams of our ancestors. We have an obligation to remember and to protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the borderlands as a gift to future generations from past generations.
To begin this work, we must answer: What does cultural preservation mean along the border? What do we do now?
Pachucos Suaves, mural by David Flores, 2010. Painted over by property owner now.