Presented atCorazón, Historia, Raíces/ El Paso, Texas November 5, 2022
I am so pleased to be here to share a bit of history about what was known a century ago as East El Paso, my father’s ancestral barrio. Many thanks to Commissioner David Stout and Dr. Cynthia Renteria for the invitation to participate in “Corazón, Historia, Raíces.” What we now know as South Central represents all three to me. During my childhood, I spent many days visiting my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins who lived on Pera Street and many of my father’s stories were grounded in the historic eastside, south of the railroad tracks and east of Piedras. I realized when I matured as a historian that his stories reflected the growth of a community and its institutions. I see them as glimpses into the building of community. Family. School. Church. Also popular culture. Growing up listening to his stories as we drove south on Copia, passing Alameda, eventually making our way to Pera Street rooted me to this barrio on the U.S.-Mexico border. The drive always evoked his childhood memories of the eastside.
Sanborn Fire Map 1910/ Graphics by Angel Ortiz
Arrival to US
In 1914, Isidro Ruacho called for his family to join him in El Paso. Emeteria Leyva responded, crossing into El Paso with their four children: Ausencio, Julia, Petra, and Gerónimo. Isidro was tired of the fighting he endured during the Mexican Revolution. His son Gerónimo remembered his mother sending him into the battlefields to look for his father’s body. He talked of walking among the dead men, putting small rocks on their eyelids in order to keep them shut. It was a childhood memory that remained with him throughout his life. For Isidro and Emeteria, and thousands of other migrants, El Paso represented an escape from the violent chaos of the Revolution. It represented stability. For 3-year-old Gerónimo, however, coming to El Paso embodied the unknown. In a 1978 oral history, Gerónimo remembered crossing the border and walking on El Paso Street, knowing they were now in the United States but having no idea what that meant. Frustrated because he was crying, his brother Ausencio grabbed him by the hand. “Mi hermano estaba ya grandesito y me traía de la mano, hecho a la mocha.”
By the time of their arrival to El Paso, historic Chihuahuita (that included the Segundo Barrio) was the most densely populated area of the city. As the population of the Segundo exploded in the 1910s and into the 1920s, exceeding the capacity of tenements and schools, newly arrived Mexican immigrants began moving eastward along the river into places like the “East El Paso addition.” While the neighborhood was originally populated by “Americanos,” that changed as Mexican immigration transformed the demographics. Isidro and Emeteria were part of this movement to the newer barrios of El Paso in the early 20th century, settling first in a presidio, a one-story apartment building that reminded people of military barracks, on Frutas. Soon after, they moved the family to Pera Street, which just a few years before had been known as Pear Street. Emeteria would live on Pera from the 1910s until her death in 1967. It was a neighborhood of presidios and small, one family homes, and small businesses lining narrow residential streets. As a child, Gerónimo’s homelife was culturally Mexican, living in a community just recently uprooted from Mexico, that spoke Spanish, and working to maintain Mexican culture. His contact with English-speaking “Americanos” happened only at school or at work, which he began as a child. Every time we drove on Pera to visit his mother at her home, he would laugh. “Mija, yo andaba en estas calles, un chavalito descalso.” His stories reflected the poverty in which he grew. Even shoes were a luxury.
From “History of Beall School”https://scholarworks.utep.edu/hist_honors/11/
Like Beall Elementary, another community institution opened in 1908, Guardian Angel Catholic Church. Italian Jesuit priest Carlos Pinto, known as the “Apostle of El Paso,” founded Guardian Angel or Santo Angel Catholic Church on Frutas, which originally catered to English speaking parishioners. By 1915, as the Mexican community grew, it became a Spanish-speaking congregation and in 1918, the church was turned over to the Mexican Jesuits. There, Gerónimo attended mass and danced as a matachin under the leadership of Marcelino Serna.
Church was an vital institution to Gerónimo. During my childhood, we attended Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church where matachines danced to la Virgen on her day, December 12. Every year, after mass, as we stood with others in the courtyard, watching matachines dance their prayers to la Guadalupana, as had generations before them, my father recalled his childhood dancing as a matachin at Santo Angel under the tutelage of highly-decorated World War I veteran, Marcelino Serna. Serna, born in 1896 in Ciudad Chihuahua, crossed into El Paso in 1916, went to Denver to find work, and volunteered to enter the military when the United States enter the war. He served on the front-line in France and his valor on the battlefield was acknowledged by numerous countries. He was unable to be promoted above private, however, because he did not speak English. In 1924, an article published in the Sioux City Journal describing the “San Lorenzo dances” that took place yearly. “The leader in one of the groups in the El Paso dance is Marcelino Serna, a young Mexican Indian who distinguished himself by killing Germans recently, as his fathers may have distinguished themselves in killing Spaniards or members of alien tribes.” As a World War II veteran, my father was proud that he had danced under the leadership of Serna.
Washington Park 1918 was a momentous and terrific year across the globe as the misnamed Spanish flu killed millions. In El Paso, hundreds became sick every week. Six hundred died here in the first months of the epidemic. The City closed schools, theaters, and churches. Gerónimo fell ill. He remembered, “I was sick, very sick, y no habia medios de ver doctor ni nada.” He was fevered. He couldn’t breathe. His mother Emeteria went to Washington Park and picked leaves from the fresnos there, the ash trees. She made a bed of the leaves on the floor and had him lay down on them. In traditional healing (including Chinese and European), the ash tree is known to reduce fevers and help with arthritis, gout, and other afflictions. “Pero gracias a Dios no nos murimos nadie de la familia. Y de eso me acuerdo mucho también,” remembered Gerónimo.
In August 1917, the El Paso Herald Post announced the opening of the Alameda Theater  under the ownership of Jose Soltern and the management of Jesus Ontiveros. The theater was part of a growing number of movie theaters in El Paso that catered to its expanding population. Often when driving on Alameda returning home from my grandmother’s house, my father would point to what was later the Mission Theater, the headquarters of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, and eventually the Mine and Mill Bar. “Look at that theater, mija. I used to sneak in there with my friends to watch movies.” According to historian David Dorado Romo, over a dozen movie theaters were constructed in El Paso between 1910 and 1920. Often the theaters catered to the more wealthy Mexican refugees who were seeking entertainment. For impoverished children like Gerónimo, who also wanted entertainment, sneaking into the theater was the only way to enjoy moving pictures.
In the 1940s, the Alameda Theater was purchased by new owner, remodeled and renamed the Mission Theater. The management sought to appeal to “white patrons,” living on the east side.
The Mission Theater
At some point in his early childhood, Gerónimo’s mother left him with a señora for six months. He never knew why she suddenly left him or why she unexpectedly reappeared, but we know that Mexican families often struggled to provide for their children and arrangements were made between families. In the 1920s, after the death of my maternal grandmother, her youngest living son was placed in an orphanage for several months when the family was unable to care for him. In Socorro, Texas, the County Poor Farm took in who they called “abandoned and neglected children,” mostly Mexican beginning in the 1930s.
El Paso proper had a number of orphanages early on. First, there was an orphanage for white Protestant children, followed by an orphanage for white Catholic children. It was not until the second decade of the twentieth century that Mexican children in El Paso could rely on an orphanage of their own and it was located in East El Paso where the current Father Yermo school is located. In February of 1920, the Sisters of the Society of the Servants of the Sacred Heart and of the Poor, whose motherhouse was located in Puebla, Mexico, opened an orphanage for Mexican girls. Lacking the support of El Paso's Anglo Americans and with the Mexican community lacking the resources to provide for the children, the orphanage depended on the work of the sisters and the orphans for survival. The Sisters sold flowers and taught the older girls how to embroider. Through the sale of flowers and their embroidery, the Sisters and the girls earned over $3,000. To make ends meet, they also grew their own vegetables and provided milk to the children through the use of their two cows.
Father Yermo High School
John Lucas and Felicitas Ruacho
East El Paso was also home to African Americans, many who worked at the nearby railroads. All my life, I heard about my father’s aunt Felicitas who had married a Black man named John Lucas. Unexpectedly one day several years ago, I found mention of them in a tiny announcement in the January 29, 1920 issue of the El Paso Herald. There, next to an ad for the “calyx skirt” and just below an article pitting the intelligence of brunettes against that of blondes, was an article, “El Pasoans wed in Las Cruces.” The couple married in Las Cruces, no doubt, to escape Texas’ anti-miscegenation law. Despite our treatment as second-class citizens, Mexican Americans were legally defined as white. In the early 20th century, Las Cruces, New Mexico provided opportunities to Black El Pasoans that were denied by Texas law, including the right to marry a “white” woman and get an education at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
In the early twentieth century, as Felicitas and John wed, Black men and Mexican women created intimate relationships while facing criticism and threats from the judicial system. The classification of Mexican and Mexican American women as “white” made Mexican-Black marriages illegal in many states, including Texas. It didn’t matter that some of the couples were married in places where they could marry (Mexico, for example). Their marriage was still against Texas law. As one observer wrote, the men were in trouble for marrying their color, but not their race. The day following the arrests, numerous Black families moved across the border to Ciudad Juárez. (See chapter 2 in Porous Borders for more on this story.) A Texas law passed just five years before Felicitas and John married made intermarriage a criminal offense punishable by two to five years in the penitentiary. A 1925 Miscegenation law declared interracial marriage a felony and nullified interracial marriages even if they occurred in a place where these marriages were legal. Despite their efforts, Felicitas and John found themselves breaking the law through their marital relationship. Texas' anti-miscegenation law remained on the books until 1967. The couple resided on Palm, just west of Beall School. A look at the 1920 census shows that the two block long street was home to both Mexican and Black families. The male heads of Black households worked for the railroads while Mexican heads of households held a variety of positions. The small Mexican and Black street was just a 15 minute walk from Douglass Elementary School, El Paso’s segregated Black school.
African American railroad workers
Conclusion I am grateful for my father’s stories, for the way they ground me, for the way they allow me to see history.
My father used to tell me about sneaking into this theater to watch movies as a kid in the 1910s. It showed Spanish language films. In the 1940s, it was transformed into a "whites only" theater but that didn't last long. By the 1950s, it was headquarters to the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union, a radical labor organization. Before it closed, it housed the Mine and Mill Bar.
This message is painted on the east side of the old Mission movie theater.
The bell tower of Guardian Angel Catholic Church, built in the 1910s to serve the growing Mexican immigrant community in what was then the "east side" of El Paso.
This pinata shop caught my attention as I was driving west on Alameda Street on my way to work.
Hawaiian dancer, Alameda Street.
Unicorn pinata on Alameda Street.
Proud graduate pinata.
Love message on the east side exterior wall of the old Mission Theater.
Segundo Barrio Father Rahm Street July 2022
Looking into Padre Pinto Plaza, Sagrado Corazon Catholic Church.
Treasures on the window sill.
Esperando el bus.
La Virgensita en la frontera
Woman reflected on la Virgencita, Segundo Barrio, 2021.
La Virgen de Guadalupe, 12 de diciembre 2017, Centro de Trabajadores Agricolas, El Paso
Protecting Barrio Duranguito 2019
Cd Juarez downtown December 2017
Raramuri father and son musicians, downtown Juarez, 2017.
The smell of copal, downtown Juarez, December 2017.
Ciudad Juarez limpia, downtown, December 2017.
Selling at the mercado, downtown Juarez, December 2017
Telcel payaso, downtown Juarez, December 2017
La Mariscal, Ciudad Juarez, 2017
Dos perros, La Mariscal, December 2017
Mujer con cabello verde, La Mariscal, Juarez, December 2017.
Beautiful death, La Mariscal, Ciudad Juarez, December 2017.
Tin Tan, La Mariscal, Ciudad Juarez, December 2017.
Montana Vista 2019
Red high heels in the desert 2019
El Centro July 2022
A tree reaches out to Oscar Zeta Acosta (mural by Lxs Dos), El Paso, Texas July 2022