There is No Room for Nostalgia in El Segundo Barrio in South El Paso These Days (written before the hammer fell on "The Plan")
By Miguel “Mike” Juarez, c/s/r
I recently phoned a friend to ask her about her stance on the El Paso Downtown Revitalization Plan http://www.epdowntownplan.com/. A year ago we would have had a friendly and polite conversation, but this time her words were cautious, as were they measured. I do not pretend to know the dynamics of present day El Paso, not having lived there since 1997. I now live in Bryan, Texas, and have formerly lived in Tucson and before that, in Buffalo, New York, but in the last ten years I have visited the El Paso more times than I can remember and I maintain close and deep ties with community persons, artists and writers there.
All my family, my seven siblings and my mother live there, but they are far removed from this zeitgeist. I know more of what is happening there than them because I stay glued to the drama unfolding on the Chuco and Raza umbilical chord composed of online newspapers: El Paso Times Online, Newspaper Tree; Blogs: La Bloga, Pluma Fronteriza, and countless e-mail message trees and listservs that crisscross cyberspace: Robb Chavez’s Xcruz rants, Donna Snyder’s Tumblewords list, and two vital electronic mailing lists: Molly Molly’s Frontera-L, and Beto Calderon’ s Historia-L.
In my phone call to my long-time friend, there seemed to be desconfianza in her voice about why I was calling. Little did I know that I was stepping into the highly debated and highly contested space about what is to become of El Segundo Barrio under the guise of redevelopment as the barrio prepares itself for gentification.
I asked her the question everyone has had on their mind, why certain people were siding with the "pesudos/the “heavies,” people who wanted to upgrade the neighborhood and ultimately "flip" Segundo Barrio like people on the home improvement channel "flip" houses? The concept is that you purchase a cheaper house, remodel it and sell it for more. I felt they were readying to do with El Segundo Barrio with the proposed Redevelopment Plan.
My friend was adamant in her stance, and it mirrored that of her peers--that the redevelopment would be good for the barrio, "that the redevelopment will ultimately improve the lives of la gente in el Segundo." Emphasis on the lives of the people who live there now, not the people who once lived there, nor the do-gooders like David Romo, author of Ringside to the Revolution, who unbeknownst to his enemies, is not trying to sell more books, but who has led a strong and visible opposition to the redevelopment.
If we were naïve, we could all go home and watch our tele-novelas and call it a day, yet what is really driving the issue is monetary gain, the almighty buck, some will gain financially from all this and we all know who they are. From a long-distance observer, there is a lot at stake. As an El Pasoan living away it pains me to see what is happening to people who are involved in this issue. What also troubles me is that the present-day move towards redevelopment is not one based in historical nor cultural preservation but one based on the buck and plain, old American greed in the mantra where the rich get richer and the poorer live in nicer places and unless, there is rent control, they eventually pay higher rent.
In my phone conversation, my friend, cautioned me against taking sides. She said Romo was appealing to artists and writers with ties to El Paso and encouraging them to take sides and add fuel to the fire. Little did she know that many months ago, deciding to put our differences aside, I phoned David and offered my help. I had a romantic idea that all the El Paso expatriates could set up a "Save El Segundo Barrio" Pay-Pal account and we would raise millions of dollars to finance the revolution. Instead David invited me to a drumming session at Alamito Park in Segundo Barrio last time I was in El Paso. I didn't make it, preferring to spend time with my mother who I see on my infrequent visits.
My friend told me how former El Pasoan and author Sergio Troncoso innocently walked into this power play like a deer in headlights when he wrote his nostalgic piece about his abuelita or how Latina author Denise Chavez sent her piece "Tearing out the heart of Las Cruces: An Unhealed Wound," that appears on the Frontera Del Sur website located at http://www.pasodelsur.com/index.html. "There is no room for nostalgia in El Segundo Barrio these days!" she told me.
She talked disparagingly about Romo and his groupito, El Paso Del Sur, but unbeknownst to her, I was a card carrying member too! The Paso del Sur group is actually a broad-based effort, made up of many people from throughout the community. “You know how David is, you know how he works," she told me. And I did know how David was and his undying, almost blind concern for the poor and disenfranchised in South El Paso. Although the Stanford-educated, multilingual, middle class Romo had not been born nor had lived in Segundo Barrio (like I did until I was ten years old), he has sought to channel his energies to improving the lives of youth and its people there.
David was passionate about El Segundo, but at times, he was also self-centered, but how many of us artists and intellectual aren’t. How many of us change agents are quiet and subservient when we want to affect change within our lifetimes. Romo did have a past of creating opportunities for himself (he and ex-pal Bobby Bryd totally appropriated the Bridge Center when they were at the helm) and sometimes stepping on toes, but again, this is the course of action in trying to make a difference--mistakes are made here and there.
Romo, like many of us, is not perfect. My friend pointed out that Romo and the Paso del Sur group were no where to be found at the El Paso Civic Center recently when scores of viejitos and viejitas from El Segundo were bused there when their homes were flooded. “If the Paso del Sur group was so concerned about the people of El Segundo, why were they not at the Civic Center handling out warm blankets and hot cocoa during the floods?”
I phoned her because I wanted to get to the bottom of the Downtown Development Plan issue, having read a lot of the events from afar, having witnessed the tearing apart of the close-knit activista El Paso community. What troubles me about the issue is how IT has divided the city and pitted the best of friends, and the best of allies, all who want to improve El Paso.
What is at stake, more than losing the character of South El Paso is the loss of the soul of the City that is first and foremost a Mexicano enclave. El Paso will never be Santa Fe; pray to god it doesn’t become San Antonio! Foreshadowing the loss of some of the best city’s best wall art, its murals and historic homes, the deeper and most enduring loss will be the trust people there have for each other.
El Paso is the last true Chicano-Mexicano city in the United States. Los Angeles has Olvera Street, we have Segundo Barrio. Segundo Barrio has been the Ellis Island for Mexicanos for close to two centuries and it is filled with history and memories that are months away from being bulldozed into condos and mini-malls.
Segundo Barrio was the staging place for thousands of families fleeing Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. It was in Segundo Barrio that intellectual Cleofas Callero documented the transition of life into the twentieth century, it was a stage for Carpa entertainers in the early 1900's, it was in Segundo Barrio that Zoot Suiters lived and partied, it was a stopping point for Anthony Quinn and his mother before they traveled out West and he went on to Hollywood to become a famous actor.
It was in Segundo Barrio that Bert Corona, the labor leader and his family lived before his family moved to Los Angeles where he laid to groundwork for the labor movement in this country. Segundo Barrio was familiar turf for journalist Ruben Salazar, and it has been a source of inspiration and mecca for numerous important Chicano/a artistic and literary voices of our time.
Clearly, El Segundo Barrio is important and historic to the national Chicano consciousness (although reading the promotional materials from the promoters of the plan you wouldn’t know it) and we are weeks away from having it disappear before our very eyes. The clock is ticking.
Days later, my friend phoned to tell me that someone had spray-painted "Vendidos" on some buildings. But the true vendidos, the true traitors in this story are not those who side with either/or, but those who remain silent and do nothing because they are related to the redevelopers or they have just forgotten their roots or they just want to stay out of it and get by.
Those of you fence sitters in El Paso, who haven’t taken a stance either/or because you are waiting to see who wins this one, need to show your cards now, the curtain is falling. What is in danger of being flipped here is not only the barrio, but the flipping of histories and memories, flipped out of the consciousness of time and place. And it is not just in South El Paso but also across the river in Cd. Juarez—it is a sign of the times like global warming, it is wide-spread regional sociological “flipping” “renewal” “rebuilding” “beautification” “re-gentrification” -- the synonyms are many, the effect the same, it is the redevelopment of our souls.
Paseño, El Paso Expatriate Miguel “Mike” Juárez works as an assistant professor and curator of Hispanic Studies Collections at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Miguel is the author of Colors on Desert Walls: the Murals of El Paso (1997, Texas Western Press) and other works. He was the lead curator in the exhibit !Siempre! siempre.tamu.edu