The First Mexican Border Town May Be Losing Its Character

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Faced with prospects of urban revitalization, an El Paso community fears the end of an era.

Located in the westernmost corner of the Lone Star State is the city of El Paso. Its identity -- as well as historic narrative -- is defined by its location: the city stands along the banks of the Rio Grande, which creates a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

It was this proximity to Mexico that set the course of El Paso's development. How? Three words (and eight numbers): the Mexican Revolution, 1910 - 1920. The uprising -- which evolved into a full scale civil war -- brought a rush of refugees to the border city.

But there was one particular community most affected by this influx of immigrants: El Segundo Barrio, or the Second Ward.

As Yolanda Chávez Leyva, chair of the University of Texas at El Paso, remarks, El Segundo Barrio was truly the "heart of the Mexican diaspora" as well as a definitive "port of entry."

For many new to the United States, the barrio would serve as a first (and often final) home. As such, the Second Ward became a distinctively Chicano community, bearing obvious traces of the residents' homeland culture. It was indeed an American location, but its character was of another place entirely.

El Segundo Barrio was therefore an ideal choice for the Environmental Protection Agency's DOCUMERICA project. Like Arizona's Navajo reservation and Puerto Rico's Martin Pena canal, the barrio had a distinct ethnic identity, but it was also the victim of environmental decay -- as well as deep-seated poverty.

A fair amount of the impoverishment was, of course, due to the community's immigrant status. But not entirely. Drought, in particular, threatened the financial well-being of the community since many residents in the Second Ward were (and continue to be) farm laborers, whose income could be decimated by the lack of water and healthy crops.

But at the time these photos were taken, El Segundo Barrio residents faced a far more troubling prospect: commercialization.

In their original archive form, several of the pictures featured in the gallery bore the caption, "El Paso's Second Ward Neighborhood, Which Is Losing Its Ethnic Flavor in the Wake of Urban Renewal." Urban reconstruction and renovation was clearly an emotional issue for the residents of El Paso in 1972; they felt that their unique identity (that they had worked so hard to establish and maintain) would be lost as the character of their surroundings changed. And it was clearly an obvious enough problem to attract the attention, and concern, of the EPA.

Approximately 40 years later, the community (of slightly over 8,000 residents) is facing similar fears -- and a similar struggle with urban renewal.

Just two years ago, El Paso launched a revitalization plan for El Segundo Barrio. The stated purpose of the plan was to "establish a collaboration process for residents to work with city government and community organizations to clean up the targeted area and improve the quality of life for residents in the neighborhood." The revitalization in particular aims to address El Segundo's substandard housing as well as its high levels of unemployment. And compared with the whole of El Paso, the barrio certainly has much lower levels of educational attainment.

But the plan also calls for the demolition of many historic and foundational buildings as well as the possible displacement of community members. For many residents, that's akin to the destruction of their heritage.

Still, it's clear that the residents of El Segundo Barrio need to take initiative to improve their quality of life. But they want to do it their own way since, as Leyva comments, "the hopes and suggestions of the people of the neighborhood have been ignored due to the many developer-backed plans."

Fortunately, for the time being at least, the barrio's residents seem to have been successful in preserving their community's character. But with continuing renewal efforts, their fears will likely be realized.

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Madeleine Kruhly writes and produces for The Atlantic.

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