A group of participants engaged in an intercultural North-South dialogue in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico were invited to witness the long battle to safe guard several historical Mexican heritage barrios on the verge of destruction by city officials and Paso Del Norte group (PDNG) of investors. These investors aim at building a 180 million-dollar profit-making complex despite the committed opposition (Paso del Sur activists) of the community and their allies. Several community members from Duranguito (Little Durango) have left and others have chosen to stay to fight the city.
The PDNG is made up of more than 350 business and political leaders from both sides of the border. On Thursday September 28, 2017 after the conference on post globalization, decolonization, and transmodernity, the group consisting of several scholars, philosophers, activists and students whose origins extended from La Patagonia (the most southern end of South America) to Canada took up the invitation to visit Duranguito, the first Mexican barrio in El Paso, Texas established in 1858. Duranguito is the most recent barrio under attack.
Duranguito as it is known, is under siege by developers, the business class, binational interest groups (Mexican and North American capitalists) and city capitalist managers. The practical impact of tearing down the historical community and replacing it with a ‘multi-purpose’ arena is to impose the de-Mexicanization of numerous irreplaceable barrios. The multi-million dollar mega project profits would flow straight into the hands of developers. The plan was sold to city managers as a benefit to generate employment, a pitch that lacked transparency and raised red flags amongst the local residents of El Paso. The developers and their allies in city government presented arguments that are all too familiar to those struggling against gentrification of a community that predates the boundaries of the Southwest.
Duranguito played a role in El Paso’s history. For example, during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 Duranguito and South El Paso served as the headquarters and strategizing grounds for Mexican revolutionary Francisco Madero before becoming president of Mexico. At another time one of the buildings served Pancho Villa as storage for ammunition and supplies for the Mexican Revolution Division del Norte Army. Additionally, a lawyer’s home situated within one of the last remaining Victorian era buildings in El Paso, helped Villa gain amnesty from the de la Huerta government in 1921. It is considered the second Ellis Island for it has served as a transitional point for many immigrants traveling into other cities of the United States.
An encampment activist and philosopher, Malissa Arras Grossman, at the site of the disputed location briefed the visiting group on Duranguito’s history and the present struggle. Residents and activists want to preserve the Union Plaza; it gives a sense of place and origin that interferes with no one except the profit seekers. Supporters of save Duranguito also are advocating to register Duranguito’s last remaining Victorian buildings as historical landmarks, something the city has refused to acknowledge.
According to a report by El Paso Times, a survey by Hardy-Heck-Moore Inc, “identified a four-block portion of Duranguito that could be eligible for a larger National Register of Historic Places district designation.”
It is a Mexican barrio of working class people with small local businesses, artisans, and community spaces. The argument to modernize the designated zone for development has been supported by a racist and classist narrative. A misleading campaign by privately hired consultants, paid with public funds projects the image of a community that is aging, poor, and without purpose and contrasts this with the aspiring middle-class professionals who could take full advantage of “development”. The public and the neighborhood associations were insufficiently informed on what took place during several closed doors meetings between city officials and developers. The misuse of funds to pay private consultants without any community representation/input has raised many questions regarding the mismanaging of public funds designed to exclude the voices of the residents of Duranguito.
A PowerPoint presentation of a focus group study by Glass Beach Firm revealed a racist xenophobic content that was paid for by the City to the tune of $100,000 of public funds. The following is an excerpt that describes the language in this power point presentation:
On 7-19-06 a special executive meeting was held at the Convention Center that was not open to the public. At this meeting the project study was criticized for being unprofessional as well as prejudiced against the elderly Hispanic population of El Paso. The study includes images of an elderly Hispanic man with the words “dirty, lazy, gritty, uneducated, Spanish speaker.” It represents the image of El Paso that the Glass Beach firm would like to replace with images of an Anglo-American actor—Mathew McConaughey and a European actress—Penelope Cruz—as the models of the new upwardly-mobile creative class of young people who “enjoy entertainment.”
Despite an Eighth Court of Appeals order to halt the demolition of the eight remaining Victorian buildings located on 305-315 Chihuahua street, 215 W. Paisano Drive, 216 and 220 W. Overland Ave the DMR Demolition contract company deployed a bobcat bulldozer to punch holes in the buildings at key structural points early Tuesday morning September 12, 2017. The attempt was apparently aimed at weakening the structures and have city officials condemn the historical landmarks as structurally unsafe.
On August 2, 2017 the County of El Paso Commissioner, David Stouts, reported, “Given this and previous evidence of historical assets in the Duranguito neighborhood, I’m still in disbelief as to why the city would insist on erasing its own history by razing the buildings full of memories and significance in favor of a box of an arena or a multipurpose cultural performing arts center.”
A recent order by an Austin Texas judge has temporarily ruled out any activity to demolish Duranguito. The ruling has brought some relief for defenders and allies of Duranguito. A call for a referendum is on the negotiating table that will let voters decide if the sports arena should be built or come to an end. Activist and Professor David Romo Dorado, feels that despite the victory “The city will contest any legal referendum by all legal means possible to continue with the construction of the arena.”
One of the few political supporters to preserve Duraguito’s heritage and historical significance is El Paso state senator José Rodriguez who has come under fire when he firmly stated the following:
“To capture what El Paso really is, you need to accept the Mexicanness, the Mexican American, and indigenous roots of El Paso, […]. There’s too many people who say, ‘I want us to move away from that. I want us to be like Gringolandia, like all the other homogenized American cities.’ El Paso is unique. You can’t find a place like this anywhere.”
In conclusion, Duranguito is a contested space in the struggle to preserve historic memory as well as the community life of a neighborhood. The vandalism of buildings by developers and the subsequent police action against the defenders strikes at the heart of community’s identity and sense of place. The ideology of progress under capitalism has infringed on the sovereign right of people to live and grow in the community. The face to face encounter of the scholars from the conference and the neighborhood defenders gave rise to a mutual recognition of the urgent need to stop the destruction of historic Duranguito. At the same time the Mexican is required to be invisible, he or she is also expected to be ready at hand for exploitation. Jose Carlos Villalva, an El Paso Real Estate Manager puts the dislocation of Duranguito’s residents in the following irrational Orwellian manner, “When we move them somewhere, it is not because we chose it, it is because they were given options and they chose which ever one was best for them.”
In an act of inadvertent transparency, the developer’s consulting firm determined that residents and their allies no longer deserve to call Duranguito home (they must be removed). We stand in solidarity with those resisting the destruction of Duranguito’s historic buildings and with the call of displaced residents, the respect for their dignity, justice and the immediate end to build the arena at any cost! From Duranguito to Boyle Heights (Los Angeles, California) the de-Mexicanization/gentrification of communities must cease to be a showcase for investors and destructive policies based on removing families and communities in the name of profits. This is a call for action!
 The phantom firm, Glass Beach, was sub-contracted by the PR firm Sanders Wingo. Notably, Sanders Wingo’s major clients include the Paso del Norte Group.