Potential to Improve Lives
by Rene Hurtado
Posted on July 11, 2006
As we prepare for changes in the landscape of downtown El Paso, the residents of Segundo Barrio find themselves under the proverbial microscope. Misconceptions abound, as some say the proposed redevelopment targets El Segundo for demolition. Others believe that any improvements in south El Paso compromise the area’s cultural significance.
It’s time to step away from the rhetoric and political pandering and take a hard look at El Segundo Barrio and what it means to El Paso. Most importantly, it’s time to be honest as to what the residents of South El Paso need and want in the face of downtown redevelopment.
It is almost indisputable that Segundo Barrio holds a sacred place in our collective childhood and in the memories of our past. As current immigration debates force us to look at our history squarely in the face, neighborhoods like El Segundo Barrio become even more important. This is where we truly show off our immigrant roots, since most El Paso families have strong ties to the Barrio (whether family members move to Austin or off George Dieter). It is quite literally the cradle of the Chicano experience in El Paso.
And as such, its treasures should be closely guarded --the ornate ceilings of St. Ignatius Church, the murals of Armijo and the smell of fresh pan de huevo from Bowie Bakery (the pilgrimage of cars to the corner of Park and Seventh for empanadas every Sunday is something to behold).
These are powerful doses of cultural identity that make El Pasoans unique. El Segundo Barrio makes us what we are. And El Segundo Barrio will play a strong role in what we will become.
Located next to the proposed downtown redevelopment plan, we should look to El Segundo Barrio as the anchor that provides a historical backbone and a personality to the new development. The Segundo Barrio is what is going to keep El Paso’s downtown different from Fort Worth, Albuquerque or Phoenix.
Critics of redevelopment say the planned improvements jeopardize the lives of its residents and undermine the history of the area. As someone who grew up in the barrio and still has family there, I believe that downtown redevelopment not only protects El Segundo’s institutions but also has the potential to improve the lives of people living in the neighborhood.
It is important to note that the proposed plan is designed for the redevelopment of downtown—not Segundo Barrio. Even though the districts lie next to each other on the map, they are distinctly different. One is positioned as a center of commerce and trade; the other is a great neighborhood grocery stores, schools and health centers. El Segundo is filled with people looking to better themselves, who struggle to make an honest day’s wage often in the face of insurmountable economic and cultural barriers.
Before volunteering with Somos El Paso and advocating for the improvement of our downtown, I went and asked my family in the barrio what they thought of all the plans and whether it was ok for me to get involved.
My aunt told me quite simply that she just wants things to get a little better. “Some things haven’t changed in a long time,” she said “All we want down here are some nicer homes, maybe some different kinds of stores. Hey, what about a movie theater? Do you think they might build one downtown for us?”
I listened to her and came away with a renewed sense of purpose. I knew it’s going to take much more than a sports arena to erase the rich history that is Segundo Barrio. There are too many of us on all sides of the political spectrum to let that happen.
But what does need to happen is that we must stop cheapening the residents of El Segundo by making them pawns to maintain the status quo. They deserve a shot at better housing, improved infrastructure—and a movie theater or a Mercado or an arts walk. They deserve to own a home that is worth more than a fraction of others in the city. They deserve a shot at the economic independence that many of us in the Eastside or Westside enjoy.
I look forward to the day when all the political infighting has ended and we are enjoying a beautiful, revitalized downtown. I look forward to this because I believe that nestled right next to our beautiful new downtown is the Corazon of our city—El Barrio. I see downtown redevelopment is as a chance for El Segundo Barrio to tell its story not only to teenagers from the Westside but to tourists from Atlanta, Monterrey and Taiwan. After all, the story of El Segundo is the story of El Paso.
And maybe la gente from El Segundo will get a nice movie theater all their own. It seems like a simple request from those who guard our cultural history.
* * *
Rene Hurtado is a public relations professional living in El Paso and born and raised in Segundo Barrio. He is a graduate of Bowie High School and holds a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Masters degree in Business from UTEP.
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