Poor neighborhoods in many cities are experiencing urban renewal. As a result, many long-time residents of those neighborhoods can no longer afford to live in the homes they have known for generations.
Yolanda Chávez Leyva, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, specializes in the history of the border and said residents of El Segundo Barrio managed to save their neighborhood from developers in 2006. That’s when the Paso del Norte group announced a downtown revitalization plan.
“Very shortly after the plan was announced, one of my colleagues, Dr. David Romo, acquired a map and it said ‘not for public distribution,’ ” Leyva said. “And this map showed the real plan for what they were calling development and it showed El Segundo Barrio as half of it being demolished.”
Leyva said El Segundo was going to be replaced with high-end retail stores and boutiques.
“I — like so many other people — have my familiar roots in El Segundo,” she said, “so it really hit me hard (and) not just as a historian who understands the importance of preserving neighborhoods that are so historic.”
With plans in place that would displace thousands of residents, Leyva and her colleagues founded the group Paso del Sur, which was deliberately named to oppose the development plan by the Paso del Norte group.
Leyva said what saved El Segundo was its history. More specifically, its ties to the Mexican Revolution.
“So, for example, you have what are now called the Pablo Baray Apartments,” Leyva said. “It used to be the building that housed a newspaper called El Paso del Norte, and it is the place where the first great novel of the revolution was written, ‘Los de Abajo,’ or ‘The Underdogs,’ written by Mariano Azuela during the revolution.”
Leyva said revolutionary spies sought refuge in the neighborhood. It was also where Mexican nuns and priests fled after the Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s, which was a peasant uprising against what was believed to be the anticlerical policies of the Mexican government.
Leyva said everywhere you walk in El Segundo is tied to the Mexican Revolution. “You know there’s building in El Paso where people paid a quarter to stand on the roof to watch the battles, including La Batalla de Juarez,” Leyva said. “So we have this rich history of the whole 20th century embodied in El Segundo and in the building of El Segundo.”