Nicole Antebi | Longreads | November 2018 | 18 minutes (4,438 words)

For the past few years I’ve been working on a topographical film titled Fred’s Rainbow Bar and Other Stages on the International Border featuring a variety of animation styles along with live-action and archival imagery to interrogate histories, memories, and imaginings of the border landscapes of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the region where I grew up. During this time I’ve also been following the incredible story of “Paso Del Sur” a watch group in El Paso who have been fighting to save Duranguito, the oldest barrio in El Paso Texas.

At any time of day or night, a group of older residents can be seen patrolling the Duranguito neighborhood in downtown El Paso, Texas, located across the river from downtown Juárez, Mexico. Historian David Dorado Romo is one of several “Paso Del Sur” figureheads who have been fighting the City of El Paso, for over a decade, to preserve the spaces Romo has long been writing about. In his 2005 book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Romo tracked the footsteps of Mexican Revolutionary folk hero, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and other historical figures of the period throughout Duranguito and greater downtown El Paso. I visited Romo this summer in Duranguito where I interviewed him about their battle with the City and the El Paso Del Norte Group, a bi-national consortium of developers who disobeyed a court order and illegally paid people to demolish their own property. At the time of our interview the neighborhood was in a state of limbo with a section punched out of each of five buildings by orders issued by the City; giving the distinct anthropomorphic appearance of a body disemboweled and left for dead.

The day after the 2018 midterms, while awaiting edits on this piece, I got word that the City of El Paso had increased their police presence in the neighborhood and resumed fencing in properties to speed up an archaeological study, with plans to resume displacement and demolition within the next week.

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NICOLE ANTEBI: Where does the name Duranguito originate from?

DAVID DORADO ROMO: The provenance of the name is both anecdotal and historical. One of the stories Toñita Morales, who lives in the adobe-looking house over there, tells me, is that she first heard it when she was a young woman living in Segundo Barrio in the late ’40s. She told me that there was a family from the State of Durango with three daughters that lived here on one of the streets and when young men would go back to visit people would say “A donde vas?” and they would respond, “Vamos con las de Duranguito.”

What I’ve seen in some of the oral history records at the University of Texas at El Paso is that it was called Barrio Durango back around the turn of the 20th century and they don’t really say why, but I get the feeling that it may have been called that because one of the streets here is Durango street. So you can find all these streets in the Anson Mills plot map of 1859, even before the railroads came here, and these were all wagon destinations. So Chihuahua and Santa Fe streets were part of the old Camino Real and Durango was also one of those destinations where you would go.

Later, in the 1990s, you had the central business association led by Tanny Berg who had plans to gentrify this place and turn it into a destination with bars and a nightlife and he started calling this whole place Union Plaza based on the Union Depot. That’s a relatively new name. And so now the city is saying it’s not called Barrio Duranguito, its called Union Plaza.

Names and terrains have always been contested. That’s part of the identity of a place and that’s also part of the struggle. We are trying to revive what the neighbors themselves call it. But in fact, if you go back to 1827, it was called Ponce de Leon Rancho and it was the first land grant on this side of the river. In 1873, when El Paso was first incorporated, Duranguito was designated the First Ward. There’s an older parcel where the Chamizal or the Segundo Barrio used to be, that, it could be said, was the first, but it was still on the Mexican side of the border at that time. So in 1873, this became the first land grant on the El Paso side. And when they first broke ground, there were a lot of adobe structures that were designed to protect themselves from the Apaches. So that was also contested terrain. And even the Apaches were themselves contesting this place. There is archaeological evidence all around of Pueblo-style sedentary communities. So really, this is part of a long, long, history of contestation. But this isn’t the kind of history the City feels like it can promote.

When did this fight for the neighborhood begin?

When the El Paso Del Norte Group, a consortium of binational developers, came to El Paso, and we are talking before the crisis of 2008, this was really, really hot territory. What was going on in Mexico kind of made it hotter. These people wanted to bring the whole maquiladora system here, because of the housing bubble, and they could buy land for dirt cheap through eminent domain. The Borderplex Alliance was comprised of 80 percent of some of the richest people in El Paso. There were 360 people in this consortium including Woody Hunt, a billionaire developer, Paul Foster, and later his wife, Alejandra de la Vega, and William Sanders, one of the most powerful developers in the United States, who had ties to top Washington officials. They had all this land in both Juárez and Santa Teresa and they had thousands of acres of property on both sides of the border along Zaragosa bridge and were pushing for the construction of another international crossing near here that would connect the nearby town of Santa Teresa, New Mexico to Lomas de Poleo, in Ciudad Juárez. And then, all of a sudden, they pulled out their plan to build an arena here in Duranguito. And in Segundo Barrio, they were going to tear down 30 acres and build a Wal-Mart or a Target and they were going to move the downtown bus station serving Mexican shoppers away from the central plaza because they wanted to gentrify that space and they didn’t want poor Mexicans here.

Most people weren’t paying attention, but I’m a historian and I knew about the battle of Chavez Ravine, where 300 Mexican American families [in Los Angeles] were displaced to build Dodger Stadium, and I knew that between 1949 and 1975 there were probably about a million people were displaced and three quarters of them were people of color. So as historians we were some of the first to take up the cause. Dr. Yolanda Leyva, Dr. Selfa Chew and myself and a lot of graduate students from UTEP formed the group Paso del Sur in opposition to the El Paso Del Norte Group as a way to inform the community about what was going on.

Back then it was really hard to fight. Why? Because the fight was bi-national so we joined forces with people in the Lomas de Poleo community in Juárez. There were 350 families who had squatted back in the 70s that we’re no longer squatters because they had been there for literally decades. And they built their homes on a piece of property that was adjacent to San Geronimo, which was owned by Eloy Vallina who is in the El Paso Del Norte Group.

He was one of the 20 percent that had Spanish surnames. Héctor Murguïa, the mayor of Juárez at the time, and Eloy Vallina, who was a member of the Verde Group, and others, were all in very incestuous cross-border business relationships. And the Verde Group brought in Foxconn and other development projects on both sides of the border. It was a huge, huge, project involving some of the richest people in this area.

In our research, we found nefarious connections on the Mexican side with narco-traffickers, and it quickly became clear that research was our strongest weapon and we started to get in trouble. This was heavy stuff and we started to get in way over our heads. I am not an investigative journalist, but I was working with the Texas Observer and we brought in Eileen Welsome, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on The Plutonium Experiment and I warned her that this was a deep story and she said, “Heck, I uncovered that the US government were doing all kinds of dirty stuff during the Manhattan Project, so this is nothing for me to look into this story.” She actually spent six months here and it kind of changed her life because she interviewed some of these people with years of media reports connecting them to criminal organizations. She was a very gutsy and a brilliant writer. These people had bi-national connections and we were fighting both sides.

We started off as a bunch of historians and I wasn’t really prepared for this. When I was an undergrad at Stanford University and we were fighting apartheid, we were applauded for that. Even when we did civil disobedience they would pat us on the head, but this wasn’t the case here on the border. When you engage in community activism that directly threatens the interests of the most powerful businessmen in the region it’s a whole different level of struggle. And I wasn’t prepared for that at the time.

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In 2006, the Sander/Wingo firm conducted what was called “The Glass Beach Study” a controversial marketing scheme to redevelop downtown El Paso. They were a group of young progressives that wanted to bring in the creative class and gentrify El Paso so it would look like San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The study was utterly discriminatory.

Basically, they were saying El Paso is an old Chevy. Dirty, uninteresting, breaking down and they wanted to get rid of it and bring in an Infinity SUV. And we were saying look! It’s a beautiful 1950s Chevy, can’t you just see it? Don’t you get it? Use what you have. No, they didn’t want that and that’s why when you asked me if I had offered more evidence to them of the importance of this history would they change their mind? The answer is no. You could have told them that in Japan they are selling it for $200,000 because they love it and appreciate it. And if you have tourists coming here, they will want to see a souped-up Chevy, they can see an SUV anywhere. Besides, it will be a second-class SUV, compared to other cities. And the people wanting to gentrify us would say they had loved my book and the stories about the rich history of South El Paso. But it was the same group of people who couldn’t see the value of this place. And so it’s so difficult because on the Mexican side, you have a whole different level of violence and impunity. In Mexico, you had these billionaires with these very dirty connections and on the American side, you had these progressives who were using the latest rhetoric to call us blight preservationists or backward people. It was almost easier to fight the Juárez Groups because you’re fighting people who were obviously dirty. But on this side, it was the so-called “progressives” who were the “Young Turks,” the upwardly mobile politicians who were calling us “regressive.”

In the Lomas de Poleo neighborhood in Juárez, the squatters who had been there for 30 years were fenced in with barbed wire fences and these developers put guard towers up and they hired thugs so that nobody could go in and out — kind of like how the riot police tried to fence us in here the day of the illegal demolitions last year. But it was 100 times worse. The thugs hired by the Juárez developers, who also have businesses and homes in El Paso, started burning down some of the houses in Lomas del Poleo. People were beaten and terrorized on a daily basis, but the Lomas del Poleo residents organized and it was a huge fight for many years. The lawyer representing the residents was shot down by armed assassins right outside the courthouse in the capital of Chihuahua. But again, on the El Paso side, we were fighting these politicians with a progressive mask, but behind the mask were these incredibly powerful right-wing billionaires ten times over, like Woody Hunt and Williams Sanders. So here we were, a bunch of historians helping the Segundo Barrio and Lomas del Poleo residents trying to fight that. Talk about a David versus Goliath story. I remember it was super traumatic. We were able to stop the complete destruction of the Segundo Barrio because of the huge recession in 2008, but after the Lomas del Poleo lawyer was shot down, most of the residents there simply gave up and accepted their forced relocation.

Then 12 years later, the City of El Paso sends bulldozers to Duranguito and we were very conscious historically about Chavez Ravine and even though they fought so hard for 10 years, in the end, they were still bulldozed.

We figured this is history repeating and this is going to happen to us. But we have to state our opposition anyway, no matter what the final outcome. Gentrification is not inevitable.  It’s not some kind of natural process. It’s about a small group of very powerful people who will figure out how to buy out the politicians, who are trying to do everything to tear down and erase this community. I spent a couple of years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and that’s where I studied the Holocaust and I always ask myself, what would I have done? And I’m not comparing that kind of extreme historical situation to this, but the question I’ve always asked myself is what do you do in a situation of great injustice? Not one that happened a long time ago, but that is happening now. Do you put yourself at risk by speaking out or do you remain silent? And I want to think that even if there was nothing else I could do, I would have at least spoken out. I have to say no…I won’t go along with this…this is wrong.

What is the state of Duranguito now?

So, Goliath wakes up. We realize we didn’t beat Goliath. On September 11th 2017,the Borderplex Alliance property owners sent two huge bulldozers to tear down the neighborhood and we stood in front of the trailers trying to unload them and refused to allow them into the neighborhood. But on September 12t,, the demolition crew returned early in the morning and partially destroyed the neighborhood by poking holes in five buildings on Chihuahua street.

Was that done as a threat?

Okay, so I’ll explain what happened on September 11th, 2017? What a day. Our attorneys were trying to get a court injunction to prevent the City and landlords from demolishing the historic Duranguito buildings that day and we successfully got an injunction that denied the City the right to raze anything until all the pending court cases at the state level were decided. But some of the landlords that owned some of these buildings here on Chihuahua Street are part of that binational Borderplex Alliance consortium. These land speculators had begun purchasing the majority of the properties in Duranguito more than 12 years ago, very aggressively. The majority of them bought back when the downtown plan/arena plan was still a secret. And so the city knew that in order for them to destroy such a historic place they first have to do an archaeological survey, and that could take several years. So the City was very clever. And the City and real estate speculators signed a contract with a demolition and “site preparation” stipulation.  In other words, the City told the developers, “We’re going to pay between three and five times what the buildings are worth, but you have to kick the people out yourself and you have to destroy the buildings yourself.”

Because the law is kind of ambiguous, it says that anything that is owned or controlled by the city needs to have an archaeological survey according to Texas antiquities law. But if it’s not technically City owned then the City attorneys can try to get around it. So the City tried to circumvent the Texas Antiquities law with contract stipulations where the City promised to give the land speculators $140,000 immediately when you start creating the first dents in your building. So the City induced the landlords to basically defy the demolition injunction with a promise to pay them as soon as they start demolishing. We see lots of corruption in this. There’s this empty lot right next to Tonita’s that the Borderplex Alliance real estate speculators bought for $40,000. And the city paid them $270,000. So do the math, it’s like five times what the building is worth. These buildings were bought for less than $100,000 and the city is giving them $400,000. There’s one Tiradero Market building over there that got $1.2 million. This is a lot of money for El Paso. And it was always about insider trading. One of those buildings is a tenement owned by Woody Hunt. It’s a tenement he’s never done anything to improve. We’re talking about a billionaire, the second richest man in El Paso. So what the hell is he doing buying a building in Duranguito that he doesn’t improve? Did he want to turn it into a bar or something? No, he just wanted to control the properties to make sure that there are no holdouts for the arena project.  So on the morning of September 11th, we go to court. And we actually get a permit that says the city cannot tear down these buildings. The owners bring in the bulldozers anyway. And the demolition crew start surrounding the neighborhood with fences. And we just happen to have a rally at that same time as when the bulldozers come. And we get in front of the large tractor-trailers transporting the bulldozers so they can’t unload them. We stopped them and it was a huge victory. And the cops told the demolition company when they saw all the community blocking the streets, “We can’t do anything to help you right now, just come back another time when we have more resources.” And so that was like the green light for them. But we didn’t find that out until later. At the time we thought, wow, now we have a court order that says the city can’t demolish these building. But these millionaires say “What the hell,” And go ahead and disobey the demolition permit and knock down their own property. What do they care if the city slaps a $2,000 fine on them, because the city will still pay them $11 million plus the $140,000 that they’ve already promised?

Are there still families living in Duranguito?

There are no families on this one street, Chihuahua Street. Now there’s only Romelia, who owns her house and Toñita Morales, this 90-year-old fronteriza woman who jokingly calls herself La Nieta de Pancho Villa, or the granddaughter of Pancho Villa. Woody Hunt offered her $14,000 to move and she said “Hell no! I’m going to stay and fight until the end.” She is like our spiritual figurehead.

Forty-two people who lived on this street were kicked out and most of them told us they didn’t want to go. Like Don Lupe, who lived over there in la Casa Jardín. He used to grow apricots and tomatoes. You can still go pick the apricots even though no one is watering them. He said, “I don’t want to go, I’ve been planting this garden for 15 years, this is my house. They told me you either take this $9,000 or we’re going to turn off your electricity.” I mean, that’s a deal you cannot refuse. You’d have to be like Toñita and say “Hell no, this is my home, I fought for it.” She was here since 1965. During the Clinton administration she organized the neighbors to clean up their barrio with a $53 million Federal Livable Cities Grant to improve it.

Part of the rhetoric is this supposedly is a shithole. What people don’t know is that the specific buildings that now look like shitholes were made to look this way on purpose. Because the city and the Borderplex Alliance people are deliberately uglifying this place so that people will say this is a shithole, lets knock it down. People will also say “Well, why is it only now that you care about this place?” But Toñita and all these people fought really hard to clean up this space, just like what we are doing with the community gardens today. So you erase history and then you just use this empty propagandistic rhetoric against us and that’s what we’re up against. These entrenched narratives. People say, “Well, they’re Mexicans, so this must be a horrible place, this must be a slum, knock it down.,” I say “No, it’s actually a really beautiful place. If you fixed it up with some new paint some and lights, this could be utterly beautiful.” Then they come back with, “You’re against progress.” Oh man, this just so hard. When you have to fight that level of stupidity.

We had stopped the bulldozers and we had a court order from the high appellate court saying we had won, but we should have had the watch camp, the plantón, that night. But we didn’t think that they were going to violate the law. The next day at 7:40 in the morning, on September 12th, they came and this time they brought a little Bobcat bulldozer to carry out a hit-and-run illegal demolition.

And it only took them five minutes to punch a hole in the corner of the beautiful Victorian-style building from 1885. We recently placed mantas, banners, on the fences explaining the incredible history of that building. It’s now known as the Flor de Luna Gallery and it is like the foundation stone of where El Paso was born. It was owned by Doña Benancia Ascarate Stephenson. She was from one of the richest fronterizo families and they called her the “woman behind the gold-digging men” because she had four husbands during her lifetime and they all became the richest men in town, once they married her. She knew Benito Juárez, and her extended binational family helped shape the history of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Her story is fascinating.

And then they came and they punched another hole here in this other Victorian building on 309 Chihuahua Street. And you know that there’s a basement there. We haven’t fully documented it, but it could have been used to hide Chinese immigrants after the Chinese Exclusion Act, or liquor during Prohibition, or weapons during the Mexican Revolution. Toñita told us that there’s actually some pictures of women dressed as Soldaderas that was found in a trunk in that basement. I know these histories, and so it hurts me, because it’s like you’re punching a hole in the guts of my history. And then they punch another hole over there in that in that building. La Casa de Jardín where I know Don Lupe and his garden, but I also know the histories and the people before him. These are incredible histories and the stories of their lives are like movies to me.

They punched holes in five buildings. It was like a boxing match where they just hit you under the belt. The cops were here and they were stunned too. By 12:00, the Mayor gave the police chief orders to allow the bulldozers to knock the rest of the buildings down. And there were like 80 of us here, and some politicians and the police and demolition crews working hand in hand started fencing us in. So we held hands and they basically barricaded us in. Their whole strategy that day was to starve us out. They don’t let water or food in and it’s like 98 degrees. Some supporters outside the fence see what the police were doing and they start throwing pizzas over to us. And by now, they’ve brought in the riot gear. The cops have the stun guns and it’s clear they are ready for action. I just tell everyone to be really careful. Let’s just try and save one building, sit in front of it peacefully, don’t resist. So you have a whole bunch of people of all ages and all walks of life including viejitas, elderly grandmothers, some in wheelchairs and some with canes, and we are just standing or sitting there. The riot cops were expecting a bunch of radicals and it was just us. We were caught totally by surprise. Some left their jobs that morning or came down immediately after dropping off their kids from school as soon as we heard about the hit-and-run job. And the police had us there for several hours with no food no water. We couldn’t go to the bathroom, that was the hard part. Everyone was worried about that.

So we started with around 90 people and by the end it was around 45 of us. But I didn’t want to just give up. And I thought of the German fascism parallel. Do we just give in? What’s the use? But no. We just have to say “no.” We just have to make this last statement, even if it doesn’t stop anything. But lo and behold, we had a second order from the appellate court saying, “The city has to withdraw right now.”

The appellate court was very pissed off, the judges were going to charge the mayor with contempt of court for violating their court injunction and they were going to depose him. And then we’re going to bring in a special prosecutor to investigate all the orders. A few weeks later, one of the staff people that had had supposedly told someone that the court was pissed off with the City officials, was fired. And the court withdrew, saying they had to recuse themselves.

So nothing happened and the City and developers got away with it. Nothing happened. So not only did they violate a court order. The court that was really pissed off it couldn’t do anything. But, we’re still here somehow.

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The situation changes daily. When I corresponded with Romo earlier this week, things looked grim. He wrote:

Barring some kind of miracle or new development, demolitions may begin as early as November 19. It feels like the only thing we can do now is acompañar, bear witness and document.

But this morning, he writes to me that there is a glimmer of hope:

Yesterday’s court hearing in Austin and the distinct possibility that the ruling on sports arena will be appealed means that despite the incredible odds Duranguito continues the lucha, even if it is just for a few weeks or months. There’s also a petition asking [Beto] O’Rourke, who unfortunately did much to pave the road for the Borderplex Alliance plan to destroy Duranguito, to speak out and intervene with the City to find a just solution to the impasse.

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Nicole Antebi ‘works in non-fiction animation, motion graphics, installation while simultaneously connecting and creating opportunities for other artists through larger curatorial projects. Antebi was a 2015 Jerome Foundation film/media grant recipient for a forthcoming film about the border landscapes of El Paso and Juárez.

Editor: Sari Botton