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.