Duranguito Soundwalk

About the Route

Duranguito is a neighborhood in south El Paso, Texas along the current territorial border between the United States and Mexico. This neighborhood is bounded by West Overland Avenue, Leon Street, Paisano Drive, and South Santa Fe Street. It was settled as a residential and commercial area during the early construction of the railroad through El Paso in 1881 with predominantly Chinese and Black immigrant workers, and has been known as a place of settlement of newly-arrived immigrant families. The neighborhood has undergone demographic and physical changes throughout its lifespan, yet its essence remains the same. Duranguito has been a place where many different types of people have called home.

The fight against the neighborhood’s destruction and resistance to the development of Duranguito in the past decade is a demonstration of the assertion of a different kind of value, which emerges from cultural memory and grassroots storytelling about place. It is a space that, through oral history, art, public exhibits, demonstrations, and journalism, has been ‘seen’ in a way that resists the monetary value-based gaze of external developers towards gentrification. This space is significant to our project for offering a potential antidote and response to processes of surveillance and state-determined value.

This Soundwalk was created by Tatiana Rodriguez and Saul Fontes, Mellon Humanities Collaborative Research Fellows, in 2022.

Walk & Listen

Early Colonization

On April 20, 1598, the Juan de Oñate expedition arrived at the Rio del Norte, known today as the Rio Grande. The following week, the Spanish colonizers “traveled up the river and on April 30, Oñate claimed possession of the land by reading ‘La Toma’ at what is now West Texas. La Toma means “taking the possession of,” laying “the foundation for more than two centuries of Spanish rule in the American Southwest.” By the mid-eighteenth century, 5,000 inhabitants “lived in the El Paso area … Spaniards, mestizos, and Indians … the largest complex of [the] population on the Spanish northern frontier.” A large dam and irrigation ditches helped agriculture flourish. A series “of vineyards produced wine and brandy said to have ranked with the best in the realm.”

Before Juan María Ponce de León owned a ranch on land that became El Paso, one of the first reservations of 1,000 Mescalero Apaches lived in the area that is now Duranguito from 1778 to 1825. Max Grossman, Ph.D., associate professor of art history at UTEP, claimed that Spanish settlers established “peace camps” for the Apaches to prevent them from raiding Spanish communities and to encourage them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle for that of a sedentary farmer’s. One of the largest camps was the one at Duranguito, where its inhabitants “were organized into five tribal sections led by prominent men within the … Apache nation.” Scholars consider the camps, which extended from Tucson, Arizona to Laredo, Texas, to be the first Native American reservations in the Americas. These reservations represented multiple scales of forced displacement through the nation-state enclosing of this piece of land.

Ponce de León settled the land of Duranguito in 1827. De León was a wealthy merchant of El Paso del Norte (present-day Juárez, Chihuahua) who purchased the “215 acres of mud flats on the north bank of the Rio Grande” where he established a ranch with multiple adobe roundhouses. Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico surrendered all claims to Texas and the Rio Grande was accepted as the boundary of the state. All land north of this boundary, known as the Mexican Cession, and making up “half of Mexico’s national domain, became a part of the United States, which paid Mexico $15 million.” The Ponce de León grant attracted American settlement following the end of the Mexican-American war. With the completion of the treaty, land on the US side of the border was made attractive to US investors. “Anglo American investors … obtained land along the northern bank of the Rio Grande.” At the same time, US Army troops arrived to secure the US-Mexican border further, impose “customs duties on goods transported across the Rio Grande, defend settlers from Apache attacks, and … maintain law and order.” In 1849, Ponce de León sold the land to Benjamin Franklin Coons, who named the land Coon’s Ranch. Coons then “rented land to the [US] army after the arrival of Jefferson Van Horne, who called the encampment ‘the Post Opposite El Paso [del Norte].” After the army moved away in 1851, Ponce de León repossessed the ranch, but following his death, his wife and daughter sold it to a freighter, William T. Smith.

Track 1: Overland to Leon

Begin on West Overland Street, outside the Greyhound Bus Station.

Immigration, the Railroad and the Mexican Revolution

Today, Duranguito is “exclusively populated by Mexican-Americans,” but an African American community and a small Chinese American settlement initially thrived in the historic neighborhood. In the 1880s, “both groups arrived with the railroads”, which transported thousands of residents from throughout the nation to El Paso. From 1886 to 1889, the Southern Pacific Railroad hired one thousand five hundred Chinese workers to construct the railroad when it traveled through El Paso. When the railroad was completed in 1889, many of the laborers remained to work as cooks, vegetable growers and waiters while others cleaned trains for the Southern Pacific.

Many of these workers then began successful businesses. Over a dozen Chinese laundry buildings began to operate and “in 1890, 44 % of the Chinese population in Texas lived and worked in El Paso.” As of the present day, only one laundry building stands at 212 W. Overland Ave., the last remaining landmark of El Paso’s former Chinatown. In 2016, this laundry building was submitted to the Texas Historical Commission for designation as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, but this does not protect the building from demolition.

Duranguito is a community predating the American Southwest’s militarized boundaries. “During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Duranguito … served as the headquarters and strategizing grounds for Mexican revolutionary Francisco Madero before becoming president of Mexico.” One of these buildings served Pancho Villa as storage for ammunition and supplies for the Mexican Revolution Division del Norte Army. A lawyer’s residence located in one of the last standing Victorian buildings in El Paso assisted Villa in gaining amnesty from the de la Huerta government in 1921.

Track 2: Leon to Paisano

Proposals for Development

Today, Duranguito sits in isolation as a chain link fence with a dark green tarp that encompasses part of the neighborhood, cloaking it from outside eyes. The current state this El Paso neighborhood has trails back several tumultuous years. In 2012, City Council held the ‘Quality of Life’ bond election in order to approve funding for proposed projects. Proposition 2 of the bond entailed the development of a multi-purpose performing arts center. In 2016, the City began the development process for a sports arena.

Many of El Paso’s political and business classes are convinced that Duranguito must undergo sweeping changes to fit their vision of a modern city. These classes claim that with this area being located between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez’s central tourist districts, there are possibilities for improvement. Duranguito is one of the only practical “places to enact the new urban model of density, access to entertainment, and walkability.” Businessman William Abraham wished to build the city’s new arena in the Union Plaza District, which would have displaced the neighborhood’s primarily elderly population and several other historic properties. City officials recommended an area south of the Judson F. Williams Convention Center to build the $180 million Downtown indoor arena, “the largest project in the 2012 Quality of Life Bond.” The targeted area is bound by W. San Antonio Ave., S. Santa Fe St., W. Paisano Dr., and Leon St. It “includes the Greyhound bus station, some apartment complexes, a convenience store, a fire station, and Firefighters Memorial Park”, all sites deemed to have no historical designation.

However, legal challenges from a group of activists pointed out the lack of transparency in the proposition as well as the condemnation for choosing the Duranguito neighborhood as the location for such development.

Track 3: Chihuahua

Community Resistance and Historic Preservation

Older residents, especially, think redevelopment would make it more difficult to find affordable housing. This redevelopment plan would result in them moving far into the suburbs, where transit links and public services are limited. “This is not just about historic preservation. It’s about liberty, and restraining government, and transparency,” said Max Grossman. In 2017, Grossman waged a legal battle to preserve the historic sites in Duranguito with the financial help of J.P. Bryan, the owner of the Gage Motel in Marathon, Texas. The one building, in particular, that brought Bryan into this fight was the 1930s firehouse designed by architect Henry Trost on Leon St. El Paso City engineer Sam Rodriguez “said it’s possible … [the firehouse] could be saved and incorporated into the project” for historic protection.

On September 11, 2017, El Paso del Sur, an anti-gentrification activist group in El Paso, saw its efforts go into effect. The city had “granted a cease and desist order to protect the historic neighborhood … from being demolished to make way for [the] sports arena.” The courts initially put off this decision to make the neighborhood vulnerable to immediate destruction. However, at the instruction of developers and business interests, a working crew began demolishing parts of some of the buildings in the neighborhood the following day, making them unstable. Shortly after, angry crowds of protesters arrived at the scene, forming a human chain around the buildings, preventing the crew from further damaging the structures. In the weeks that followed, the protesters camped out around Duranguito in fear of its possible destruction at any time. These events marked one of the most tense moments of the struggle between those who want to demolish Duranguito and those who want to protect and preserve it.

What followed were a series of legal conflicts going all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court, continuous administrative squabble by the City of El Paso, and activism by groups and community organizations. As of now, the battle for the future of this community remains up in the air and the uncertainty of the situation has left a tense and bitter feeling with everyone involved. However, it is imperative that eyes must not veer off from what’s going on in South El Paso, as this is only a microcosm of a much larger, systemic occurrence. That is, it was evident “the cease and desist order filed by the city only protected the neighborhood from government demolition, not the actions of property owners.” Paso del Sur organizer Cassandra Alicia said the fight for Duranguito is significant to everyone whether or not they have ties. “People should pay attention because every city has a Duranguito … every city has a neighborhood” in which its residents need the help of others “to stand with and for them.” Each of these neighborhoods may not have historical significance or their cities may not be central. But each city has a neighborhood whose residents are being targeted by their city officials.

Track 4: Santa Fe to Greyhound Station

The Significance of Duranguito

The fight against the neighborhood’s destruction speaks on a broader scale of conflict between the wealthy and powerful versus working-class people, in this case, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. Thus, the story of Duranguito raises the question of who truly has freedom and liberty of movement in a space. This project examines spaces with uneven value designations given by municipal, state, and federal governments. Historically, areas deemed of value for government purposes have been subject to the higher application of organized state services, including policing.

Duranguito is part of a larger living history that reflects the diverse and intricate nuances of migration, ethnicity, international relations, and culture along the border in El Paso. This barrio acts as a battleground between the forces of private interest and capitalism, and the collective activism of scholars, organizers, and residents to preserve a community. Throughout US history, various tactics have been used by the settler state to expand areas that are designed by policy for white Anglo settlement, at the expense of the displacement of Indigenous, Black, and non-white immigrant communities. Historians see this process of ‘exclusion’ as taking various forms including forced displacement, deportation, self-deportation (the creation of intolerable conditions of life that force people to move), as well as incarceration. In this way, each of these regimes of exclusion is entangled within common systems of white supremacy. Neighborhood gentrification, the development of a space in ways that raise property values and force out prior residents, is a smaller-scale means of exclusion that falls along this same spectrum. An addition of another big box store or sporting venue does not add to the richness of the city and takes away from the historic significance and further places value on the middle to upper-class groups while pushing marginalized groups further into the shadows of the city.

The resistance to the development of Duranguito in the past decade is a demonstration of the assertion of a different kind of value, which emerges from cultural memory and grassroots storytelling about place. It is a space that, through oral history, art, public exhibits, demonstrations, and journalism, has been ‘seen’ in a way that resists the monetary value-based gaze of external developers towards gentrification. This space is significant to the project for offering a potential antidote and response to processes of surveillance and state-determined value.