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
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.”
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.
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.
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.