What is the power of history? What is the power of memory? These are the questions we are considering in our ongoing project, The Barrios of El Paso Digital History Project, an ongoing project of the Institute of Oral History (IOH) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Digital public history provides a compelling lens to explore these important issues. Since public history is a process and a practice of conveying history to the wider community, it has a far-reaching impact on people’s beliefs, identities and thoughts of what history is. While public history is a collaborative methodology involving several people, our roles as historians are pivotal in the production and interpretation of history for the public. We believe our public history project this year with The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP must be more than simply a project shared with the public. It must be of service to our community and, more importantly, come from our community.
As popular history and its consumers become more informed, overlooked histories could become less of a problem. According to an online article published by Khan Academy, “Standing on the Shoulders of Invisible Giants,” history involves “collective learning. Historians piece together different conversations to tell a story that crosses centuries and continents” (Elshaikh). At times, it is not always simple to see how collective learning moves from one community to another. However, through the IOH, we have worked to look for evidence that connects us to each other, especially in our historically underrepresented communities, by preserving these conversations through oral histories.
We are currently compiling oral histories, historical narratives written by a group of graduate students in a course by IOH Director and UTEP History Professor Dr. Yolanda Chavez Leyva, specifically Introduction to Public History, and photos on a website to document the stories of contemporary and disappeared barrios. The platform we are using to design our website is Wix.com, a user-friendly site that offers an option to create blog pages, which we plan to utilize for the students’ historical narratives. I have used Wix before to help design a website while I was a Student Fellow at El Paso Community College (EPCC) during my previous tenure with The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP. It was through this medium that we showcased the stories about the food culture, art, and historical buildings of Downtown El Paso and Segundo Barrio. We are working in partnership with El Paso County and County Commissioner David Stout through their historical preservation project, “Corazon, Historia, y Raices.” We also have a small grant from the Texas Historical Commission to help support the project.
Our area of focus is the South-Central part of El Paso, Texas. Its boundaries are Piedras Street to the west, the Cesar Chavez Border Highway to the south, Ascarate Park to the east, and Interstate 10 (I-10) to the north. In 1968, the completion of I-10 separated what had once been a cohesive part of the city into two parts. Initially, the northern boundary was marked by the railroad tracks that are today found south of the interstate. In this area there are many historic neighborhoods, including the Old East El Paso Addition.
I am also creating a Google Map of South Central El Paso, (which will be posted on our website) with separate layers for murals and historical buildings. I have used Google before to design a map for my previous project at EPCC and decided to use this platform, because it is so interactive, and it has an easy-to-use interface. I plan to continue adding to it, since there have recently been new murals completed at the Chalio Acosta Sports Center and at the intersection of Delta Drive and Fonseca Drive.
The South Central side of town is one of El Paso’s first barrios, yet there has been minimal research done on it. During the early twentieth century as the Segundo Barrio filled beyond capacity with new residents, families began to move eastward along the Rio Grande River. Some of the city’s most iconic schools are located here, like Jefferson High School, known locally as “La Jeff.” This barrio’s history has much to teach us about urbanization, migration, the history of education, and industrialization along the U.S.-Mexico border.
One of the topics the students have written about for their historical narratives is Lincoln Park, a culturally and historically rich park located where I-10 meets with U.S. Route 54. Even though this space did not originally sit underneath freeway overpasses, it was home to a community of African Americans and Mexican Americans, considered to be the first multiracial neighborhood in El Paso. The Lincoln Park community grew to be a cultured but contested community, due to the creation of El Paso’s highways in the 1960s. Despite this conflict, in 1983, the Lincoln Park director, Bobby Adauto, outlined a plan that continues today for muralists to be allowed to paint on the freeway pillars. Most of the murals tell the stories and histories of the park, and it became an ideal place for residents to hold events.
An array of underpass murals in Lincoln Park.
Dr. Leyva, along with two other undergraduate research assistants and myself, visited South Central El Paso in July to begin taking photos of the murals found in this area to post on our website. We focused on the art found in Lincoln Park, the Old Sheepdog Brewery and the Del Norte Courts Motel. Found at 4015 Alameda Avenue, the motel has been converted into a space featuring many murals on its walls. It was my first time visiting this place, and I soon learned the artistic work was produced within the past few years by a new generation of young muralists. The single mural we photographed at the Old Sheepdog Brewery on 3900 Rosa Avenue is named, “I (Love) EP,” painted by local muralist Tino Ortega. It is just one of various entries in Ortega’s collection of pieces honoring the Walmart mass shooting victims and promoting unity in our community.
Tino Ortega's "I (Love) EP" mural.
I have found how the stories of South Central have travelled across time and space and remain pertinent to our city’s history and pride. My collective learning about this area is still growing, and I plan to continue using the space of our website to showcase its stories. Our site has the ability to make unheard voices heard. In either January or February 2024, our website will go live and will be presented at a public event in South-Central (location and time to be announced). We are collaborating with Senior Policy Advisor Cynthia Renteria, Ph.D., of David Stout’s office, whom we met in August at the El Paso County Courthouse to begin planning for this event.
All images courtesy of Tatiana Rodriguez.
--Elshaikh, Eman M. “Standing on the Shoulders of Invisible Giants.” Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/big-history-project/big-bang/how-did-big-bang-change/a/standing-on-the-shoulders-of-invisible-giants. Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.
Written by Tatiana Rodriguez, Undergraduate Research Assistant
University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP
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