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Arts & Culture

In Texas, A Struggle To Preserve Historic Duranguito Neighborhood

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is summertime, and for many of us, that means road trips. And if you are a history buff, you may be drawn to some of America's more than 2,000 national historic landmarks. But according to a recent Latino Heritage Scholars report, only a handful of these tell the stories of historically marginalized groups. Now they're calling for the federal government to recognize seven new sites connected to Latino history. So over the next few weeks, we're going to be taking a little road trip of our own to check out a few of these landmarks in waiting. First up - South El Paso, to the Duranguito neighborhood that our guide, local historian David Romo calls the Ellis Island of the South.

DAVID ROMO: You know, we're not taught this history, even at the local level, much less at the national level. Everyone knows about Ellis Island, and everybody has these images. But until very recently, very, very few people have paid much attention to the kind of immigration that happens through the El Paso Juarez border.

MARTIN: As a result, Romo says the stories of the fronterisos, or borderlands of El Paso, are rarely told, like the stories of the thousands of Chinese Americans who made a home here after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

ROMO: A lot of the Chinese migrants went south, so they went through Mexico and the El Paso Juarez border. A lot of these Chinese, believe it or not, they pretended to be Mexicans in order to legally cross the border.

MARTIN: At the time, El Paso had one of the largest Chinatowns in the Southwest, and a few buildings are still standing.

ROMO: Some of them look kind of like when you're going up some of these hilltops in San Francisco, that kind of Bay Area Victorian. And so in this case, they were built in 1885 while Geronimo was still fighting General Miles.

MARTIN: Turn down the street, and you can peek into the house of the infamous bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa, who kept a hideout here.

ROMO: You're going to see some of the places where the modern-day owners found stashes of ammunition. And I think they even found some bills.

MARTIN: But places like this may not be around for much longer. In 2017, El Paso began implementing a plan to demolish large parts of the neighborhood to make room for a stadium.

ROMO: We literally stood in front of bulldozers, and we stopped them. However, a small bulldozer was able to partially damage the corners of five buildings.

MARTIN: Romo knows the push to get Duranguito registered as a national landmark will be an uphill battle.

ROMO: Preservation has usually entailed middle or upper-class communities trying to save the historic structures of the elite. And that is probably why less than 2% of national historic landmarks directly relate to the Hispanic Latino community in this country, because for a long time, that was the mentality.

MARTIN: But he hopes the effort will help preserve this unique fronteriso community.

ROMO: Our knowledge of who we are is grounded on the very physical terrain itself. And that's why I'm fighting this struggle to preserve Duranguito.

MARTIN: That was David Romo talking about the historic Duranguito neighborhood of El Paso, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.