BY Jay Root
EL PASO — It grates every time Antonia Morales and Romelia Mendoza hear Beto O’Rourke talk about the awful plight of immigrants.
It’s not that they’re unsympathetic to the families coming across the border in record numbers. They are immigrants themselves and live a few blocks from the line between Texas and their native Mexico.
What infuriates the two women is that the homegrown presidential candidate won’t talk about them — the last two residents living in the path of an arena that wealthy developers backed — even though O’Rourke helped put their immigrant neighborhood in Duranguito in the crosshairs for redevelopment when he served on the El Paso City Council.
While O’Rourke touts a sweeping new immigration plan on the campaign trail, back in his old council district there is a giant chain link fence, wrapped in green mesh and covered with “no trespassing” warnings, surrounding the heart of Duranguito. Inside sit crumbling artifacts of El Paso’s history — cherished by activists and preservationists, but standing in the way, arena proponents say, of its future.
Known in city documents by its Anglo name Union Plaza, Duranguito is — according to the historians fighting to save it — the birthplace of El Paso. The city’s pro-redevelopment mayor, Dee Margo, scoffs at the notion, saying “there is no significant historical value there.”
A short hop from the Rio Grande, it boasts the archeological remains of the first settlement in what became El Paso, several Victorian buildings dating to the late 1800s, a 1930 Art Deco firehouse designed by famed architect Henry C. Trost and a one-of-a-kind building that once housed a Chinese laundry.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
The barrio also served as the historic landing place for countless Mexican immigrants like Mendoza and Morales who came looking for a better life — something both women would like O’Rourke to publicly acknowledge.
“He says he speaks Spanish and is for the people and for Hispanics,” said Morales, who rents a tiny apartment in an otherwise vacant six-unit building. “But he needs to start treating everyone the same, since he’s always siding with millionaires and leaving us, the poor, stuck with the bill.”
Morales, Mendoza and a well-financed group of preservationists and their lawyers are fighting to stop the city from bulldozing much of the neighborhood.
The Texas Supreme Court may have the last word, thanks to a multi-pronged legal battle still raging on years after O’Rourke’s controversial votes in favor of a redevelopment plan to raze poor Latino neighborhoods for modern developments like a sports arena, big box stores and residential buildings. At the time, the project was spearheaded by O’Rourke’s multi-millionaire, real estate mogul father-in-law, Bill Sanders.
First: An aerial photo of the Duranguito neighborhood in April. Last: A fence blocks off access to the Duranguito neighborhood in El Paso.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
In recent weeks lawyers representing the city of El Paso, preservationists and residents submitted legal arguments to the high Texas court, which could decide soon if the city can use bond money to build a “multipurpose performing arts and entertainment” facility featuring sporting games, even though the word “sports” wasn’t included in the language voters approved at the ballot box.
Opponents — who argue the bonds can’t be used on a sports facility — also allege the city failed to properly conduct required archeological studies after buying much of the property they want to demolish. El Paso City Engineer Sam Rodriguez said the city is taking all necessary and legal steps to redevelop Duranguito, and once the litigation is resolved it plans to build the new facility.
“None of these buildings have historic protection,” Rodriguez said. “We have to demolish those buildings in order for us to build a new facility.”
He said it’s possible one structure — the 1930 Trost Firehouse — could be saved and incorporated into the project.
Morales, 91, first moved to the neighborhood in 1965 — into a house on Leon Street across from the historic Pancho Villa stash house where the Mexican revolutionary once stored cash and guns. (That building is not slated for demolition).
She grew up in a tiny border town near Columbus, New Mexico and first crossed the border at age 16. She can remember making 75 cents an hour grading eggs, then $10 a week cleaning houses. Morales, a naturalized U.S. citizen, retired three decades ago and receives $700 a month in Social Security benefits.
Morales said she was offered $14,000 to leave under a city relocation plan aimed at moving out residents to clear the path for an arena, but she refused. She said she helped rid the neighborhood of prostitutes and drug dealers two decades ago and has no plans to leave.
Morales said O’Rourke’s presidential race provides him with an opportunity to undo the damage he did by voting for a redevelopment that led to the displacement of immigrant families.
“He needs to start showing that the community is important to him,” Morales said.
Mendoza, Morales’ neighbor, said that given what’s happening in Duranguito she found it “ridiculous” that O’Rourke says he wants to help immigrants.
“If he wants to be a good president, and if he wants to support the immigrants, then support the ones that are already here,” she said.
Though he’s long gone from the City Council, O’Rourke faced a lot of critical media coverage after he jumped into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary for siding in 2006 with wealthy landowners and developers who wanted to demolish parts of traditional immigrant neighborhoods and redevelop them.
A string of news articles recently recounted how O’Rourke got crucial financial backing early in his political career from some of those same wealthy interests — including many Republicans.
Fierce local opposition prompted the city to shelve much of its 2006 redevelopment plans, but part of the developers’ vision has survived: the city still has a grip on Duranguito, where more than three dozen residents — many of them longtime neighbors of Morales and Mendoza — were pressured to leave, the activists say.
And even as O’Rourke’s presidential fortunes have sunk along with his poll numbers, critics of the city’s redevelopment plan are clamoring for El Paso’s favorite son to help them fight it.
O’Rourke won 74% of the vote in El Paso County during his unsuccessful 2018 U.S. Senate race, and critics of the city’s development plan say if he came out strongly against it, that could be a game changer for them.
“Of course his voice would be influential,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, one of the leading opponents of the redevelopment plan. “He helped start this process and has many followers in El Paso.”
Rodriguez added that the city “isn’t hearing the many people who have spoken out, including myself and other elected officials.”
“I think they would hear Beto,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez pointed out that O’Rourke did say last summer that he did “not support the construction of an arena in Duranguito.” But he said it during a small town hall event more than 500 miles away in San Antonio; those remarks went all but unnoticed in El Paso, and The Tribune could find no record of O’Rourke publicly opposing it in his hometown.
O’Rourke’s campaign declined an interview request with the candidate and would not answer specific questions — including whether he regretted pushing for the 2006 redevelopment plan and whether as an El Paso voter, he supported the 2012 bond package that could be used to demolish and replace much of Duranguito.
But O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans gave the strongest condemnation to date from O’Rourke of the planned arena construction.
“Beto has forcefully opposed the construction of an arena in Duranguito over many years,” Evans said. “His position remains that there should not be an arena built there and he will continue voicing his firm opposition to it.”
The statement came as a shock to pro-Duranguito activist and Chicana historian Yolanda Leyva, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. She said it was “disingenuous” for one of the first backers of the downtown redevelopment plan to suggest he’d been fighting against one of its inevitable results — the planned destruction of Duranguito — for years.
“It would be great if he told the city of El Paso directly, ‘I don’t think you should build the arena there,’ ” Leyva said. “It’s important for O’Rourke in particular to speak out against the arena because it’s the very plan which he introduced as city rep in 2006 that created the threat of demolition.”
Though the seeds of Duranguito’s potential destruction were planted in the mid-2000s while O’Rourke was on the City Council, he was serving in the U.S. Congress when financing was approved and later, in September 2017, when a giant bulldozer showed up to knock some of the buildings down.
Alarmed preservationists, led by El Paso historian Max Grossman, got a court order to stop contractors from demolishing the structures. But they came back early the next day with a smaller excavator and punched gaping holes in five of the buildings.
Grossman got a second — this time more sternly worded — emergency court order to stop any demolition while lawsuits were pending, and the court took the extra step of suspending the city demolition permits. A lot of damage was done, but it’s all come to a standstill now as the city, preservationists and residents duke it out in court.
“Every professional group, every academic, every historian, every archaeologist who has a credential … opposes the destruction of the neighborhood,” Grossman said. “The only people vocally in favor of the destruction of the neighborhood are the majority of our city politicians, the city manager and his staff and a few dozen monied families.”
First: El Paso’s last-standing former brothel on Overland Street in the Duranguito neighborhood. Last: Mural art adorns the facade of a building in the Duranguito neighborhood of El Paso.
Grossman noted various historical preservation groups have supported saving Duranguito from the wrecking ball, among them the El Paso County Historical Commission, Preservation Texas and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The latter called Duranguito “El Paso’s oldest neighborhood” and slammed the city for failing to prevent the partial destruction of some of the buildings.
“Despite the neighborhood’s cultural significance and widespread local opposition to demolition, confirmed by the thousands of residents who signed a petition to preserve Duranguito, the City of El Paso continues to pursue a misplaced sports arena that would destroy the heart of an area many Mexican Americans consider the ‘Ellis Island of the border,’” the Trust said.
Margo, the El Paso mayor, argues there’s nothing historic at all about Duranguito — he prefers to call it Union Plaza or the First Ward — and said El Pasoans would benefit more by having a modern arena there that could accommodate major sporting events, including basketball and hockey, along with big concerts by top musical performers.
“Everything we’ve been told by every expert is that there is no significant historical value there,” Margo told The Tribune.
As for O’Rourke, Margo said he had no idea how the presidential candidate feels about neighborhood redevelopment now and expressed doubt that his opinion would make a difference either way.
“I don’t know that it has any real bearing,” Margo said. “The issue is getting through the litigation so we can start the work on it.”
Back in Duranguito, Mendoza says that with all but one of her neighbors gone and the old buildings she grew up with crumbling behind a fence, she finds herself frequently stressed out and tired.
But the Juarez native, who bought her house for $18,900 in 1978, said her property isn’t for sale — now or ever.
“This is my heart. This is my life,” she said. “My memories keep me company.”
Disclosure: Dee Margo and the University of Texas at El Paso have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.