Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003) Updated in 2018
By Patricia Wollin
“... Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
These familiar lines from Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” written in 1883, invited immigrants to find a new life in the United States. In 1886, college-educated women began to establish “settlement houses” to meet the financial, social, and educational needs of immigrants.
The best known of American settlement houses was Hull House, established in 1889 in Chicago by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr. Originally begun as a way to share the women’s literary and artistic knowledge, the house soon started a kindergarten, day care center and other activities designed to meet the need of the community.
Image caption: Staff member picks up child in Houchen Settlement house vehicle. Courtesy of Houchen Community Center.
In El Paso, the foundation of the Houchen Settlement House, located at the corner of Fifth and Tays Streets, began in 1893 when Mary Tripp started providing homes for young, single immigrant girls.
Crumbling adobe houses and wooden tenements housed thousands of Mexican immigrants in South El Paso during the early 1900s. Researcher Vicki L. Ruiz stated that between 1910 and 1930, more than one million Mexicans migrated to the United States to escape the Mexican Revolution and to find job opportunities. In 1900, the number of Mexicans in El Paso was 8,748; by 1930, it had risen to 68,476, according to Ruiz’s studies. This immigration made El Paso the perfect spot for a settlement house.
In 1912, Rose Gregory Houchen, a former Michigan schoolteacher, donated $1,000 to aid Mary Tripp’s efforts. The settlement house was formally founded and named for Houchen.
By 1920, the center provided rudimentary medical services to the community. Ruiz said that Effie Stoltz, a registered nurse and Methodist missionary, ran a first-aid station out of the settlement’s bathroom. She also convinced a local doctor to visit the house regularly, and he recruited other colleagues to provide their services. Within months, the Freeman Clinic opened right next door to Houchen, providing prenatal care and pediatric services. By 1930, it had a six-bed maternity ward.
In 1937, the larger Newark Methodist Maternity Hospital with 22 beds replaced Freeman Clinic. The hospital offered free prenatal classes, pregnancy tests and infant immunization. Patients could pay for medicine at cost, and hospital bills were minimal.
By 1949, the group of community service buildings came to be known as Friendship Square and included the settlement house and hospital, El Buen Pastor Methodist Church and the Houchen Day Nursery. According to Ruiz, Houchen also launched the first bilingual kindergarten program in El Paso to ease the transition into the English-only first grade.
The missionaries at Houchen helped many people, but they tried to “Americanize” immigrants, a goal of other early settlement houses in the country. Houchen offered a variety of Americanization programs: citizenship classes, cooking, carpentry, English, Bible study and Boy Scouts. These programs primarily targeted women and children.
In her 1929 book, Americanization Through Homemaking, Pearl Ellis said that since girls were the family’s potential homemakers and mothers, they would have much control over the destinies of their future families. Chapters on nutrition, sanitation, home nursing, caring for the home and others encouraged Mexican girls to learn and adopt “American” habits.
Religious denominations sponsored many settlement houses, including Houchen. One of Houchen’s goals was to convert people to Methodism, often specifically targeting Catholicism. Ruiz wrote that a pamphlet entitled “Our Work At Houchen” stated, “Our Church is called El Buen Pastor … and that is what our church really is to the people .it is a Good Shepherd guiding our folks out of darkness and Catholocism (sic) into the good Christian life.”
According to Ruiz, Houchen boasted in another report of its “accomplishments” an increase in the number of children going to school and parents becoming citizens and more leaving Catholicism and adopting the “customs and standards of Anglo people.” Another 1930’s ethnocentric pamphlet associated Catholicism with paganism and superstition.
However, Methodist missionary Dorothy Little said, “Houchen settlement stands as a sentinel of friendship … between the people of America and the people of Mexico. We assimilate the best of their culture, art and ideals, and they in turn gladly accept the best America has to offer as they … become one with us. For right here within our four walls is begun much of the ‘melting’ process of our ‘Melting Pot.’”
Many worried about Houchen’s emphasis on Americanization and religion. Some local priests in the Segundo Barrio were apparently worried that residents would be tempted to convert to Methodism. Concerned parents would allow their children to play at the Houchen playground but not inside the building.
Ruiz pointed out that other El Pasoans did not approve of Houchen because of their own prejudices. In a pamphlet called “A Remedy for the Decadence of the Latin Race,” one El Paso physician argued that “the missionaries were being wasted on beings … who are not in reality the object of Christ’s sacrifice.”
Nevertheless, many still have fond memories of Houchen. The missionaries at Houchen were kind, and nowhere is there any evidence that they tried to “Americanize” anyone by force. These settlement workers did not discourage the Spanish language, and in their annual reports, workers wrote that many of them learned Spanish to communicate with the people.
In an essay on Mexican-American women’s history, Ruiz wrote, “It is clear the women of Houchen strove to build self-esteem and encouraged young women to pursue a higher education.” For example, Elizabeth Soto attended Houchen programs from childhood through adolescence, and after graduating from Bowie High School, she trained as a missionary at Asbury College. She then returned to El Paso as a resident at Houchen. Soledad Burciaga said in 1939, “There is not a person … who hasn’t a kind word and heart full of gratitude towards the Settlement House.”
Houchen was very important to residents of South El Paso. For decades, the only consistent source of social service in Segundo Barrio was the Houchen Settlement House complex. Ruiz noted that from 1930 to 1950, as many as 15,000 to 20,000 people per year used Houchen’s medical and educational services, one-fourth to one-third of the Mexican population.
By the 1950s, women considered Houchen a medical and social service only and often chose to ignore the religious aspects of it. In 1963, the settlement house changed its name to the Houchen Community Center. The staff also consisted of more Latinos; Houchen even became home to the League of the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). The center allowed priests to baptize hospitalized infants upon parental request.
While there is no doubt that the Houchen Settlement House attempted to Americanize the Mexican-American community in the Segundo Barrio, one cannot deny the fact that the organization came to the aid of many families in need of medical, educational and social services. More importantly, the staff carried out their ministry with kindness and warmth.
Today, under the auspices of the Vista Ysleta United Methodist Church, Houchen continues to provide the Segundo Barrio with day care, after-school tutoring and youth programs that provide sports and other activities to keep kids out of trouble and away from gangs. In addition, the center sponsors a senior citizen program and a food pantry. Volunteers and donations of clothing are always welcome.
While many settlement houses have changed into community centers, they continue to meet the needs of each neighborhood in which they are found and to carry out the philosophy of women like Jane Addams, Mary Tripp and Rose Gregory Houchen.