Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994. Updated in 2017. View article.
By Uhl, David and Moses Meglorino
The Great Depression affected nearly everyone in the country. It was not usual to hear stories of high unemployment rates, soup kitchens, hordes of vagabonds traveling from one coast to the other
But the stories coming from one of El Paso's oldest neighborhoods were much more serious. Garbage piled up around homes causing unbearable stench, dirt streets turned into lakes when it rained, hundreds of people shared two bathrooms in their apartment building, and many children died of enteritis, diarrhea and typhoid.
Image caption: Tenants lived in "El Barco de la Ilusion" in Chihuahuita from 1896 to 1960. The building looked like a sinking steamboat at dawn and dusk with the sun shining on the sand, creating a mirage-like effect. Photo courtesy of the Southwest Collection, El Paso Public Library.
Officially the community was known as Census tract 18. But residents fondly called it "Chihuahuita" or "La Chihuahua," so named because most of its inhabitants came from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. It lies between the Rio Grande Levee, the Franklin Canal and the water treatment plant and is isolated from the rest of the city by the Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Residents in the 1800s included Mexicans fleeing the warring Apaches. Early in the twentieth century when refugees from the Mexican Revolution flocked the area, builders hastily constructed two-story tenements of one or two rooms under no code and with few amenities.
By the 1920s and 1930s, housing conditions had become wretched. Crumbling adobe shacks and decaying tenements often housed up to 18 people per room with little or no sanitation. The Health Department kept busy condemning these dwellings that housed as many as 15 families who shared a single outdoor bathroom and water faucet.
Former residents recall that going to the bathroom not only was a burden but could be downright dangerous. At night people used torches to light the way and scare away rats. Because illegal aliens often hid in the bathrooms and sometimes threatened residents with violence, tenants walked to the bathrooms in pairs.
Inadequate sewage systems and cracked pipes in winter frequently left raw sewage in the neighborhood. Residents often stored tubs of water inside their homes during winter because broken water pipes were not fixed for long periods of time. Having no gas or electricity, people burned whatever wood they might have to keep warm. In the early 1930s, the city had refused requests for garbage collection.
These deplorable conditions naturally bred serious health problems. Ineffective control of the Rio Grande and seepage of waste combined to form breeding grounds for flies and mosquitoes. The barrio suffered from small pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria and had a high typhoid fever rate. It also had the highest infant mortality rate in the country. Families could not afford doctors or medication.
These conditions became so dire that in the early 1930s a massive spring-cleaning project was initiated. Low spots in the ground were filled in, existing drainage ditches were cleared and the area was sprayed to eliminate insects. Moreover, an immunization program began, protecting children against scarlet fever and diphtheria.
Economic conditions, poor all over the country, were worse in the barrio. Families made hardly enough to survive. Children of 12 and 13 worked at whatever they could find to help support their families. Low levels of education also hindered residents: few had more than eight years of school; many had less education. Local charities were strapped to provide help for deserving families because hobos begging in the city drained money which might have gone to organized charities, and Mexican citizens sometimes received help intended for residents.
Still, there were a few bright spots. In 1932, the PTA fed more than 500 pupils daily and provided 200 pairs of repaired shoes for Southside children. In the same year, 47 teams of hunters spent a day hunting jack rabbits to provide meat for the needy, according to an El Paso Times article.
The major housing problems were too big for short-term measures, however. In 1925 George E. Kessler had prepared a report for the city, stressing the need for immediate action to improve housing and sanitation and recommended the destruction of major slum areas. The Kessler Report suggested replacing this area with a scenic cultural market to attract visitors. The plans for the Southside were virtually ignored and some descriptions of the barrio in 1925 were still accurate in 1986. In 1930, the Southside Welfare Association Committee organized, with plans to improve all conditions. It began to apply tenement ordinances and tried to eradicate the housing problem by zoning the area for commercial and light industrial use without allowing for new housing.
In 1934, the city received federal funds for a survey of the Southside which was completed but not used until 1937. The application cited "indecent, unsafe and unsanitary conditions." By this time, 76 percent of barrio housing needed major repairs or was condemned; only 24 percent was "passable," according to the survey.
Mayor Ray Eugene Sherman sponsored El Paso's successful bid for $1 million of federal housing money, which gave birth to the Housing Authority in 1937. Plans for improvement of the Southside had begun.
It would be the 1940s before housing projects were completed in the Southside, however. In compliance with federal and state law, for every new home built, a substandard one was demolished. A total of 660 dwellings were destroyed. It was not until the next decade that decent housing appeared: the Alamito Housing Project opened in 1940 with 342 apartments, and in 1942 the Tays Housing Project made 311 apartments available.
In the 1940s pachuco gangs began running Chihuahuita, with tourists and Fort Bliss soldiers their favorite victims. Streets were not paved until after World War II. Today, some families still live in substandard housing.
Image caption: Chihuahuita Community Center on Charles St. today. Photo by David Uhl
In 1976 the Chihuahuita Improvement Association was formed with Fred Morales, a former Chihuahuita resident, as its chair. The group fought city hall on several issues such as inadequate sewage systems and the need for recreational centers. The association also helped the neighborhood apply for Historic District Status, granted in 1990.
Members of the organization have planted trees and gardens and sponsored the painting of murals to replace the graffiti. In 1981 they helped establish a community center and park; in 1990 a senior citizens program and food co-op opened.
It is the indomitable spirit of its long-time residents which gives hope to Chihuahuita. Tenants recall the good times of past decades when everyone knew each other, and families looked out for everyone's children. Summer fiestas brought in money to buy Christmas toys for the children. Some of those children have long moved out of the barrio, many having gone on to success. Some children who still live there manage to graduate from high school and go on to college. But the work to improve Chihuahuita continues.