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Borderlands: Chihuahuita in the 1930s: Tough Times in the Barrio (with 2017 update)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Chihuahuita in the 1930s: Tough Times in the Barrio (with 2017 update)

By David Uhl and Moses Meglorino (Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994)

 Update 2017

The Great Depression affected nearly everyone in the country. It was not unusual to hear stories of high unemployment rates, soup kitchens, hordes of vagabonds traveling from one coast to the other looking for work, grown men selling apples on the street for a penny.

""Image caption: Tenants lived in “El Barco de la Ilusión” 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)

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.

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.

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Residents in the 1800s included Mexicans fleeing the warring Apaches. Early in the 20th century when refugees from the Mexican Revolution flocked to 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 immigrants 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. By the early 1930s, the city had refused requests for garbage collection.

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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 smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria and typhoid fever. 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. Hobos begging in the city drained money which might have gone to organized local charities to help deserving families, 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.

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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 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.

"" Image caption: Chihuahuita Community Center on Charles Street today. (Photo by Isabel Hernandez)

In the1940s 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.

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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 longtime 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. But the work to improve Chihuahuita continues.

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Chihuahuita has come a long way from its history of being forgotten and neglected through most of the last century. It has been the recipient of much needed upgrades, including the revision of bus and train traffic and it has received some recognition as the city’s historic cultural center, but not enough. Historian Fred Morales says it is the oldest part of the city, dating to 1814 as part of a Spanish land grant awarded in 1818 to Ricardo Brusuelas and is the “Ellis Island of the American Southwest” for both legal and illegal immigration. It played a major role in the Mexican Revolution and the Prohibition Era.

Sustained community involvement has led the way. In 1975 when the Texas Highway Department threatened to destroy the neighborhood while constructing the Border Highway, the residents fought back and won. In current day construction, the new highway goes around Chihuahuita instead of going through it. In 2006, the Community Center was renovated by 300 volunteers and organizations, followed by a more complete renovation by the City Parks Department in 2010. In 2012, Chihuahuita Park was transformed with more than $400,000 of Community Block Grant money to become what the El Paso Times called a “cozy neighborhood hangout” with trees, new playground and other improvements. It is now a safe and protected neighborhood. While some housing concerns should be addressed, the housing conditions have improved significantly.

Chihuahuita has received state, national and local attention. The neighborhood received bilingual Texas Historical Markers in 2004 detailing its historical and cultural significance which are located at the Lions Placita Park at the Santa Fe Bridge. In October 2016, the influential National Trust for Historic Preservation named Chihuahuita and the Segundo Barrio as among the 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S. ( According to El Paso Inc., this is the first time an historic place in El Paso has been included, and advocates say it will “bring national attention and resources to the border neighborhoods which are among the most historic and poorest in the country.”

The Trust will be working with the residents over the next year to find out what they want and need for this community. Morales says the El Paso Laundry building is in need of repair and should be put to good use. The historic marker on the building notes that U.S. President William H. Taft and Mexican President Porfirio Díaz met in front of it in 1909. In 1911 during the Mexican Revolution, residents and journalists gathered on its flat roof to observe the Battle of Juárez on May 10.

Since 2012, this special neighborhood, along with the Segundo Barrio, has been the focus of a permanent exhibit called “Neighborhoods and Shared Memories” at the El Paso Museum of History. The Texas Trost Society ( focuses on preserving the architectural heritage of El Paso and aims to create three historical districts to aid with preservation: the Downtown Historical District, the Segundo Barrio Historical District and the Chihuahuita Historical District.

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Chihuahuita Sources

Tour Chihuahuita with historian Fred Morales (Along the Rio Grande #20)
EPCC Web site || EPCC Libraries Web Site || EPCC Library Catalog
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