Research Packet and Narrative by: Fred Morales, Jamie Carter, Dr. George D. Torok
Honors Project - Spring 2002 - National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project
Chihuahuita, El Paso’s smallest and oldest neighborhood, has played an important part in the city’s development for more than 400 years. There were scattered Manso Indian settlements in the late 16th century and the area became an important part of the farming and irrigation system developed by the Spaniards. In 1818, Ricardo Brusuelas received a land grant from the Spanish and established a ranch here and irrigated his land from the nearby “acequia de Chamizal.” Although lightly populated, this area was the site of a popular ford on the Rio Grande frequented by travelers on the Camino Real and Chihuahua Trail. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made the river the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, placing Chihuahuita in American El Paso, the essential character of the area changed little. As many of the settlers came from across the river in the state of Chihuahua, the area became known as Chihuahuita or “little Chihuahua [i].”
Chihuahuita Community Center. Image provided by George D. Torok
Chihuahuita grew with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1881. It became a crowded urban neighborhood and was designated the First Ward of El Paso in 1887. The railroad and businesses such as the El Paso Laundry Company on Seventh Street brought jobs to the area. The wooden Santa Fe Bridge was constructed connecting Chihuahuita with Ciudad Juarez becoming the main entry way for goods and people into El Paso. The neighborhood suffered from this burst of activities and soon experienced overcrowding, sanitation, and housing problems. Jacales, or shacks, and hastily constructed adobe buildings lined its unpaved streets. [ii] The Mexican Revolution of brought large numbers of people north, many into Chihuahuita. Tenements housed many of the refugees by the end of the 1910s. The neighborhood was often the site of political intrigues as revolutionaries organized activities. Agents of Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, and Pancho Villa organized armies and planned strategies here. Many of Chihuahuita’s buildings also provided a good vantage point to view the fighting in Ciudad Juarez. [iii]
The close proximity to Ciudad Juarez made Chihuahuita a center for the smuggling of alcohol during the era of prohibition. Bootleggers and organized criminals established themselves there constructing tunnels and passageways across the border. The area’s decline continued in the decades ahead. While other areas of El Paso developed in the 1940s and 1950s, Chihuahuita was forgotten. It was plagued with crime, social problems, and dilapidated buildings. [iv] Chihuahuita also became an important center of illegal alien activity. undocumented workers and the U.S. Border Patrol in the 1970s. The notorious “Puente Negro,” a railroad bridge between Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahuita, became one of the primary entryways into El Paso. Clashes between Mexican nationals and U.S. Border Patrol agents led to several deaths. The bridge was finally closed in 1976, but its reputation lives on in a popular border corrido.[v]
In the 1970s, the Chihuahuita Improvement Association was formed and the neighborhood began to experience a comeback. Grants and loans were obtained to renovate housing, raze buildings, develop a small park, and clean debris from the area. In 1991, the City of El Paso designated Chihuahuita as a historic district. Today there remains many structures from the late 19th and early 20th century that reflect the railroad history, business development, Mexican Revolution, tenement era, and immigrant history. Today, Chihuahuita remains a quiet, often overlooked part of the city, rich in history, architecture, and heritage. [vi]
Suggested Marker Text: Chihuahuita
Chihuahuita was settled by Ricardo Brusuelas who received a land grant from Spanish authorities in 1818 and developed a prosperous ranch. After 1848 when the Rio Grande became an international boundary new settlers arrived to farm the land. With coming of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1881, Chihuahuita began to grow dramatically. It developed as a crowded urban area and was designated as the city’s First Ward in 1887 A few years later, the wooden Santa Fe Bridge connected the thriving neighborhood to Ciudad Juarez. Area businesses developed and offered employment.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought a surge of refugees north, many to Chihuahuita. The area swarmed with new arrivals, became a center of revolutionary intrigue, and offered good views of the fighting across the river. But Chihuahuita also became an overcrowded, neglected area plagued with housing and sanitation problems. Bootleggers and organized criminals took advantage of the nearby border and made Chihuahuita an important center for smuggling by the 1920s. In later decades other parts of El Paso boomed and developed, but Chihuahuita was forgotten. By the 1950s decaying buildings, crime, and social problems took a heavy toll.
The 1970s saw the formation of the Chihuahuita Improvement Association and things began to change. Debirs was removed, buildings reconstructed, a small park was built and the neighborhood experienced renewal. In 1991, because of its long and significant history, Chihuahuita was declared an historic district by the City of El Paso.
[i] Fred Morales, “Chihuahuita: A Neglected Corner of El Paso,” Password 34 (Spring 1991), 23-25; City of El Paso Department of Planning, Research & Development, Chihuahuita Historic District ( El Paso, TX, 1995), 3-8.
City of El Paso Department of Planning, Research and Development. Chihuahuita Historic District. El Paso, TX: City of El Paso, 1995.
Garcia, Mario T. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1981.
Katz, Frederick. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Metz, Leon. City at the Pass: An Illustrated History of El Paso. Woodland, CA: Windsor Publications, 1980).
Morales, Fred M. “Chihuahuita: A Neglected Corner of El Paso.” Password 34 (Spring 1991): 23-34.
Morales, Fred. Dates and Events in Chihuahuita History. El Paso, TX: Fred Morales, 1993.