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Downtown revitalization proponents don't understand El Segundo Barrio

By Sergio Troncoso

I hope that the Paso del Norte Group's plan to 'revitalize' downtown El Paso and specifically El Segundo Barrio will be defeated.  I believe those who support the plan do not adequately understand the cultural and historic significance of El Segundo Barrio.

The plan, originally proposed by the Paso Del Norte Group, was introduced to the public with a thinly disguised threat to use the power of eminent domain to take away the property of individuals for the profit of a few, and it has gone downhill from there.  Instead of listening to oldsters who might be displaced by property seizures, to those who have lived and worked in El Segundo Barrio for decades, like Carmen Felix and Father Garcia, the proponents of the Paso del Norte plan choose to deride these community leaders and los de abajo.  'Trust us,' the supporters of the downtown plan seem to say.  'Don't worry.  We know what's best for you.'

But how can you trust political and business leaders who don't talk to you at the beginning of the process?  How can you trust leaders who don't know and appreciate the importance of the history of Mexican-Americans in El Segundo Barrio?  How can you trust those who overlook the value of a tight community like El Segundo Barrio?

My abuelitos, Dolores and Jose Rivero, lived in El Segundo Barrio for decades.  To those who did not know them, they would probably seem like old, useless people who needed to be moved out of their modest apartment building, to a nursing home.  But they were intelligent and funny viejitos; they had stories to tell about the Mexican Revolution; and they loved their grandchildren.  Their apartment wasn't yuppified, but it was neat and clean, and everything worked well, and they enjoyed visiting their neighbors, who were also viejitos.  Certainly, my abuelitos were not rich, but they also did not live in a rat-infested home.

I do not want to romanticize El Segundo Barrio.  I know there is much room for economic improvement in this area.  But you don't start trying to make things better by threatening people.  You don't start by pretending to care about the workers, shopkeepers, and pensioners after the fact, after you discover that they just won't back down and cower under your threats.  You don't create a plan that will wreak havoc on many decent lives, and then simply respond by saying 'trust us.'  That's not the way to improve El Segundo Barrio.

If your heart is in the right place, then you start over by trying to find out what works well in that area, a new plan that also respects those who live there and the history of that community.  A new plan, without the motive of quick profit or heartless quick change, cannot be whipped up in a month or two, as the proponents of the Paso Del Norte Group's Plan seem to ask of their detractors.  If they set a quick timetable, it is only because they are not interested in listening to anybody; they are not interested in doing things right; they want their money, they want the land, and they want these things now.

I do hope things change in El Segundo Barrio.  But I would urge all good people to work for change by listening to what's good in that community already, by understanding how you can attract people to valuable historic and artistic sites, to a rich Mexican-American culture that is unique for the United States.  We don't need condescension or arrogance.  We need to get to work.  Work is the way of the world, and when done right, it gives self-respect to a community, instead of taking it away.

This newspaper op-ed article appeared in the Sunday editorial section of the El Paso Times on June 25, 2006.