El Paso’s Segundo Barrio is rich in heritage
and culture, despite decades of poverty
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
Traditionally known as the “Segundo Barrio,” South El Paso’s historic neighborhood remains first in the hearts of those who grew up there.
Many of its schools and churches date back to El Paso’s earlier history, even before the city dubbed the area the “Second Ward” as a voting district. Despite being carved up in the 1960s by the Chamizal Treaty that ceded some of its land back to Mexico, and having the lowest income levels of any urban community in the United States, Segundo Barrio has kept its cultural pride and character intact.
Early maps defined El Paso’s Second Ward as stretching from the Rio Grande north to Magoffin Street, and from El Paso Street east to Cotton.
Local historian Fred Morales grew up in Segundo Barrio, and has chronicled its past in many of his self-published books, including a new volume on the area from 1800 to 1920. He leads at least one historical walking tour each year through the district. An essential stop on the tour is the former Bowie High School, now home of Guillen Middle School, 900 S. Cotton.
Morales, who put together a sizable publication on the “History of Bowie High 1922-1972,” said Bowie was first born in the 1920s as Bowie Grammar School. Its original intended name was in honor of former Texas Governor James Hogg. After opposition arose to putting the name “Hogg” on the side of a school, it was decided the school should be named for James Bowie, who died at the Alamo. By the late 1920s, the high school was established to help relieve overpopulation of El Paso High School, where many Segundo Barrio students attended.
Today the original building is now home to the middle school, with the current high school having been completed in 1973 on land that was part of Mexico before the Chamizal Treaty.
“When the school was dedicated a flag raising ceremony was conducted by the school’s ROTC honor guard in front of the administration,” Morales writes of the new high school building. “The flag had great significance since it was the first United States flag to fly over the former Mexican territory.”
Lydia Patterson Institute, founded in 1913 by the United Methodist Church, is another longtime Segundo Barrio landmark, and also home to the area’s namesake festival, Celebre Segundo Barrio, which will offer everything from flamenco dancers to health screenings March 11 at the institute, 517 S. Florence.
Schools and churches are some of the sites Morales also feels are of particular importance to the area, serving as the center of community life. St. Ignatius Church, 408 Park, has long been the site of popular church carnivals, and still holds its annual Kermes in late July each year.
Sacred Heart Church, founded by Father Carlos M. Pinto at 602 S. Oregon, was one of the neighborhood’s active churches, and every night the church was full, Morales recalled. Some residents remember the church bells ringing at 6, 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. (the last call), reminding people to come and pray the rosary.
One of Segundo Barrio’s most respected residents, Father Harold Rahm, was part of Sacred Heart Church and well respected for his work with youth. He was known for riding his bicycle around the area to reach more people, and created the Our Lady’s Youth Center.
A street in Segundo Barrio bears his name and a mural of Rahm on his bicycle, painted by artist Francisco Delgado, adorns the side of the Sacred Heart Gym. Rahm left El Paso to serve another area in the 1960s, but in 2015 — at age 96 — returned for an event awarding him Sacred Heart Parish’s first-ever “Segundo Barrio Person of the Year.”
“El Paso, for me, is the most wonderful place in the world,” Father Rahm said at the event. “There are not people like you, any place on this earth.”
This year’s award, now called the Father Rahm Segundo Barrio Person of the Year Award, was given Feb. 22 to Nolan Richardson Jr., the coach who won the 1994 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament during his tenure at University of Arkansas. Richardson was born in Segundo Barrio and played for Texas Western University (UTEP). Last year, the award went to artist and former Bowie High School art teacher Gaspar Enriquez.
Movie theaters also served as gathering spots, including the Colón and Alcazar Theatres on S. El Paso,” Morales wrote. “At one time there were around six to eight Spanish language movie theatres in South El Paso.”
In addition to Our Lady Youth Center, which had everything from sewing to folklorico dancing, Boy and Girl Scouts, games, a library, pool and an unemployment office, there was a Boys Club for Segundo Barrio and Chihuahuita youth.
There was a Chinese Masonic Hall and a Black Masonic Hall. There are sites of Prohibition era bootlegging worth noting, Morales added.
A prominent African-American section in Segundo Barrio was the one-time home of Henry O. Flipper, who worked as a civil engineer in El Paso after a military career that included being the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Many of the black families’ children in the barrio went to Douglass School and attended Second Baptist Church.
Farah and other clothing manufacturers, as well as smaller businesses, provided work for Segundo Barrio residents. Teens and young adults would go Downtown for work at places like Safeway, which once stood near where the Main Library and History Museum are now. “Segundo Barrio was also the site of what was once the largest employer in El Paso, El Paso Milling Company,” Morales said.
One business that has made its mark throughout the community is the original Bowie Bakery, 901 S. Park, established in 1951. The bakery has been owned by the Marquez family, who purchased it from the original owners, for more than 40 years. When family patron “Don Angel” Marquez passed away in 2005, President George W. Bush, who had visited the bakery, sent a letter expressing his condolences to the family.
The 600 block of Ochoa is also a notable area, as Morales said it was at one time the most overcrowded block of tenements in El Paso. There is also the old Douglass School, and the Chinatown district that once inhabited the 400 and 500 blocks of South Oregon.
There was no indoor plumbing or running water, Morales recalled, and he had to use a pail of water for bathing and washing.
Similar recollections can be heard in a video project from the UTEP Department of Oral History, shown as part of the “Neighborhoods and Shared Memories” ongoing exhibit at El Paso Museum of History currently focused on the areas of Chihuahita and El Segundo Barrio.
“There were about 12 apartments, and they were built in a circular fashion,” said Margaret Mendoza, who grew up in The Apartments (Los Apartamentos). “The center was a patio where people could pick up their pails of water for bathing or for washing their hands inside their apartment in a tin sink.”
Other memories of the area included remembering the outdoor toilets shared by the entire apartment, and families’ chores, sleeping arrangements and vehicles.
“I remember instead of having the living room, it was the bedroom where we all slept,” Ernesta Lopez said of her childhood in Segundo Barrio for the museum’s exhibit. “The boys had their bed, the girls had their beds. I remember the kitchen, and then our backyard. My dad build a little shed in the back where my mom used to go and do her laundry, and we used to go and take baths there.”
For Morales, his memories of the area ranged from the hardships growing up in overcrowded conditions to happier memories of his time at school.
“I remember my time at Aoy,” he said. “People always talk about this history of Bowie High School but Aoy Elementary was also very important historically.”
Chronicling the history
Fred Morales’ love of regional history has resulted in 34 books, and he has also created more than 100 tours and hosted 306 exhibits on the region.
His latest effort is “Chronology of the Segundo Barrio Vol. 1: 1800-1920,”
“I started on this latest one in August, and finished in December,” he explained, saying El Paso Public Library’s Main Branch becomes his “second home” when researching.
Morales sells his books in binders. Anyone can call him at 303-3748, and he will deliver it to a buyer’s home for just the $30 cost of the book.
The new book discusses everything from Segundo Barrio’s nomenclature, to its historic sites, notable residents and many incidents (good and bad) that shaped the area over the years. Morales does at least one walking tour focusing on Segundo Barrio a year, and will also do private tours for groups contacting him in advance.
The area’s first settler, Santiago Alvaro, took residence in the area in 1834, Morales said. The nickname came more than 50 years later. “In 1887, the City of El Paso was divided into four wards, or political districts (voting districts), when R.C. Lightbody was mayor of El Paso,” Morales wrote. “The Second Ward was called Segundo Barrio by the Mexican-American residents who lived there.”
Before the wards were established, he said, all of the South El Paso was called ‘Chihuahita.” It was also referred to as the “Bosque,” or place where cottonwood trees were plentiful. Part of it was also called “Paso de Norte de Mexico/America” when it was still Mexican territory.
“What’s unique about the Segundo Barrio, is everyone thinks it was exclusively a Mexican-American neighborhood back in the beginning, but that is not at all the case,” Morales said. “It started out at a multicultural neighborhood with Anglos, Blacks, Chinese and other cultures.”
“The area was also used by Apache as recently as 1840s to stage raids throughout El Paso and Ciudad Juarez,” he said.
In the 1960s, much of the south part of Segundo Barrio was returned to Mexico as part of the Chamizal agreement between the United States and Mexico.
Many Segundo Barrio residents were forced to relocate in the process, including Morales’ family. Morales, who lived in three areas of the barrio while growing up, said Segundo Barrio residents were “scattered all over the city,” after the Chamizal Treaty was established.
“Many went to the Lower Valley, West Side or Central El Paso,” he said. “There were a few lucky individuals who got homes inside Segundo Barrio, but the majority had to go elsewhere,” he explained. “Less then 1 percent of those returned. Many felt they had found better places.”
Morales notes that his history books and presentations aren’t created to just show the good side of an area, but give as thorough a look as possible about everything that created, and still shapes, what is know as Segundo Barrio.
“I want to show the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, just as it happened,” he said.
The late Richard C. Campbell, a long-time Methodist pastor and author of “Two Eagles in the Sun,” wrote on Segundo Barrio in his El Paso Scene “Becoming Bicultural” column ten years ago.
“I myself have spent 22 years of my life intimately involved with this barrio and its people: 14 years on the faculty at Lydia Patterson Institute and eight years as a volunteer at Houchen Community Center,” he said. “My wife taught for 20 years as a teacher at Alamo School next door to Houchen. We outsider-insiders felt very much at home in El Segundo Barrio even though we were Anglos.”
Although Chihuahuita and Segundo Barrio were the oldest part of El Paso, Campbell wrote at that time, these areas were not given the respect they deserve as part of the city’s vital history. Instead, he said, they were sometimes looked upon as a “stepchild, occasionally a concern, most often a neglected orphan” by the remainder of the city. As a result, the area had high poverty and unemployment rates as far back as the early 1900s, he said.
Campbell said despite some much-needed revitalization plans being passed by the city council, it was the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, that helped respond to this need most.
“Catholics planted churches but also schools, a hospital and a youth center,” Campbell said. “In 1913 Methodists established Lydia Patterson Institute to help educate young men and women refugees who had fled Mexico’s upheaval. Eventually, another area not far away developed into Friendship Square with Houchen Community Center and its settlement house, a church, a soup kitchen, and a health clinic that in 1937 became Newark Hospital.”
“New construction enlarged Guillen Middle School,” Campbell wrote of further developments that continued to build up the neighborhood. “The Armijo Community Center and the new El Paso Public Library building were more-than-welcome additions. Houchen Community Center added a new gym.”
One of the more recent changes in Segundo Barrio that continues to help the population today was the establishment of, among other facilities, Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, Inc., usually referred to simply as La Fe. Founded in 1967, La Fe now includes 23 medical and social service sites throughout El Paso County.
The center is often the site of arts events, and plays host to La Fe 5K Father’s Day run, throughout Segundo Barrio.
Remembering El Segundo
Individual and oral histories are a significant part of the Museum of History’s current Chihuahuita and Segundo Barrio exhibit. The museum’s Digie Wall is another place where highlights of the neighborhood are collected, including numerous photos of the colorful murals, such as “El Corrido Del Segundo Barrio.”
One of those residents contributing the exhibit is Ernesta Lopez, who talked about one of her family’s favorite times of year, Christmas. Her home became a holiday destination for many fellow Segundo Barrio residents.
“When my mom and my dad (would put up) the manger, the carolers from Bowie High School would come and sing on the 24th,” she commented for the exhibit. “They would always stop by our apartment every year, because they knew we had the big manger that took half of our living room. People would just stop by coming from church, especially from midnight mass, just to see the manger. Our house was always filled for Christmas.”
Others recalled the hardships of life during the Second World War.
“It was pretty tough in World War II, in a sense that a lot of people lost loved ones,” area resident Gilbert Mares said in his comment.
Mares said the newsboys would come around with “Extras,” of the paper during the war, and everyone purchased a copy.
“And they listened to the news because everybody had a family member in World War II,” he said.
Both World War I and II were extremely hard on the barrio residents, according to Campbell, but there were some good things that happened as well, as they did in other parts of the country.
“Young men marched off to war, and among those from the barrio was Pvt. Marcelino Serna, who became a decorated hero,” Campbell wrote. “Adults found jobs in war industries, began buying better clothing, made improvements on their homes and many older folks began attending English and citizenship classes at night.”
Segundo Barrio, like the rest of El Paso, was hit hard by “the terrible Spanish flu epidemic of 1918,” Campbell wrote. “The barrio counted its dead, 37 in one day, 600 in the city. Public places closed, hospitals overflowed, and even Aoy School became a makeshift hospital.”
The Great Depression of 1929 also hit hard, but then came the New Deal, which helped with some improvements and additions of schools, hospitals, stores, and public transportation.
Even with improvements as a sense of national and cultural pride as a constant, there were still many fights with substandard living.
“The barrio population in 1948 had 23,000 residents who lived in 345 substandard brick tenements. Five percent of families had a bathtub. Three percent had a private toilet. In the tenements, the average number of families per outside toilet was seven, the number of persons to a toilet was 71,” Campbell said. “Now add crime, juvenile delinquency, and the highest infant mortality rate in the country; a federal judge along with Mayor Raymond Telles in 1960 called the barrio ‘a disgrace to a civilized city.’”
By mid-century the neighborhood’s residents were finding new ways to let the city know they were not going to accept the neglected conditions. The 1960s and 1970s saw marches and protests for those demanding improvements on their living conditions or education.
One resident, Jose M. Gonzalez, remembered a sit-in at Bowie High School in 1969.
“We had to go and get all the parents and the abuelitas, and we had to knock on doors and bring everyone to the Sacred Heart gym to have meetings,” he said.
James Martinez, of La Tilma Mexican Grill (formerly Sagrado Corazon), remembers his summers at the pool of Armijo Recreation Center.
“My uncles taught us how to swim there. I have, in turn, taken my nephew and niece,” Martinez said. “Back then, around 1977, the pool was not enclosed and it was beautiful.”
Antonio Santos has been working for La Fe for more than two decades, and said it is an honor for him to be part of an organization whose daily focus is to empower Segundo’ Barrio’s families.
“Everything about our neighborhood and its people is about love to me,” he said. “Love of our music, love of our foods, our culture, our families.”
For people like Martinez, Santos, Morales and others, there is plenty to celebrate in Segundo Barrio.
“This community celebrates its traditions with deep joy so we can keep them alive for our children,” Santos said. “Our living history is their greatest treasure.”
One of the always-changing features of El Paso Museum of History’s Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio Exhibit is a wall on which visitors leave “Post-It Notes” with anecdotes and memories of the neighborhoods. Here are just a few favorite memories:
“When it would rain hard we would play in the street. It was our pool.”
“Visiting my father’s parents and climbing the big tree in front of their house.”
‘Seeing everyone together made me happy.’
“My Grandpa riding me around the barrio (when I was) a baby.”
“Playing outside until our mothers would call us to come back home.”
“Me and my mom went to the Bakery.”
“El Jalisco Restaurant, eating menudo every Sunday morning.”
“Menudo every Sunday, then playing outside with everyone.”
“…the pachucos and the old cars, the people, the Raza...”
“After so many years, you always go back to the years at Segundo Barrio.”
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications