Hardball history: Choosing sides

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brick building

Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman

Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.

I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class.

Later, I got word that a group of people with questions about the plan were going to meet to discuss the information available. I decided to attend the meeting to see if I could learn more about the plan. I walked into Café Mayapan, a restaurant in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. It was my first time there, and I did not know much about the place. Later, I learned that the restaurant was a project of La Mujer Obrera, an organization of women workers.

Looking around the space, I recognized Dr. Leyva sitting with David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution, who had been a guest speaker in our class earlier that semester. At the meeting, the consensus was that municipal leaders and proponents of the plan had not been transparent and had failed to hold community forums in the neighborhoods included in the plan. The people present at the meeting formed an organization, called Paso del Sur (PDS) to oppose the plan. We worked with organizations such as La Mujer Obrera and the Border Farmworker Center to get information out to the community and ask residents what they wanted.

A chapbook about the history of El Segundo Barrio was another early Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Cynthia Rentería

A chapbook about the history of El Segundo Barrio was another early Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Cynthia Rentería

Part of PDS’ efforts to counter the plan included speaking at city meetings, holding demonstrations, and participating in neighborhood cultural events. In conjunction with these efforts Dr. Leyva organized a public history project, creating a chapbook to highlight the history of downtown and El Segundo Barrio. I was the only undergraduate to work on the chapbook, and, surrounded by graduate students, I felt a little out of my league. But Dr. Leyva’s encouragement, mentorship, and editing helped me fully participate in the project. Museo Urbano began as a public history project to recognize the history of the area. The first Museo Urbano consisted of outdoor historical banners that told the history of the building they were placed on. I remember selling enchiladas and nachos to raise funds to pay for some of the banners.

Although doing public history in the community was an influential experience, the politics surrounding the downtown plan were complicated, stressful, and divisive. At times, the backlash felt personal. Supporters of the plan called us “keepers of the status quo” and accused us of romanticizing poverty. On one occasion during a demonstration, a woman threw a bucket of water at us.

Even when we were surrounded by the negativity and controversy, I always believed in our cause. When PDS was in its formative weeks, I remember David Romo asked me, “Are you with us full commitment?” The question came as we were learning more about the plan and the people involved. It was a moment when people from all over town were reacting to the news of the plan and choosing sides. I answered David, saying yes. Now, I jokingly ask David, “Do you remember when you asked me if I was fully committed to PDS?” He laughs and tells me, “You’re never going to let me forget that.” I have never forgotten that moment because as I answered his question, I reaffirmed my commitment to myself. At that moment, and on occasions since, I have known that I want to be on the side that values people, community, history, and culture.

Working with PDS taught me that history could reveal marginal histories and defend neighborhoods. My experience working with PDS inspired me to go to graduate school and continue doing public history. The controversy over the downtown plan could have had serious consequences. Nine years after sitting in Dr. Leyva’s Mexican-American history class, I’m still a student. Being part of PDS influenced me, first as a young person who was still forming her identity, and over the years as a historian. For me, becoming an activist has been positive. After earning a master’s degree in history with a specialization in public history at New Mexico State University, I returned to the University of Texas at El Paso, where I am a doctoral student in the department of history. Connecting history and community continues to inform my work and my identity. Working with the community and incorporating history as a tool for social justice is part of why I became a historian.

~ Cynthia T. Renteria is a PhD student at the University of Texas at El Paso, Department of History. Her dissertation will focus on the public historical memory in the borderland of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

1 comment
  1. Candace says:

    Good article! I look forward to seeing how you develop the scholarship in public history.

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