La Vida de Chihuahuita: Telling the Story of a Border Community


Chihuahuita is one of the oldest neighborhoods in El Paso, Texas. With only a few residential blocks, it sits at one of the city’s original border crossings into Mexico. The neighborhood, named as such because it was the first stop of immigrants from the adjacent state of Chihuahua, is hemmed in today by the border wall, railroads, and the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) Border West Expressway. Many of the current residents descend from original neighborhood families and live in small adobe houses. So many Mexicans immigrated to the United States through Chihuahuita that the border crossing became known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” As a historic preservation specialist and historian team lead for TxDOT, I worked with the residents of Chihuahuita on a project about their history after a new highway project threatened to disrupt this historic place.

Chihuahuita is in a busy area with a lot of traffic. El Paso is the western-most Texas city. It is closer to California than the Texas capital of Austin. Bordering Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s culture is decidedly cross-border. The city serves as a port of entry for freight and workers coming to the United States. It is on Interstate Highway 10 (I-10), a busy multi-lane highway that connects states from Florida to California. Freight traffic backs up along I-10 from entry points into Mexico, and commuter traffic can clog the interstate. TxDOT proposed to relieve some of this traffic by constructing the Border West Expressway.

Another Government Impact to a Historic Place

When TxDOT first proposed the Border West Expressway project in the early 2000s, it was clear the new roadway would directly impact Chihuahuita, demolishing most of its buildings for the new highway. After a public outcry and several design revisions, TxDOT built the Border West Expressway without demolishing buildings. Instead, it is an elevated highway that towers over the small neighborhood. This more recent threat from the roadway, in addition to other threats from the border wall and entry points, landed Chihuahuita on the 2016 National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.  

Despite these frequent encroachments, Chihuahuita is also a neighborhood where residents are proud to live. Chihuahuita residents are accustomed to fighting for city services and fighting against the intrusions into their neighborhood. In the 1990s, for example, the neighborhood rallied to create a local historic district. Residents also fought to make Chihuahuita a City of El Paso Historic District. They also created a neighborhood association and demanded the city put resources into the neighborhood, most recently in the form of a park and community center.

This photo depicts the Border West Expressway over the Community Center.

The Border West Expressway towers over the small Chihuahuita Community Center and surrounding buildings. Photo credit: Texas Department of Transportation.

To compensate for the Border West Expressway’s impacts on the neighborhood’s buildings, culture, and history, TxDOT proposed something we had not really done before. In the past, when TxDOT developed project mitigation, or compensation for the loss of, or damage to, a historic property as required by the National Historic Preservation Act, it usually resulted in historic property documentation or a historical marker. For this project, we suggested creating posters for classroom use, with Chihuahuita’s history aligned with Texas state education standards. 

When I became involved with the project, I quickly learned that TxDOT had decided on the project mitigation in a vacuum. We did not consult with any teachers or schools about the need for such posters or the likelihood that the posters would be used by teachers. We also failed to talk to the Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association to determine what that community would like to see as mitigation.

Our consultants, non-Spanish-speaking historians, went out to El Paso to conduct research and interviews to create the educational posters. They uncovered great history and historic images, including photographs of buildings, floods, and residents. As a result, we developed three themes to address in our posters: adobe construction techniques, work and play, and immigration and segregation. The posters were well-researched but written from an Anglo point of view. In addition, the posters emphasized the continued discrimination against Chihuahuita, its poverty, and violence.

Belated Community Engagement

When we unveiled the poster project to the neighborhood association, the residents’ response was lukewarm. They believed the posters framed Chihuahuita as a place affected by outside forces rather than a place shaped by its residents and the flow of immigrants to the United States. Teacher feedback indicated that primary source materials would be more likely to be used than three posters on a classroom wall. This meeting made it clear to us that we had to make changes to our mitigation plans.

This image depicts Chihuahuita residents gathering for a potluck to see the new history booklet.

Chihuahuita residents come together to see the new history booklet about their neighborhood , as well as for good food and fellowship. Photo credit: Rebekah Dobrasko.

As a result of this overdue conversation with the community and education stakeholders, TxDOT changed our project and our proposed methods of public outreach around the Chihuahuita posters. After consulting further with the community, we decided to create a single stand-alone poster of a portion of a Chihuahuita artist’s mural. Accompanying that poster would be a Chihuahuita history booklet in either English or Spanish. TxDOT worked with a former teacher to create a supplement to the booklet with activities and resources tied to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for use in the classroom. To top it off, we planned celebrations and unveilings in the community to highlight Hispanic Heritage Month and the importance of this neighborhood to El Paso and to Texas.

This photo depicts the Festival Voces de El Paso.

At the Festival Voces de El Paso, people learned about the history of Chihuahuita as well as TxDOT’s role in public history and historic preservation. Photo credit: Texas Department of Transportation.

This time, the project was well-received. Chihuahuita neighbors celebrated by holding potlucks at their community center. TxDOT attended one such potluck to unveil the booklet and poster, allowing the residents to be the first to see what we produced. The residents were excited to see their quotes and personal photographs in print. The unveiling also included participation in an El Paso Community College lecture program, along with noted neighborhood historian Fred Morales and the Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association. The next day, in partnership with the El Paso Museum and the El Paso Public Library, as part of the “Festival Voces de El Paso” we distributed the Chihuahuita booklets and posters to the wider El Paso community.

Lessons Learned

TxDOT learned important lessons about public history and public engagement from this project. The lack of appropriate community involvement and planning at the beginning resulted in a longer project to re-work our materials, trying to get the public history right. This experience resulted in policy changes at TxDOT to ensure community engagement prior to making decisions about public history projects and mitigation practices, which will save us time and money in the long run.

Specifically, we learned it is important to understand your audience and what they may want. Typical historic property documentation projects are helpful for historians and cultural resource managers, but these public-facing projects have a different audience than the one we know well, our fellow practicing historians and archeologists. TxDOT made a lot of assumptions about what would be useful in the classroom, and we did not consider our biggest audience—the residents of the Chihuahuita neighborhood. 

It is important to listen to the community. We can find historic information in libraries, archives, and museums, but a project like this one needed a human component. By highlighting the neighborhood’s pride and resilience as a long-standing community, the final Chihuahuita history balanced a story of segregation and racism with one of community persistence.

It is difficult to change the culture of a state agency like TxDOT. This project almost fell victim to the way we always did things, with an interesting piece of history tucked away on TxDOT and library shelves without celebration or relevance to the public or the community we studied. We continue to use the lessons we learned in other projects, making TxDOT’s public history projects relevant and useful beyond their development in response to a highway project.

~Rebekah Dobrasko is an environmental program manager and lead historian at the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin. Rebekah is also the co-chair of the NCPH Committee for Government Historians.

  1. Julie Jerome says:

    Wonderful story. Here’s to true community involvement and doing the right thing. Thank you for this.

  2. LCA says:

    I would love to see the poster and booklet!

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