Duranguito is indeed the cradle of the city of El Paso: David Romo

For a long time, Adair Margo felt that she had the right to decide what part of El Paso’s history should be celebrated and what should be erased. She is the director of a foundation that promotes the works of Tom Lea, an artist whose public art has pushed the tales of European Discovery, Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny. These racialized worldviews have historically been used to justify the dispossession and erasure of non-white populations.

Margo is now bowled over by the fact that a different historical narrative is reaching the outside world. She is irritated that community efforts to stop the town and developers from bulldozing Duranguito and displacing its remaining residents have made national news. She claims that there is nothing of historical significance in the part of Duranguito that the city wants to demolish. In a recent column at El Paso schedules, Margo accused myself and other academics of “inventing” the term Duranguito to describe what she always called Union Plaza. If she hasn’t heard the name, she thinks we must have made it out of thin air. Margo says we “lie”.

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Let’s start by refuting Margo’s false accusation about the historic name of the neighborhood. She seems unaware that a number of newspaper articles and a number of oral histories in historical records show that at the turn of the 20th century, locals called their neighborhood Duranguito or Barrio Durango. This was long before investors and politicians renamed it “Union Plaza” in the late 1980s.

The murals are intact and mostly invisible in the Duranguito neighborhood in downtown El Paso, pictured on March 19, 2021.

One such story is that of McGinty band musician David Concha, who immigrated to El Paso in the 1890s and described this neighborhood in the early 1900s. He said in an oral history interview in the 1970s: “There was a barrio called Duranguito. Duranguito left San Francisco Street in Overland and lied [west of] Santa Fe Street… It was mostly Mexicans who lived there. Later, its boundaries moved south. Other El Paso residents who called this neighborhood Duranguito during the early part of the 20th century include Modesto Gomez, Father Rahm, and Charles Porras.

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Margo ignores this documentation, but it does not give her the right to deliberately spread unfounded accusations. His smear campaigns are based on the same kind of willful historical ignorance that has sadly plagued much of the country’s population these days.

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Before her husband, Dee Margo, became mayor of El Paso, she supported the preservation of Duranguito. Then she did an about-face. Margo and her friend Laura Bush posed for photographers in front of a magnificent Victorian-era building in what the city calls “the arena footprint.” This building, threatened with demolition, was built around 1886 by Benancia Ascarate Stephenson. Born in 1829, this former Duranguito resident was a friend of Mexican President Benito Juárez and lived under five different flags in her lifetime. A few meters away on South Chihuahua Street is another threatened house originally belonging to German Jewish immigrant Adolph Solke, president of the B’nei Zion Orthodox Jewish congregation in El Paso. The city’s first Yom Kippur service that achieved a quorum under Orthodox Jewish law was held here in 1901. A few yards down Overland Street is a building that served as a Chinese laundry, one of the last standing sites of what was once the largest Chinatown in Texas.

These and other Duranguito buildings tell the story of the origins of our globalized border city, and in many ways our country as well, which we never learned in school. Exciting new historical research has revealed that Duranguito was the site of an Apache Mescalero settlement in the 1790s. There was an acequia, or irrigation ditch, that the Spanish built here to water the Apache fields. We also know that Duranguito was part of the Ponce de León land grant of 1827. This founding colony was later the location of Franklin’s first town. The streets of Duranguito were first covered in 1859, making it the oldest district in the city. Duranguito is indeed the cradle of the contemporary city of El Paso.

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Maybe Margo would like to join me in a face to face debate in a public forum where we could continue this discussion. Hopefully, without unfounded accusations and personal insults.

David Dorado Romo is a historian specializing in studies of border regions. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Colegio de México in México City and a Resident Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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