Battles for the heart and soul of El Paso

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Critical moments are at hand in the future of the important U.S-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas. In a first round of voting Saturday, voters forced mayoral candidates Dee Margo and David Saucedo into a June 10 run-off and did the same to the top vote getters in three of four city council races.

El Paso

Wancho Photography / Creative Commons

Downtown El Paso, Texas

A 65-year-old who’s served as a Republican Texas state representative and the president of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Managers, Margo will square off against a foe with another Republican background. Saucedo, who was 31 years old when he announced his mayoral bid last year, is a Notre Dame graduate, accountant and executive of a generations old family lock business, The Saucedo Lock Co.

On their Facebook pages, Margo and Saucedo expressed readiness for the June 10 showdown. After thanking family and supporters, Margo said, “Our dedicated campaign will remain focused with voters on issues that we brought to the forefront.” Saucedo and Margo have both stressed economic development, turning around City Hall and responding to the infrastructure requirements of a growing border metropolis. Both men have ties to the Borderplex Alliance, a network of prominent private sector interests and public officials busy crafting the future of the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-southern New Mexico border corridor.

In a field of eight candidates, Margo received 14,915 votes, or slightly above 45 percent of ballots cast, while Saucedo racked up 7,883 votes for almost 24 percent of the total. Saucedo topped City Council Rep Emma Acosta, who came in third with 5,329 votes — nearly 16 percent of the total cast. The vote breakdowns are taken from the unofficial final election results posted on the website of the El Paso County Elections Department, the local elections authority.

Outgoing El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser served one term and did not run for reelection. The El Paso Times reported the first week of May that Margo had raised more than $200,000 for his campaign, while Saucedo counted on a war chest of approximately $142,800.

Besides Saucedo, 30-year-old Elisa Morales was another fresh face that made a splash on El Chuco’s political scene this year. Coming in fourth with 1,845 votes (5.81 percent) in the mayoral race, Morales was partially schooled in politics by virtue of a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which gave the El Paso native experience working in the office of El Paso Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke as well as with the U.S. Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee headed by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Morales also cut her teeth serving as a legislative staffer for Democratic Senator Tom Udall of neighboring New Mexico.

In a dismally low turnout election, voters also selected aldermen, city council reps, school and water board officials, and judges for a variety of offices across El Paso County. Of 418,665 registered voters, only 34,887 (8.33 percent) cast ballots in the election, according to El Paso County Elections.

Though the mayoral race is nominally nonpartisan, it remains to be seen if Democrats in particular will turn out in bigger numbers for the run-off election and how the two candidates will cultivate them. Traditionally, El Paso is a Democratic city in a Republican state.

Depending on how events play out during the next several weeks, what normally might be a locally themed election could be influenced by the so-called Trump effect and congressional actions like a possible Obamacare repeal. For his part, Dee Margo has made statements to the local press stressing that this election is not about political parties. In comments to El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder last year, Saucedo also distanced himself from a regular party label.

“Trump is a populist Republican and Bernie is a populist independent, and I am a populist El Pasoan,” he was quoted as saying. On the burning immigration question, Saucedo told the business weekly that El Paso and her sister city of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, had successfully managed the issue to mutual benefit, a lesson that should be introduced to the rest of the nation.

Early voting for the June 10 run-off is scheduled to begin May 30 and will run until June 6.

Reshaping El Paso

El Paso’s elections come at a time when a convergence of international, national, state and local forces are reshaping the Paso del Norte borderland’s landscape, often quite literally. Apart from the ramifications of a possible renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and new Trump administration immigration and border security policies on the Sun City, so-called Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and municipal public works projects are having an immense impact on daily routines and the local quality of life.

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“That’s nothing!” two friends of this reporter burst out in laughs, when talk turned to Albuquerque’s controversial Albuquerque Rapid Transit project now underway on the city’s Central Avenue main drag. “We got 10 of ’em going at once!” one said.

Even in unexpected corners of El Paso, drivers these days are likely to run across road crews, blocked streets, plodding machinery and detours to oblivion if great caution and preplanning are not exercised. The biggest projects include the new Border West Expressway, where columned concrete structures awaiting assemblage evoke a hint of Babylonian or Grecian pretension; myriad Interstate 10 improvements; a new trolley car running from downtown El Paso to Stanton Street near the University of Texas at El Paso; and an adjacent entertainment district that’s seen its ups and downs — and which boosters intend to give new nights of glory.

Snuggled next to El Paso, the small city of Sunland Park, New Mexico, has also been affected by the Border West Expressway construction. Although the upper portion of Paisano Drive, usually a fast road contouring the Rio Grande that zips travelers from downtown El Paso to the New Mexico city, has now been reopened to Sunland Park Drive after a long closure, the old exit to Sunland Park’s Anapra neighborhood is still blocked off. The curious can attempt to keep up with the projects here.

The Border West Expressway, together with the simultaneous work of laying down new trolley track, have turned downtown El Paso into a daunting obstacle course and made getting to Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande, a challenging mission.

Due to the roadwork, two parking lots at the foot of the Paso del Norte International Bridge, where Mexico visitors can leave their cars and walk across the border, is currently accessible by one downtown route seemingly only known by the most informed locals; no easy sign directs drivers to the detour.

If all the highway and road construction wasn’t enough to frazzle a city, El Paso is immersed in controversy and litigation over a plan to raze a historic neighborhood and build a sports arena on top of it.

The battle of El Paso’s Chavez Ravine

Reminiscent in many ways of the epic struggle in the 1950s of the Mexican American residents of Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine against forced relocation from homes where Dodger Stadium was ultimately erected, a battle is raging in El Paso over a city plan to tear down the Barrio Duranguito, also known as the Union Plaza District, and displace predominantly Mexican American residents and small business people so the sports arena can start bringing in the fans and their bucks. If developers have their way, the arena will be the second sports stadium built in downtown El Paso since 2013.

The contentious project grows out of the polemical 2012 quality of life bond approved by El Paso voters, and at the time was billed as a multi-purpose entertainment center.

On Cinco de Mayo, pro-Duranguito groups and individuals held two public events aimed at building awareness of and support their cause. Max Grossman, an art history professor and coordinator of the El Paso History Alliance, led a tour attended by about two dozen people through the old streets of Duranguito, a place he described as the oldest continually inhabited neighborhood of the border city since 1859, and even dating back earlier to the Ponce de Leon ranch. From practically the get go, Duranguito charted a cosmopolitan course that attracted newcomers of Mexican, Chinese, African, Swedish and other descents, Grossman said.

“This was always an immigrant neighborhood, and to an extent it retains that character,” he said.

Visibly passionate about preserving Duranguito, Grossman led the tour group past buildings and properties, including old Victorians and rare tenements, with some displaying “Save Duranguito” signs. As the visitors trudged through a hot afternoon, Grossman sketched the histories of assorted sites that once housed a famous brothel frequented by Ft. Bliss soldiers, a Chinese laundry, a boxer who fought Jack Dempsey, and a workshop that made uniforms for Pancho Villa’s troops, among other notable historical facts.

Grossman termed the Chinese laundry building the “surviving relic” of the largely unknown early presence of Chinese immigrants in El Paso, a community which numbered about 1,200 people around the turn of the 20th century.

“This building is a critical part of our early history,” the El Paso cultural historian said. “It is among the last buildings of an era, and that era is when the railroad arrived in El Paso.”

Summing up his stance, Grossman posed a question to the tour participants. “Look at how beautiful this neighborhood is. Do you want it to be like Phoenix? This is what makes us unique.” The El Paso scholar estimated that about 150 residents remained in Duranguito as of three months ago.

As the tour was winding down, a pro-Duranguito festival was picking up a short distance away at El Tiradero Market, an indoor flea market boasting a lively outdoor mural with images of Posada-like skeletons outside legendary Rosa’s Cantina and a Mexican flag.

A steady stream of poets, musicians, artists, community activists and citizens of all stripes turned out for an event that lasted well into the evening. Held a day before the May 6 election, several mayoral and city council candidates showed up and spoke out about the arena plan.

“Enough of politicians who want to throw us out,” Saucedo said to a round of applause. “…(Duranguito) is part of El Paso’s history. I’m tired of corruption. I’m tired of lies. I’m tired of you guys being kicked out of our neighborhoods. Enough is enough.”

Elisa Morales told this reporter she was against the arena in general, and money should be spent on other pressing infrastructure needs. Echoing a common sentiment in El Paso, Morales added, “Our government has been so disconnected from our community.”

Sam Morgan, an African-American Special Forces veteran, academic and businessman who city who also faces a run-off June 10 for a city council seat, backed a petition circulating that seeks to save the old barrio. “Duranguito is worth fighting for. The bottom line is that if you don’t get involved in the community it’s going to disappear, fall by the wayside,” Morgan said.

In an interview, El Paso history professor Yolanda Leyva compared Duranguito with other low-income, working class communities in El Paso and elsewhere. “I think what’s happening in Duranguito is a larger process of what’s happening in the south side barrios,” Leyva said. “It’s the same thing that happened in Austin, where they moved people to isolated areas.”

A longtime activist with the community organization Paso del Sur, Leyva said she used to think in terms of “brown and white” but now sees “class dimensions in everything.” According to Leyva, a man identified as a manager for one of the principal owners of real estate in Duranguito went door to door in recent days with a letter offering residents financial incentives if they signed it by a certain deadline and promised to move out, an essential step in clearing the neighborhood for the arena.

Consequently, she characterized the Duranguito fight as being at a critical stage. “Tenants here are pressured, more scared,” Leyva said.

Meanwhile, combined with deep dissatisfaction over the nature of development and local governance, the Duranguito controversy could already be claiming political casualties. For instance, at a candidates’ forum earlier in the spring, Dee Margo and Emma Acosta were the only mayoral hopefuls that voiced support for Duranguito as the site for the arena, according to a report on the event in El Paso Inc. Despite having more political experience than David Saucedo, Emma Acosta won’t face off against Dee Margo next month.

Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.

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