El Paso officials want to bulldoze a historic barrio. This 92-year-old woman is in the way
Politicians and developers in El Paso have big plans for the downtown barrio known as Duranguito.
They want to turn the two-block area, a collection of century-old buildings ringed by bus depots, just south of the city’s convention center, into a 15,000-seat arena to host big concerts and — hopefully — a minor-league sports team.
Standing in their way is Antonia Morales, who measures just under 5 feet tall and is 92 years old.
She has lived in the historic neighborhood since 1965 and sees no reason to leave now. Until she and a few other holdouts depart, demolition cannot begin.
The development proposal has spurred clashes between activists and police, angry City Council meetings and costly courtroom battles. Morales doesn’t immediately come across as the project’s most intimidating opponent.
She looked more the part of a Mexican doña as she dawdled around her tiny apartment on a chilly Friday morning not long before coronavirus became a national crisis. Her well-coiffed white hair was as puffy as a cotton ball. Fake flowers, small porcelain dolls and crucifixes prettied the living room. Outside, laundry dried on a clothesline.
But the Mexican-born Morales has become a powerful symbol of the cause and something of a folk hero.
Documentarians and academics fete her fight. Tourists from as far away as Germany have knocked on her door. A large mural of Morales, her fist raised in resistance, covers a building on the north side of Duranguito, greeting visitors to the site of her last stand.
“She’d make a great mayor,” said Veronica Carbajal, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents Morales and other former and current Duranguito residents in a lawsuit against El Paso to keep their barrio intact.
“She has a perspective not just in terms of her personal story but as someone who has kept a keen eye on redevelopment promises made by past administrations that have failed.”
“People love her,” said Andrés Muro, an adult-education program director at El Paso Community College. “Her courage, her enthusiasm, her stories — she really is la gran Toñita,” or Little Antonia the Great.
Sitting on a red couch, radiant and in good health, Morales downplayed all the fuss.
“I’ve lived here a long time, and I want to stay here,” she said matter-of-factly in Spanish, before getting a twinkle in her eye. “Tell the city to not be so scared of me. I’m not here with guns. It’s just me and the pigeons.”
No one else lives in the low-slung, six-unit apartment complex where Morales served for decades as the property manager.
A bolted-down chain-link fence separates her from what’s left of the rest of Duranguito: abandoned markets, art academies, an old Chinese laundry and Victorian homes. Some bear holes in their walls caused by bulldozers that tried to knock them down in 2017, until activists formed a human chain to stop them and successfully obtained an injunction that has kept the wrecking ball away since.
Local artists painted murals on the sidewalk and erected a sign surrounded by painted-on hummingbirds that declares Duranguito to be the “birthplace of El Paso.” But those efforts don’t bring Morales much solace.
“It’s lonely at night,” she said. “I don’t have anything to do. But I need to stay.”
Born in the border town of Palomas, Chihuahua, Morales got involved in the fight for Duranguito only after her retirement. She had seen the neighborhood deteriorate over the decades.
“There were no lights” in the alleys as recently as the early 1990s, Morales remembered. “Just a lot of prostitutes, bums and delinquents.”
A widow with no children, Morales felt for all the kids who played in the barrio’s tough streets and alleys, so she helped to organize a neighborhood cleanup project. Residents then pressed the city to beautify Duranguito with federal housing money, and asked the El Paso Police Department to expand its presence in the area.
But El Paso’s burghers had visions for a different Duranguito.
In 2006, city officials met with the Paso del Norte Group, an invite-only binational coterie of businessmen, to dream up new plans for the metro area of 700,000 that has long been overlooked by the rest of Texas. Six years later, 72% of voters approved a $473-million revitalization bond that included $180 million for a “multipurpose cultural and performing arts center.”
Taking an expansive interpretation of culture and the arts, the City Council eventually decided it should be a sports arena built on Duranguito.
Morales said she found out about the city’s plans for her barrio from her neighbors, who were paid a total of $480,000 to move.
Morales said she declined a $14,000 offer, but doesn’t begrudge those who took the money.
“When poor people are offered money, of course they’ll leave,” she said. “I told them to think about it, but I understood.”
Soon, historians and activists descended upon Duranguito to help Morales and others who remained.
“It’s a microcosm of who we are as fronterizos,” or border people, said David Dorado Romo, as he stood on Chihuahua Street in front of Morales’ residence.
The writer tended to an A-frame display that explained Duranguito’s past and inspected banners on fences that depicted artwork painted by Central American refugee children. City workers had ripped them down a couple of months earlier, claiming they posed a safety hazard.
“Duranguito is spiritual ground,” he said. “Instead, they want to blast it into oblivion. They’re just stupid.”
He compared the barrio’s plight to that of Chavez Ravine, the Mexican American neighborhood where Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies forcibly evicted residents in 1959 to make way for Dodger Stadium.
Romo and other activists have asked the city, which now owns most of what’s left of Duranguito, to transform it into a historical tourism site. Along with the neighboring Segundo Barrio, it is where hundreds of thousands of Mexicans first stopped in the United States before setting off to California and beyond, and remains an entry point for many immigrants from south of the border.
“We could build an Old El Paso that would be unique,” said José Rodriguez, a Texas state senator who served as El Paso County attorney for 17 years. “It has Chinese history, Chicano history, Mexican Revolution history, Old West history. This could be an economic development where everyone would win.”
A house on the outskirts of Duranguito where Pancho Villa used to stash ammunition and cash was recently restored.
The crowd at the private unveiling in February included the wife of El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a proponent of the arena who further inflamed tensions last year when he said Duranguito had “no significant historical value.”
He did not return multiple requests for comment. But local business leaders stand by the plans for the arena.
El Paso Chamber of Commerce President David Michael Jerome said he sees it as an “economic stimulus package” needed now more than ever as the city deals with the coronavirus outbreak. “The arena is all is about jobs today, and it’s about the kind of city we want to be tomorrow.”
Jerome wouldn’t comment about Morales or the other opponents, saying he “doesn’t know all the dynamics.”
But he did allow that “the people involved [in protesting the arena] believe they are doing the right thing, and I’ll accept that on face value.”
Meanwhile, Morales and the few people still left in Duranguito are waiting to see what happens next.
Just a couple of doors down from Morales is Romelia Mendoza, who has owned her home in Duranguito for over 40 years. A knock at her door was not answered, nor were multiple phone calls, but she has also voiced her intentions to stay.
Morales said her neighbor doesn’t want to talk about the issue much anymore.
“If she thinks about it too much, she starts to cry,” Morales said. “I tell her, ‘Don’t cry. What happens, happens.’”
One street over is another small apartment complex with a few tenants. Candelaria Garcia is one of Morales’ fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But the 74-year-old said she was ready to meet with city housing staff.
“I was happy here,” she said before pausing.
“But I don’t want to lose this opportunity.”
Morales continues to send her $300 monthly rent to the apartment’s current landlord.
“There hasn’t been any push on their part to evict her, and we’d love for it to stay that way,” said her lawyer, Carbajal.
Early this year, the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition for review of the lawsuit. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is now awaiting a decision by the state’s 8th Court of Appeals. On Tuesday, the City Council rejected a motion to suspend the project, with the mayor dismissing the effort as “blatantly political.”
Meanwhile, Morales has been hunkered down at home since the coronavirus reached Texas. But her spirits are up.
She tends to a small garden and talks with friends on the phone. Romo said she reminds “everyone of the different epidemics she’s lived through and survived.”
Morales has had few visitors over the last month, as supporters try to keep her safe.
“I can’t leave here for a while,” she said. “How about I just stay here for good?”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.