EL PASO: Capitalists Battle Over Barrio Duranguito as Fences Continue to Envelop

PHOTO: Scenes from the Struggle over Barrio Duranguito

By Nélida Tello and David Martinez

Last Monday, Antonia “Toñita” Morales, a resident of Barrio Duranguito, a neighborhood in downtown El Paso, woke up to further encroachment of city fences on her home as new areas within the footprint of the proposed Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center (MPEC) were closed off to public access.

The emergence of the new fence, which intruded on an empty lot on 321 Chihuahua St. into the already fenced-off section of Duranguito, represents another round in the legal bout between the city and the varying interests trying to prevent the destruction of Duranguito while offering competing visions for the neighborhood.

A view of the landscaped area now closed off by the fence on the right.

The primary face of the legal battle has been Max Grossman, a preservationist historian and professor at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP), who is backed by Houston-based millionaire JP Bryan, while the group Paso del Sur has led the community-based activism to defend residents and promote the fight through cultural work. JP Bryan, who made his fortune in the oil industry, has made himself a more prominent figure as well, and this past Sunday debated El Paso Mayor Dee Margo on local news station KVIA.

A temporary injunction for the demolition of Duranguito had been in place since September 12, 2017, when the city of El Paso, in conjunction with property owners in Duranguito, attempted to illegally demolish five historical buildings. On October 24 of this year, El Paso Judge Patrick Garcia approved the removal of the temporary injunction order, but only three hours later the 8th Court of Appeals issued an emergency motion to Grossman which halted Judge Garcia’s ruling.

Left: Oil Millionaire JP Bryan, Right: Historian Max Grossman

The emergency motion stated, “The Court hereby stays commencement of the Project, including any demolition of buildings within the Project footprint, until the Court has the opportunity to further review this appeal.”

As the legal battle over Barrio Duranguito continues to unfold, Grossman has sustained the court motions thanks to seemingly endless funding from Bryan, who uses his fortune for historical preservation philanthropy across the state. Together, Grossman and Bryan represent a faction of the bourgeoisie in competition with the city government and other local capitalists of El Paso who have set their sights on Duranguito to build an arena since the mid 2000s.

JP Bryan and Mayor Dee Margo Debate On El Paso’s KVIA news station.

While the local bourgeoisie seek total redevelopment that will raze the neighborhood, Grossman and Bryan are advocates of development that preserves historic buildings for tourism and business investment. Neither agenda serves the working class of El Paso, particularly the mostly Chicano and Mexican-immigrant residents of Duranguito, who would continue to face displacement and exploitation whether under the city’s plans or the proposals of capitalists represented by Grossman.

In the debate between Margo and Bryan, while appearing to be at odds, both men continually expressed their respect for each other as simply capitalists with differing viewpoints. Bryan at one point even proudly pointed out how he had donated $200,000 to the Tom Lea Institute, a non-profit founded by Adair Margo, the mayor’s wife. In contrast to the shared class interests of Margo and Bryan, the working class and oppressed nations of El Paso will never be equal partners at the table with imperialists. The contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie in the US can only be resolved through socialist revolution, not through debates on local news.

“Why would you tell someone to come here today?”

The blatant capitalist agenda of Grossman became more clear on October 27 when he promoted the sale of the Villa Stash House and shared that the owner, Enrique Guajardo, was seeking investors to convert it into a bar/restaurant. The Villa Stash House is one of the locations where Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa hid money and jewels to support his militant activities. In a post on the El Paso History Alliance Facebook page, which Grossman manages, they wrote, “We congratulate Mr. Guajardo on his achievement…he understands that historic buildings are not just cultural assets but also economic assets and that they are worth preserving.”

A Historical Plaque outside Pancho Villa’s Stash House, which the owner is converting into a Bar/Restaurant.

The effort to turn the Villa Stash House into a bar is in line with the efforts to gentrify downtown El Paso by branding it as an entertainment district, creating amenities that will attract wealthier residents.  While Grossman presents himself as the little guy taking on the big government of corrupt city officials, with his efforts primarily backed by bourgeois oilman Bryan, he is simply another gentrifier who wants to convert historic buildings into higher profit generators and leave the question of working class housing to market forces.

It is not clear what Paso del Sur thinks of the plans for the Stash House, as they declined to comment when contacted by Incendiary. The group, which is represented primarily by Chicano academics and artists, has their own “Plan for the Rebirth of Duranguito.” It prioritizes housing working class and poorer residents but also proposes turning the area into “Old Town Duranguito” centered around cultural spaces.

The current unspoken alliance between Paso del Sur and Grossman/Bryan is a tenuous one, and the dangers reveal themselves when Bryan compares his historical preservation plan to “La Villita” in San Antonio. La Villita means “little village,” but has no actual residents, and is merely a shopping mall housed in 19th century historical buildings, and also the site for city-wide celebrations such as San Antonio’s Annual Fiesta. Now only a shell of a community used to hawk souvenirs to tourists, La Villita should in no way be the model for the rebirth of a working class barrio.

Bryan made his case for Duranguito by claiming its preservation would give El Pasoans a reason to tell people to visit the city, emphasizing, “Why would you tell someone to come here today?” For an imperialist white man such as Bryan, El Paso’s existing rich community, food, history, and predominantly Chicano and Mexican culture is not enough for outside people to take interest.

The “rebirth” plan still relies on the city’s buy-in and massive capital investment, exposing a disconnect between Paso Del Sur’s grassroots tactics and overall class analysis. In order to carry out their plan, Paso del Sur would require total collaboration with the very city which has dismissed them and necessitate the investment of El Paso’s real estate capitalists who share no concern for the working class and oppressed nations.

Unless You Hit the Fence, It Will Not Fall

The city has shown utter indifference and outright brutality towards the community members aligned with Paso del Sur. On September 11, 2017, the city attempted to begin demolishing buildings, which was resisted by a spontaneous militant protest in which the masses of El Paso put their bodies in the way of bulldozers and police. It was this action that stopped the bulldozers from demolishing Duranguito that day, not the signatures of any petition or pronouncements of a bourgeois court.

The people of El Paso preventing further demolition of Duranguito through militant direct action on September 11, 2017

Since then, there has been almost no militancy or direct action taken against the city government, developers, or any of the fencing that has continued to engulf the barrio. Instead, Paso del Sur has focused on cultural events, rather than protest and confrontation, to keep up the fight.

This cultural work includes efforts on the now fenced off lot on Chihuahua St. which had been neglected for years by the city until residents of Duranguito and Paso del Sur activists took it upon themselves to beautify it as a small garden. Paso del Sur has also held cultural events in the streets of the barrio, which are not done with the permission of the city.

While the cultural work maintains an important presence in the barrio, failing to sustain confrontation against class enemies such as the developers or city government leaves the residents of Duranguito and El Pasoans with an incomplete strategy towards those responsible for the assault on their barrio and class. Class enemies must be combated and resisted with the full fury of the working class and oppressed nations. Cultural work can be an important tactic to unite, but it must be tied to elevating the class consciousness of the people and taking concrete steps to organize for revolution.

An ofrenda (Day of the Dead altar) created for a cultural event held by Paso del Sur

In a press conference held by Paso del Sur regarding the newly constructed fence, lawyer Veronica Carbajal, who is also running for Mayor, made an unfortunate comparison that Duranguito resident Toñita “has been the hands and feet of the police,” in the Barrio.

“And how does she get paid?” Carbajal said. “She is being imprisoned in her own community, in her own street […] At no point in these last few days or at any point in the last couple of years has the city come to her and said ‘You are a leader in this community. You’ve done so much for this community. How can we repay you?’”

Carbajal should hesitate to equate Toñita to doing the police’s job, as the job of the police is to repress the people on behalf of the ruling class. This lack of class analysis only harms the masses who are resisting the destruction of Duranguito. It pushes a petty-bourgeois outlook that the people can appeal to the ruling class for liberation or collaborate with imperialist interests, whether through treating the police as friends, engaging in rigged city processes, or pushing electoralism for candidates who will do nothing to change the capitalist system at its core.

“They want money, money, money.”

Veronica Carbajal, Mayoral Candidate, and Toñita Morales, resident of Duranguito [Screenshot of Paso del Sur Press Conference]
While Paso del Sur declined to comment for this story, they instead placed Incendiary in contact with Toñita. When asked about the proposal for the Villa Stash House, Toñita told Incendiary, “Any restaurant or bar is going to affect to us, we are a small barrio.” This fear is well-founded, as commercial businesses, particularly dining and drinking establishments that cater to the gentry, not only disrupt the daily lives of working class residents, but are one of the anchors for pushing gentrification.

When asked what she thought of the capitalists who are displacing the Chicano and immigrant working class out of downtown, Toñita replied, “They are the ones who destroy…The people don’t interest them. The heritage of the city doesn’t interest them, they want money, money, money.”

Toñita attests that after nine police officers went to Duranguito to look for an inebriated man who had gotten into the fenced off section of neighborhood, the city installed the new fence under the pretense of public safety. The day the new fence was installed, a police officer told supporters of Paso del Sur that the lot did not belong to them because they were not property owners.

Toñita, despite not being a property owner in Duranguito, asserts her right to continue to reside in the neighborhood. Duranguito residents have not only faced this insult from the police, Mayor Dee Margo also told Paso del Sur that if they wanted Duranguito they should buy it. “Who is he to tell us this?” she replied indignantly, “Duranguito is not his!”

While Toñita recognizes the total corruption and greed of politicians like Margo, for the time being the battle for Duranguito is locked within the parameters of the system controlled by the members of his class. It is only the massive capital afforded to Grossman by JP Bryan that has allowed him to hold off the city’s conquest of the neighborhood in the courts, but his agenda is ultimately profit-driven as well and would seek to abandon Duranguito to the market forces of capitalism even as it preserves the buildings.

It is in the street where the working class has had a more promising tactical advantage in this gentrification struggle, as was demonstrated when the people of El Paso held their own against police and the city’s bulldozers two years ago. More importantly, this is when class lines were most clearly drawn, and it is the duty of revolutionaries and activists in El Paso to further demarcate friends from enemies through confrontation and resistance by any means necessary.