EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Borderland Treasures takes a tour of San Elizario, a peaceful community with an action-packed history.
The Spanish Presidio is a community with centuries of history. Al Borrego with the Cultural Heritage Society said the town takes one back in time.
“We’re a sleepy old west town,” Borrego said. “You get a really good sense of what life was like back then.”
The town came to be when the conquistador Juan de Onate reached the Rio Grande on April 20, 1598. With the rise of Spanish power in the Rio Grande Valley, military protection became
“The Spanish came through the area here and had what they call ‘La Toma,'” Borrego said.
“La Toma” means taking possession of the land in the name of the Spanish king.
By 1760, a settlement known as the Hacienda de los Tiburcios was founded in San Elizario. In 1789, the Spanish presidio came to be.
“The presidio was built to protect the missions,” Borrego said, “and the missions were built to convert natives to Catholicism.”
The missions at El Paso del Norte, Ysleta, Senecu and Socorro all looked to San Elizario for protection. After decades of use, the presidio was finally abandoned in 1821 when the Spanish withdrew from Mexico. The 13-foot adobe walls surrounding the fort were demolished, but several historic buildings survive to this day, including its chapel.
“This particular chapel here in the 6th or 7th version,” Borrego said.
The Presidio Chapel of San Elizario is made of adobe and painted white.
“It has the look of the thunderbird look of the pueblos,” he said.
The chapel dates from the 1880s and replaced earlier churches that were destroyed by floods. It also endured a devastating fire in the 1930s.
“The fire burned everything from the pillars to the vigas were all charred,” Borrego said.
The square pillars in the chapel today conceal what was damaged in the blaze. The roof was also repaired.
“They ended up painting the tarnished tin with regular paint,” Borrego said, ” yellow pink and blu. It’s lasted quite a few years, almost 100 years now.”
The chapel is quiet and it brings a sense of tranquility and peace that seems to extend to the rest of
the town. Back in the day though, San Elizario saw its share of action.
“This was a very busy town,” Borrego said. “This was the gateway to Mexico. if you robbed a bank in Kansas, well, you came right through this road.”
The jail was built in 1850 when San Elizario became the first seat of El Paso County. Lillian Trujillo said her grandfather Antonio Trujillo Senior was a constable and deputy sheriff for nearly 50 years, beginning in the 1930s
“They called him the law, la ley,” Trujillo said. “He was so tall and powerful that people would just look at him and say ‘okay, I’ll behave.'”
His photo is nailed to the wall of the old jail which now serves as a museum. Its iron cells manufactured in Chicago and transported by wagon over hundreds of miles of desert.
An old ‘wanted’ poster adjacent to the cells tells an infamous story, from 1876.
“A man by the name of Melquiades Segura was in town and got into some trouble.” Borrego said. “Our records show he committed a unlawful act.”
That year Billy the Kid tricked the sheriff at the time into believing he was a Texas Ranger
transporting a prisoner to the jail. Then, he sprang loose his friend, Malquiades Segura, and escaped.
“It was quick it was easy,” Borrego said.
Another historic building with stories to tell is Los Portales, built in about 1855
“Originally, this school belonged to Gregorio Garcia who was an important man at that time,” Trujillo said.
Garcia donated the building to the San Elizario community and it served as the first public school in El Paso County. The school, now turned museum, is still made of its original adobe bricks with cottonwood vigas and a cattail thatch roof.
Like many of the buildings in San Elizario, it is made of humble materials. Dried mud mixed with straw adobe is the oldest construction medium in the world, and has been used in the Borderland for more than 13 centuries.
“We’ve got most adobe architecture here, most of the building have been here since the beginning of the town,” Borrego said. “It’s something that the Spaniards came into here when they came up to this part of the world and took advantage of it.”
People who live in San Elizario say not much changes in the historic town. Many families are multi-generational. The buildings continue to tell the stories of their ancestors.
San Elizario is a treasure that lives on.