Borderland Treasures: Exploring the tenements of Segundo Barrio

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The Segundo Barrio, or the Second Ward, has always been a working-class neighborhood in South El Paso.

Wedged between Downtown El Paso and the Rio Grande, the Segundo Barrio was established in 1885 as one of El Paso’s four original wards.

Some residents, like Oscar Sanchez, have lived in the neighborhood for their entire lives.

“I like it here, that’s why I’m still here,” Sanchez said. “I have been here 64 years.”

Residents said life in the barrio is humble and simple, as it has been 130 years.

UTEP professor Dr. Dennis Bixler-Marquez said inhabitants formed a tight-knit community.

“The area was home to many of the exiled from the Mexican Revolution,” Bixler-Marquez said.

Immigrants arrived to the Segundo Barrio from all over the world. The first settlers lived in jacales, or shacks, that were made of branches, mud, rope, even cardboard. By the late 1800s, most of the jacales were replaced by adobe tenements that were built for workers and their families.

Thousands came to work in El Paso in newly established industries such as manufacturing, slaughterhouses, printing presses, groceries and other small businesses. Then in the early 20th century, many of the single-story adobe structures were replaced by stronger, multi-story brick tenements called presidios.

“The Segundo Barrio has traditionally been the staging area for immigrants,” Bixler-Marquez said.

Built in 1908, The Baray Apartments are an example of a presidio still standing today. The complex is a brick structure and like many other presidios it is two stories high, organized around an internal courtyard. Most tenements in the neighborhood were built in the territorial style, which incorporated classical details in cornices and around the windows.

Resident Oscar Sanchez has been a life-long resident of the barrio, a place he is happy to call home.

“I feel like I am rich,” Sanchez said. “This barrio is like gold to me.”

Sanchez said life in the barrio was not always easy, but he overcame hardship and at one time even had his own boxing gym.

“There were 12, maybe 13 gangs back then,” Sanchez said. “I would try to take the kids out of the streets.”

Sanchez now spends his days taking care of his home and all the others living at The Baray Apartments. Many residents, Sanchez said, are elderly and have lived in the complex for many years.

Antonio Marin, known by his friends as “Cha Cha” moved to the barrio as a small child.

“Most of the kids were good kids, bad kids were just a few,” Marin said. “There were rooms, running water, just the faucet maybe. There were no toilets.”

Old photos capture a day in the tenements all those decades ago. Some depict clothes hanging on lines, drying in the hot desert sun. Others show the children who lived in the neighborhood racing up tenement stairs, or hanging out with their mothers as they washed clothes under the shade of trees.

The heart of the neighborhood is Sacred Heart Church, located in front of the Baray Apartments. Sanchez and Marin said they have fond memories of a beloved priest, Father Rahm, who was well known by the community back in the 1950s.

“I remember him, he was on the bike,” Sanchez said. “I remember I was about 8 or 9, he would come around the corner and say ‘you better behave you guys.’ He would come with a bat.”

Marin also remembers the priest fighting against the gangs.

“He used to make children aware of not being in gangs,” Marin said.

Sanchez said he feels blessed to live right in front of Sacred Heart Church. He has a direct view of the church from his bedroom window, and prays every night. He said it is, as if, God placed him in that home for a reason: to help others.

“He’s the one that told me take care of them,” Sanchez said.

People said life in the barrio is now calm. It is simple and unassuming like its humble tenements, which still stand strong after all these years. They serve as monuments to the working families who built El Paso.

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