NCPH 2013 Project Award: The power of place within us

Editors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is by Yolanda Chávez Leyva, co-director of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon, the winner of the 2013 NCPH Public History Project Award.

El Paso is a windy city. Its dusty winds blow noisily into homes and offices, tear shingles off roofs and lift trash swirling up into the atmosphere where papers and plastic bags dance with desert sands that hide the mountains beneath a hazy cloud.  Most El Pasoans dread the wind but I am grateful for it because it helped me learn what a public history project could mean to a community.

One summer day in 2011, I woke up early and on a whim decided to take a drive to Museo Urbano, a community museum I co-directed in El Segundo Barrio, one of the most historic Mexican American neighborhoods in the United States, located in one of the poorest zip codes in the county. When I arrived, I noticed a group of men sitting on the stoop of the turn of the 20th century tenement building where we were located. For over a hundred years, men have gathered on street corners in El Segundo waiting to be contracted for work so I wasn’t surprised to see them. What did surprise me was what they had to say.

Housed in a building over a century old, we often had to deal with windows that didn’t quite shut and doors that didn’t quite lock. The volunteers who had staffed the Museo the day before had not yet learned the intricacies of properly locking the heavy brown doors. Overnight, the winds had blown open the old wooden double doors. When a neighbor noticed the open door when he looked out at sunrise, he came to guard the museum. Soon, others joined him. As I looked inside, nothing was missing. The cash from the donation jar was still there. The televisions and digital frames still hung on the walls. The neighborhood men waited for me while I inspected everything and locked the doors. We all laughed at El Paso’s famous windstorms. I stood there for a second astonished at their actions. More so than any survey, evaluation tool or comment card, this generous act by men whose names I did not know taught me the importance of history.

In 2011, the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) opened Museo Urbano.

Opening day at Museo Urbano, May 2011. Over 600 people attended. On the walls you can see the murals painted by residents of El Segundo Barrio, including the United Farm Workers eagle.

Opening day in May 2011 witnessed hundreds of visitors to the tiny museum. Over the next few months, a thousand visitors walked in our doors. We did not advertise much. People walked in after church on Sundays or on their way downtown to shop on Saturday afternoons. Teachers brought their classes and youth attended cultural workshops provided free of charge by artists, musicians and dancers.  Visitors brought items to display—boxes of Mexican tea for our traditional medicine table, a wrinkled image of the folk saint Don Pedrito for our home altar, plants to enliven the patio. Every day at Museo Urbano was hard work—we had no staff and we did everything from writing text to cleaning the bathroom. And it was magical to see community people relate to the project. It meant something to them and to us.

Graphic artist Adrian Lopez and five- year old volunteer Joaquin Leyva mounting the exhibit in the Teresita Urrea room, March 2011. All ages participated in creating Museo Urbano.

Why did the public history project mean so much to the people who visited and who volunteered there? I believe it had to do with the project’s values: respect, reciprocity, responsibility and social justice. We did not “give the people a voice,” we listened. We did not “teach them their history,” we worked with the community to understand where their lives and ours fit within the larger context. We did not “give back,” we acknowledged our shared history living on the border and what that meant to us and to the generations to follow.

Rubí Orozco and Leo Martinez provide a son jarocho workshop to area youth in the courtyard of Museo Urbano. Son jarocho is the regional music and dance of Jalisco, Mexico, based in African and Indigenous rhythms. In the background is the “Pachucos Suaves” mural.

And significantly, Museo Urbano created a space where people could connect across generations and across time, through eliciting and sharing memories, stories, and histories. When middle-aged Mexican American couples came to our grand opening, they told us stories of the African American jazz greats who performed at the bar across the street from the museum in the 1950s. When residents walked by the museum, they noticed the striking mural highlighting Pachuco culture that had emerged in the barrio beginning in the 1920s that became part of popular culture in the 1940s with the million selling album, “Pachuco Boogie.” The many murals portraying the United Farmworkers eagle, car clubs, and scenes of downtown El Paso that had been spontaneously painted by neighborhood youth drew pedestrians into the tenement courtyard, prompting stories of decades past. High school students from one of El Paso’s iconic high schools, “la Bowie,” interviewed their teachers who also had attended Bowie to learn what life was like for them twenty and thirty years earlier. Eighty- and ninety-year-olds stood in the museum with tears in their eyes that someone valued their stories and their lives. Undergraduate, MA and doctoral students experienced the profound power of history and place as they worked as volunteers or through public history classes to make the Museo a reality.

Volunteers supervised by muralist David Flores (in blue jumpsuit on left) paint an iconic image of the pachuco. Pachuco youth culture emerged in El Segundo in the 1920s and spread throughout the Southwest in the succeeding decades. The zoot suit, as seen in the image above, was emblematic of pachucos. The word “pachuco” has its origins in the slang word for El Paso, El Chuco.

Early in 2012, we were forced to leave our beloved space because of rising rental costs. More than a year later, the landlord has painted over the murals with a dull black coat of paint, hiding the once vibrant colors that drew so many into the tenement courtyard. Supporters have expressed anger and sadness to see the last vestiges of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon erased.

Visitors to the Teresita Urrea room. La Santa de Cabora, as she was called, lived at the site in the 1890s, seeing anywhere from 200-250 people per day who came from Mexico and the United States seeking healing. Quotes from Teresita were painted on the walls of the tenement apartment.

However, something has remained with us that goes beyond the power of the physical place to the power of place within us. Physical place is fleeting. Buildings are torn down or decay. Even the beautiful mountains of El Paso change as the rock is quarried for buildings or new developments spread across the landscape. But within us is the place of memory, of history, of connections to others. Within us is the place of work, of energy, of creation and beauty. Within us is the power of reflection and of seeing ourselves in each other. That summer day as the men guarded Museo Urbano, not knowing whether any of us would show up or not, that power of connection was clear even through El Paso’s dusty winds.

~ Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a Chicana historian and writer who was born and raised on the border.  She is Associate Professor and currently Chair of the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.