By Miguel Juárez, PhD
Updated August 28, 2020.
The Val Verde neighborhood is a historical community south of the Medical Center of the Americas, and north of Delta Avenue in El Paso, Texas. The neighborhood is north of the city’s water treatment plant and east of the El Paso County Coliseum.
When President Donald Trump came to El Paso and had his rally at the County Coliseum, then Presidential Candidate Beto O’Rourke had his event in the baseball field outside the Chalio Acosta Recreation Center, which along with the Hilos de Plata Senior Center, are located in the community. Up to mid-March 2020, these two centers provided much- needed quality of life activities for senior citizens and residents.
The Val Verde neighborhood (named Delta Park in city maps) dates back to the late 1800s. Numerous people relocated to Val Verde from Stormsville. In his book Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920, Historian Mario Garcia states:
Owing to severe flooding of the Rio Grande River in 1897 some Mexicans left Chihuahuita and squatted on Kern Place in the sparsely populated northern foothills of the city. Here they paid squatter’s rent to D. Storms, the owner of the property, which consequently was called Stormsville.
Today, we can still see numerous adobe homes in the neighborhood. Present-day descendants of the first residents remember their grandfathers having to bury the dead during the 1917 Pandemic. In 1923, the city created the Haskell Street Waste Water plant across the street from the community and every year since then residents have dealt with the foul odors from the plant, so much that it is unofficially named “dizzyland.”
One resident who lived in Val Verde on Dolan Street was Florencia Bisenta de Casilias Martínez Cardona, who was born in El Paso on July 19, 1940 to Carlos and Florencia Cardona. The Cardona family lived on Dolan Street and they moved to Los Angeles when Florencia was an infant. Florencia later became known as the singer Vicky Carr.
Other residents moved into the Val Verde community when their homes were removed by the Paisano Street Expansion in 1947. Don Julian and Donaciana Zavala’s family moved to the neighborhood when their homes were acquired via eminent domain to build Paisano.
A “Less Than a Perfect Solution,” Trading One Vulnerable Community for Another
On March 15th, 2020 senior citizens from Los Hilos de Plata Senior Center, were told to go home due to the City’s Covid-19 emergency. Seniors asked center personnel when they would be able to return and representatives told them that they would contact them later to inform them when they could return.
We now know that Seniors were never contacted and a month later, after hurried meetings by various agencies, and under a partnership between the city and county, the Senior Center and the Chalio Acosta Recreation Centers reopened as the Delta Centers to help the Opportunity Center’s (OC) efforts to socially distance their population to curb the rise of Covid. The City of El Paso funded the OC with CARES funding with Endeavors acting as the subcontractor for the project.
On their Facebook page, the OC posted the following announcement on April 18th:
The Opportunity Center for the Homeless, in close coordination with the City of El Paso and the County of El Paso is now operating two new facilities to provide support and temporary housing for homeless individuals in our community while complying with the Health Authority’s social distancing rules. Both centers became a reality with support from the City of El Paso, the Office of Emergency Management [CARES Funding] and numerous non-profit and private sector partners
The OC Facebook page also stated that the “Primary partners supporting the work include the Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, El Paso Coalition for the Homeless, Endeavors, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, the Paso Del Norte Community Foundation, and the United Way.”
Media Narratives on the Situation
Aside from a July 15th El Paso News article, there has been no reporting on how property owners are being impacted. All they have heard in local media is how successful the project has been—how it helped avoid a Covid catastrophe among the population serviced by the OC. An April 17th, KVIA News 7 article on the opening of the facilities titled “El Paso opens temporary homeless shelters in effort to combat virus spread,” echoed the same success narrative of the project and the KVIA report failed to report how residents were being impacted.
In an April 24th KVIA story, Brianna Chavez reported that only 12 people had tested positive for Covid. People in the Welcome Centers were not being tested for Covid-19 until a participant on a Zoom Town Hall a day before on April 23rd, asked if residents were being tested? Veronica Martinez, in a May 5th, 2020 article in the El Paso Times also reported the opening of the two centers.
This past week there was a flurry of articles which have promoted the narrative that the city and county had avoided Covid spread among the population housed in the Delta Centers. In a meeting with residents in the parking two weeks ago outside the Hilos de Plata Senior Center county staff members told residents that in sacrificing their centers they had helped keep the spread of Covid and that they should be proud of that fact.
Endeavors’ Public Relations in San Antonio, issued an press release highlighting their efforts around the state and in El Paso. Even Commissioner David Stout fed into the narrative and wrote in a recent editorial in El Paso Matters, that the project had been a resounding success although “It has not been a perfect solution.” He did not tell readers why “it has not been a perfect solution.” The bottom line is that local media has failed to report the residents’ views of the situation.
On August 27th Seniors organized a meeting to meet with County and City officials to communicate that they wanted their center reopened. Officials stated that residents needed to adhere to having them meet in groups of 10 or less. They divided the residents and took them to another side of the building where they had chairs for them so they could wait seven of them could meet with officials. The meeting which was scheduled at 6 p.m. and it ran into close to 9 p.m.
Reporter Karla Valdez of Univision Channel 26 News recorded interviews with the residents who had arrived early to attend the meeting. The report featured a brief interview with one of the residents in their newscast and instead they ran a lengthier interview with Laura Cruz-Acosta, the Strategic Communications Director who acts as the city’s public relations spokesperson, who stated the same rhetoric that the creating the centers they helped combat community spread. Acosta claimed all senior centers were closed by the city which is not true because some of them have been reopened to serve as cooling centers.
The Delta Centers are not a complete success as expounded in local media by both City and County officials, because in accommodating one vulnerable community they disadvantaged another and at the expense of property owners who are now concerned about other issues in their community besides Covid.
The result of these changes was that overnight the Val Verde community was changed. City and County officials traded one vulnerable community for another and they did not notify property owners. Perhaps the architects of the Delta Centers thought that the Val Verde community, which has had a long history of environmental racism would remain silent?
To justify the use of the Hilos de Plata, city and county officials argued that it had been used as a shelter for Hurricane Rita victims and officials did not want to use the El Paso County Coliseum because it was being reserved as a possible overflow location in case Covid numbers skyrocketed. County and city officials stated that they looked for a neighborhood association in the community to communicate the changes to come, but they could not find one (the Pasadena Neighborhood Association closed its doors several years ago when its founders moved out of the community).
Neighborhood Associations play important roles of disseminating information to residents about developments in their areas. This issue is problematic because even though there are numerous neighborhood associations throughout El Paso, areas south of I-10 often do not have one. A good Plan B for city and county officials could have been to leave door hangers in the community, as they have done in other neighborhoods.
This issue signals the need for better transparency at all levels. When we contacted Cecilia Herrera, President of the Central Neighborhood Association, she confirmed that she was not aware that the OC population had been moved to the Val Verde neighborhood. Unfortunately, she was not alone in not knowing.
A Community Coming Together
A majority of the population in the Val Verde community are not only caught in a pandemic, but also in a Digital Divide. Their library has been closed and they themselves may not have computers or Internet access. Individuals in the community might not have smart phones. They may not use e-mail. The challenge for the community has been to organize itself in a relatively short period amid a pandemic but they are rising excellently to the occasion, but it is not the first time they have joined to fight against issues affecting their neighborhood. Parents from the area north of Paisano Street came together to oppose the Burleson School closure in early 2020.
On July 15th city officials stated that they would be sending out a flier to notify residents of the changes in their neighborhood. Over a month later, on August 21st, a flier was finally sent, but it came after pressure from the community. The postcard/flier is titled “Temporary Solution,” and it states that the shelters are a temporary solution (see below). City and county officials have stated that they will return the centers back to the community 45 days after the City lifts the Covid restrictions which will not come soon enough. Residents have been told that exit plans are being developed, but the welcome centers may not move out until Spring 2021 (city officials had formerly stated August 2020, then January 2021), although there is no definite date.
The community has had to overcome many obstacles in a very short period of time and neighbors have begun advocating for themselves and helping each other. Since April 2020, they have also dealt with food insecurity, the digital divide, zoning issues, technological issues and personal security due to an increased number of persons sleeping in bus benches, sleeping in residents’ cars and panhandling at local convenience and grocery stores, as well as swatting on bus benches and scaring residents use of public transportation.
In addition, residents reported that they received no less than eight postcards that sexual offenders were living in the Delta Centers and they requested that they be moved. Residents used to be able to walk to their voting center which used to be Burleson Elementary, then it moved to the Chalio Acosta Recreation Center and now they will have to drive to Bowie High School to vote. Many of them lack transportation.
Impact on Senior Citizens
Seniors have also lost their ability to use the Senior Center to exercise, to take advantage of it as a cooling center during these recent weeks over triple digit heat and to help them improve their health and well-being. In addition, many of them cannot go for their walks in the park to get their morning exercise and a number of the Seniors have fallen into depression because they can no longer see their friends. Due to the lack of exercise and the loss of daily activities and lack of good nutrition they used to get at the center, many seniors have passed away and not due to Covid. Seniors and community members are frustrated of the situation. They deserve better.
Dora Villanueva who lives in the Val Verde community said many of the seniors are experiencing undue hardships because their Senior Center Los Hilos de Plata is closed to them. Ms. Villanueva states:
I am sorry to tell you all this, but it is with a heavy heart that I feel the loss of all my friends in such a short time since they stopped looking forward to another day when we used to see each other at the Hilos. Others call me to tell me that they legs are slowing down and that they need exercise and all I can say is that we need to be patient. One day we will be together soon to play bingo and loteria which helped us with our memory loss. Doctors were sending their senior patients to Hilos. Right now, Seniors are going through depressions. I cannot understand why we are being treated this way?
Would This Have Happened in Other Neighborhoods?
Amid the pandemic, we have to ask ourselves if this would have happened in other neighborhoods? The numerous issues in the Val Verde community point to class issues which seem to be beyond the radar for some public officials.
Will people have to take to the streets to support this vulnerable community? Would those who approved the creation of the Delta Centers have allowed these injustices to happen in their own neighborhoods? The City of El Paso has received funding to create a more permanent solution to the situation, so what are they waiting for? Just like the OC population moved to the Delta Centers during the pandemic, they can surely move out during one.
What people are construing an anti-homeless sentiment is misguided sympathy. The people of the Val Verde community have been here for three generations, from pandemic to pandemic and they have the experience of keeping their streets and neighborhoods clean and not tolerating public intoxication or public use of alcohol and drugs. No one has questioned or dare talks about who is bringing the drugs into the neighborhood. The residents have complained of seeing strange cars and traffic in their neighborhood. Residents have stated that the area is now attracting prostitution.
Outsiders do not understand that everyone in this neighborhood knows each other, their spouses, their children, the extended family, the mothers, the fathers, the great-grandparents, the parents and great grandparents. They know the football stars, the veterans, the homemakers, those who have died, the disabled, and their own homeless.
The group who made this hasty decision could use their funds to transition these individuals into rooms where the homeless persons can live with dignity, integrity and where privacy is respected. It would be a win-win for everyone. The Val Verde community and its Seniors demand a swift transition. They deserve what they had before. We cannot let the Seniors die one by one. They cannot wait until Spring 2021 or until officials decide on the moving date. For Seniors who used to frequent Los Hilos de Plata Senior Center, it is a matter of life or death.