By: Oscar J. Martinez, PhD., A guest editorial

This article was updated on March 2, 2021 at 13:40E to correct taxpayer costs. ($400 million to $500 million).

On February 16, 2021 the El Paso City Council voted 5-3 to leave intact a problematic city ordinance that stands in the way of inclusion of the Duranguito neighborhood in the historic district plan crafted by the El Paso County Commissioners Court. Although the ordinance is not a threat to the rights of property owners, its confusing language has been opportunistically used by a small group of developers to promote the message that burdensome restrictions will be placed on structures in Duranguito upon creation of the historic district. That misleading information has caused anxiety among property owners.

The real motive of the developers is to eliminate any interference with the proposed building of a sports arena in that neighborhood. They cynically ignore the sentiment of El Pasoans who, in last November’s mayoral election, overwhelmingly rejected the arena, now estimated to cost taxpayers between $400 million and $500 million. This is a project El Paso cannot afford at a time of financial collapse at city hall caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For years, the arena-in-Duranguito scheme has been driven by a Paul Foster/Woody Hunt-led group of powerful downtown builders, bankers, and businesspeople. These economic elites have demonstrated that, in pursuit of their objectives, they are willing to do practically anything, including erasing the history of people who have contributed so much to the development of El Paso.

The five council representatives (hereafter called “the five”) who chose to do nothing about the ambiguous ordinance—Cassandra Hernández, Henry Rivera, Isabel Salcido, Cissy Lizarraga, and Peter Svarzbein—went against the interests of most El Pasoans, especially Mexican Americans. “The five” took a stand against the historical district and affirmed their support for the pro-arena forces. Only Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar, and Claudia Lizette Rodríguez stood up for the people.

Should the votes of “the five” prevail and the arena is built in Duranguito, it will mean the destruction of the birthplace of our city and the elimination of the best site the city has to offer for the creation of a long-overdue historical district that would celebrate the heritage of Mexicans/Mexican Americans, indigenous people, and other groups that make up the rich multicultural mosaic that is El Paso.

The failure of “the five” to address the problems inherent in the thorny ordinance is the latest chapter in a long story of support for the arena in the city council. Between 2017 and 2020, “the five” joined other council members in casting votes for that facility—despite vehement opposition by a large coalition of taxpayers, historians, preservationists, and activists. That disapproval continues to this day.

Related votes cast by “the five” during the same period pertain to the proposed Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC). Instead of supporting the building of a stand-alone, first-class center, these representatives have backed the cheaper alternative of cramming said center into the downtown library, essentially making it an add-on to an existing building. If the MACC winds up as an extension of the library building, it will greatly diminish services in the library and will be a great insult to the Mexican American community. It will reflect poorly on El Paso for its lack of commitment to excellence.

It is particularly galling that four of “the five” are Hispanics who do not appreciate what a historic district in Duranguito and a first-class MACC would mean to their own people. What explains such thinking? Many people believe that the four Latina/o council members (in addition to Svarzbein) voted the way they did because they are beholden to Foster, Hunt, and other wealthy donors who have made substantial financial contributions to their campaigns.

Do these “public servants” feel any obligation to preserve and showcase Mexican American history in a city where Hispanics make up 83 percent of the population? Do they care about educating our young people about their heritage? Do they realize that knowledge of one’s history strengthens self-identity and builds self-confidence? Are these council representatives oblivious to the long-standing cultural marginalization of Mexican American culture by the El Paso power structure? Don’t they understand that heritage tourism is a far superior driver of economic development than an arena?

“The five” on the city council who have disrespected the Mexican American community must stop doing so.

Voters! In the next election let’s make sure that we put into office leaders who are not beholden to special interests and who commit to support the historical and cultural contributions of the people of El Paso, including Mexican Americans, the city’s majority population.

About the Author: Dr. Oscar J. Martínez is a retired history professor from UTEP and the University of Arizona. Martinez is the author of numerous books and articles about the history of El Paso and other areas of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He is currently writing a book entitled Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of an Hispanic/Mexican American Community.

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