By Miguel Juárez
At the El Paso City Council Meeting on Tuesday, June 22, 2021, twelve people signed up to speak for the Call to the Public and nine of those speakers were senior citizens who asked the Council to reopen their Senior Centers for more than once a week and more than three hours a week. Citing lack of personnel, the City is staggering the reopening of senior centers and during the food deliveries which don’t give seniors enough time to both receive their food and visit the centers. Eight of the seniors who called in to the Council meeting did not speak in English and needed a translator. For seniors the digital divide is a serious issue and aside from the pandemic, having access to their centers has become a matter of life or death.
Seniors who spoke at the council meeting represented four centers: the Hilos de Plata Senior Center; the Pavo Real Senior Center; the Southside Senior Center and the Memorial Park Senior Center. Seniors had held virtual meetings with Ben Fyffe, Managing Director of Cultural Affairs & Recreation for the City of El Paso Texas, who also oversees the senior centers, met with them on May 5th and June 16th. In comparison to other Texas cities, El Paso’s senior centers are currently not open five days a week.
Nine Senior Citizens did what they may never had done before, attend a city council meeting and spoke to Mayor Leeser and City Council members and asked that they senior centers be reopened.
Dora Villanueva, President of the Val Verde Neighborhood and a long-time member of the Hilos de Plata Senior Center was the first person to speak on the issue of the Senior Centers at the City Council meeting, as part of the Call to the Public segment. In the Call to the Public segment, citizens can address any topic that is not on the agenda and speakers get three minutes to speak. At the three-minute mark they are told that their time is up and the speaker stops speaking so the next person can speak.
Ms. Villanueva stated that many seniors who have been their friends and companions have died. This past year, 23 seniors from the Hilos de Plata Senior Center and another approximately 23 seniors from Pavo Real have paid the ultimate price after having been isolated from their friends. According to Villanueva, she was told by a city representative at an event at Grandview Senior Center, that three seniors committed suicide, but this statement is unconfirmed. The event was held outside of the senior center and not inside. It is important to know that of the many seniors who have passed, they didn’t die due to Covid-19, but as a result of lacking daily interaction which caused them to be isolated, lonely and depressed.
Seniors have been told that their centers can only open three hours a day once a week. City representatives are playing Russian Roulette with citizens who have endured isolation from their friends for over a year.
As if to put a band aid on the strong senior presence, an Opinion Editorial titled “City to open the senior centers in phases,” in the El Paso Times on June 27th City Representatives Cassandra Hernández-Brown from District 3 and Henry Rivera from District 7, who will be running for re-election, responded to the city council seniors by stating that the opening the senior centers for three hours a week was appropriate, but seniors strongly disagree. The article, which seemingly was written by staffers, made no mention about how senior citizens were displaced by the Delta Welcome Centers. The City and County plan awarded millions for the Opportunity Center and Emergent Health Care and displaced one vulnerable community for another, a fact that seems to have been swept under the rug.