By Alana de Hinojosa
Elvira ‘Vila’ Villa Escajeda, who founded the Chamizal Civic Association and successfully mobilized the barrios condemned by the 1964 Chamizal Treaty, died on Sunday at her home in El Paso. She was 102.
Her death, just two days after her 102nd birthday, was confirmed by Eva Navarro, her cousin and longtime caretaker. The cause of death was complications with pneumonia.
In the last 15 years, Mrs. Escajeda has been written about extensively by historians of South El Paso and Segundo Barrio. A 2006 short film titled, Vila, a nickname given to her by her father, chronicles the founding of the Chamizal Civic Association. In the film by Arturo and Vallarie Enriquez, Mrs. Escajeda speaks of her determination to defend the homes of more than 5,600 South El Paso residents impacted by the proposed treaty.
The Chamizal Treaty settled the century-long international land and boundary dispute over the area known as el Chamizal between El Paso, Texas, and Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua. Homes in South El Paso were razed and land was given back to Mexico for the first and only time in U.S. history. Mrs. Escajeda herself owned three properties in two of the condemned subdivisions of Rio Linda and Cotton Mill, including the home she and her younger brother, Gilberto Villa, bought for their mother and father. Another brother, Jose Villa, also owned a home in Rio Linda.
While newspaper coverage from that time often credits the Chamizal Civic Association to the leadership of men, Mrs. Escajeda served multiple roles in the association aside from being its founder. As both the Vice President and corresponding secretary, she sent official association letters outlining their positions and proposals to President John F. Kennedy and Senator John Tower, among others. These letters were postmarked from her Cotton Mill home. She also organized regular meetings with residents in her home and in a schoolroom of Sacred Heart School. She also held meetings in Liberty Hall between residents and local and federal authorities, including Mayor Judson Williams and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Thomas C. Mann, all while holding down her job at the Hicks-Ponder Manufacturing Company.
Homes in South El Paso were razed and land was given back to Mexico for the first and only time in U.S. history.
At Liberty Hall, she gave public testimony demanding a seat at the table for residents in the negotiations of the proposed settlement and called on Segundo Barrio to help the association. Thereafter, residents of the unaffected Second Ward began attending these meetings in support of CCA demands.
Mrs. Escajeda traveled to Washington D.C. to discuss the Chamizal Treaty with elected officials. She later described the association as a direct response to transparency issues and repeated failures on the part of local, state, and U.S. federal authorities to engage the residents living in the condemned neighborhoods. The dispute got the attention of famed Los Angeles Times Reporter and Juárez and El Paso native, Ruben Salazar, who wrote several articles on the issue for the Times.
“We made it so that our voices would be heard—so that not only El Paso would hear us, but other places like Los Angeles,” Mrs. Escajeda said in November of 2021. “People thought that we were talking against the government; but we were not…We were talking about things that were not right in the government. And it had to be corrected.”
As a result of her activism the U.S. federal government agreed to finance all moving costs, reimburse owners and tenants for losses and damages incurred, as well as reassess the value of Chamizal properties at their fair-market-value—rather than the government’s initial tax value offer. At the bi-national ceremony to commemorate the Chamizal Treaty held in El Paso on September 25, 1964, Mrs. Escajeda attended as a special guest to Mexican President Adolfo Lopez-Mateos. Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her a silver medal inscribed with her name to thank her for helping the government more equitably settle the Chamizal Dispute.
“People thought that we were talking against the government; but we were not…We were talking about things that were not right in the government. And it had to be corrected.”
“If it hadn’t been for people like me, everything would have been different,” Mrs. Escajeda said. “We were fighting for our homes. We had to fight.”
The matriarch of her family, Mrs. Escajeda is remembered as a delicate, vigorous, and always well-dressed woman who spoke out against injustice and favored stories, fur coats, pearl earrings, and other fine things. She was known for describing herself as a proud American born in el Chamizal on January 14, 1920, to Jose Villa and Manuela Parra Villa—both of whom were immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was raised in Segundo Barrio. A skilled seamstress, Mrs. Escajeda worked at several garment factories in both Los Angeles and El Paso, including the Farah Manufacturing Company and later as a line supervisor at Hicks-Ponder. She recalled her time working as a seamstress fondly and said she had always loved making her own clothes. Mrs. Escajeda was also a businesswoman in her own right. During her lifetime she owned multiple rental properties in El Paso and grocery stores in Segundo Barrio.
She was preceded in death by her five siblings and husband Leopoldo Escajeda. She will be buried with her husband at Fort Bliss Cemetery. She is survived by numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, and their children.
Alana de Hinojosa is a PhD candidate and public historian in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA. She specializes in U.S.-Mexico borderlands history and is the author of “El Río Grande as Pedagogy: The Unruly, Unresolved Terrains of the Chamizal Land Dispute” published in American Quarterly. Twitter: @alanadh_