"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where Devils Fear to Tread: Barrio Del Diablo, Part I

Where Devils Fear to Tread: El Barrio Del Diablo, Part I
Notorious Barrio Has Its Own Little History

Read Part II of "Where Devils Fear to Tread."

Recreation of Barrio del Diablo by Raymundo Eli Rojas
Recreation of Barrio del Diablo by Raymundo Eli Rojas
 Depiction of Barrio Del Diablo above (by Raymundo Eli Rojas). Not drawn to scale of course.

Where Devils Fear to Tread: Barrio Del Diablo
Part I
by Raymundo Eli Rojas

(c) 2006 Raymundo Eli Rojas

The following article was published in a 2006 issue of Pluma Fronteriza, which is available upon request (digital copies only). Please email rayerojas@gmai.com for a copy.

It was El Paso’s “East Side,” at least at one time: “In east el chuco, there by the El Paso Coliseum was an old barrio — El Barrio del Diablo.” (1)

These are the words of the poet Ricardo Sánchez describing part of El Paso’s eastside, his barrio, el barrio del Diablo.

Esos son del East!” recalled my grandfather Alejandro Rojas in a 2000 interview. (2) That’s what they called them from the Eastside of El Paso. Nowadays, East El Paso is 6 miles east in an ever expanding urban desert sprawl.

The barrio in El Paso’s old “East Side” had a long history, somewhat rebellious somewhat heavenly. Ricardo Sánchez, in his essay “Mina o Quina,” describes himself walking through the Diablo territory: “Allí en la mera esquina de las calles Hammet y Bush, cual hoy se llama Delta, me puse a chiflar y esperar.”(3) (Sic.) Writer Al Soto, describes Diablo as “Hammett street on the west...and Boone St. on the east next to the El Paso Coliseum...on the south it was Delta Drive...on the north it was Paisano (Drive)... .” (4)

However, Sánchez and Soto only described a part of Diablo that was post-1950.

Ester Pérez, long-time activist who lived in Diablo prior to the 1950s says the boundaries were Hammett Blvd. (running north-south), Boone St. (running north-south past Paisano Drive, Rivera Ave., past Alameda and the Franklin Canal, and into the Lincoln barrio). (5)

However, others extend Diablo to the area around St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, a little west of Hammett Blvd., now on the other side of Highway 54.

It is difficult to imagine Diablo in our present day. However, those familiar with El Paso can just imagine driving across the Córdova Bridge (the free bridge) into Cd. Juárez. On your right will be Zavala Elementary with its red brick facade and on your left will by a neighborhood surrounding St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.

Corner of Boone and Delta
Looking east from South Boone St.
If you turn left on Paisano Avenue (Hwy 62) and head east, you will flow under Hwy 54 and hit Gateway North Blvd. Immediately to your south will be the old Woodlawn Addition. This addition reaches all the way south to modern-day Delta Drive. At the time of this writing, there was still some senior citizen housing waiting to be demolished.

South Boone St. is on the eastside of the Woodlawn Addition, which all agree to be Diablo’s eastern boundary. Today, at the southwest corner of the Woodlawn Addition is some edifice part of U.S. Customs joined with an empty lot to the east.

La Migra has always been a daily presence near this area, either in person or with facilities. El Paso historian Fred Morales refers to there being a Border Patrol Detention Facility built in 1956 at 1401 S. Hammett near Tucson Street, a street that no longer exists… or is now in Mexico. Ironic. This used to be where plans were made to keep Mexicans out. Now it is Mexico.

Morales says that the Border Patrol once had its headquarters at 1400 S. Hammett. Here, Morales states, the U.S. Border Patrol had their academy until 1961.

To imagine the old barrio better, imagine the freeway complex of Hwy 54 not being there — a pre-Eisenhower, pre-military/industrial complex interstate era — and imagine the neighborhood near St. Francis Xavier just going on and on...until it hits South Boone St.

South of Delta Dr. (3900 and 4000 blocks) is another disputed territory. This neighborhood still exists right next to the water treatment plant. The neighborhood consists of South Martínez St. (north-south), the southern end of S. Boone St. (700-800 blocks), and the remnants of Oat Court and Laredo Ave.

I asked current residents living there about El Barrio del Diablo, but most have no recollection. Most families now living there seem to be more recent immigrants to the barrio. Other residents point to north of Delta Drive as being Diablo territory. Al Soto said this neighborhood might have been called “Dizzyland,” but its unknown whether when Diablo residents used the term “Dizzyland” referring to the neighborhood south of Delta.

When they used that term, were they referring to the water treatment plant and its pleasant Waltdisneyesc stench or the nearby houses?

Morales claims that this neighborhood was indeed part of Diablo and that the El Paso Water Utilities had offices at 701 S. Boone St.

Hammett Blvd. was one of the main streets containing various grocery stores according to most historians and former residents. The street was named after Benjamin Hammett, one-time mayor of El Paso and a real estate dealer.

Hammett Blvd. had several groceries or tienditas, says Ignacio Tinajero, who was a long-time resident of el Barrio del Diablo. (6) In 1994, he was chosen as Texas Teacher of the Year and was a national finalist for the same title. Morales puts these tienditas at 501, 506, 701, and 706 Hammett Blvd. (7)

Ester Pérez remembers one “mom and pop” nicknamed “La Lonja.” Tinajero places this store at the corner of Piasano Drive and Hammett Blvd. Another store was located near San Antonio Ave. and Rivera Ave. It was owned by chinos, says Tinajero, “Some called it ‘La India.’

According to Morales, S. Boone St. is named after a former sheriff or fire chief. (8) Morales also describes Hammett Blvd. as being one of the main streets and the streets Central, Córdova, Spruce, Bush, Fresno, and Oak Court intersecting Hammett Blvd. (9)

So detailed is Morales self-published Córdova Island,(10) he places other such structures and businesses in the area: “In 1954, the following businesses were operating on Hammett Boulevard: 501, Alfonso’s Grocery; 505 Polo’s Molino de Nixtamal; 704, the Hammett Bakery; 800, the Eight Hundred Barber Shop and 1103, the City Park Nursery near Toluca Street. At 3804 Córdova, was the Martínez Café… ”. (11)

Polo’s Molino de Nextamal was the tortilla-and-masa headquarters of the surrounding barrios. Lucy Fischer-West, author of the recent memoir from Texas Tech University Press, Child of Many Rivers: Journeys To and From the Rio Grande, describes the molino “within walking distance if you had a craving to make gorditas or you own tortillas de maíz.” (12) Child of Many Rivers won the recent Southwest Book Award.

In 1950, the new bridge into Cd. Juárez was built nearby signaling the beginning of the end of el Barrio del Diablo. Soon, the Chamizal Treaty and the Interstate system would follow. (13)

Sánchez said in his landmark book Canto y Grito mi liberación: “During my youth, I never saw gringos walk through that barrio. It was not until the mass media and the police destroyed us that gringos were able to walk those streets.” (14)

The part of Barrio del Diablo today, directly west of the County Coliseum was on the Woodlawn Addition. Woodlawn was the name of a park that was south of Washington Park, a little west of Hammett Blvd. (15) South Latta St. is named after William B. Latta, who according to Morales, “owned property northwest of Córdova Island” or the Woodland Addition. (16) Morales describes the county surveyor preparing a map dated 1902 that showed the addition’s boundaries. (17) Félix Martínez was a local landowner and a leading El Pasoans around the turn of the 20th century, says historians Morales and Mario T. García.(18) Martínez owned land on the La Isla. A street in the Woodlawn Addition was named after him and still exists today. (19)

Furthermore, to show that Barrio del Diablo and the surrounding land was out in the boonies at one time in EPT’s history, Morales says the city built a garbage and disposal plant near Washington Park in 1911. (20)

This makes me remember playwright Adrian Villegas’ one-man play “Barrio Daze” where he gives “A Brief History of the Barrio From 3,000 B.C. to Last Week.” But Villegas’ humorous description is not a typical:

Generally, a barrio can be easily identified by its modest housing, its many small , family-owned corner stores, and presences of many, many brown people. Other things you will very likely find in the barrio are: substandard public schooling, countless liquor stores, a state prison, the county landfill, a nuclear waste dump, and several hostile member of the occupying colonial force known as the police department. In short, all the things the cities’ Anglo power structure does not want in their own neighborhoods...which is why (showing a slide of a typical white family) these Anglos are smiling. (21)

This is why the current water treatment plant is located near to Diablo. The city added a garbage incinerator in 1924. (22) By 1941, the city had abandoned the disposal plant and demolished it, although it left the smokestack. Morales points out the demolition on March 12, 1941 when the 124-foot smokestack “crashed to the earth with a thundering sound,” bringing “hundreds of East El Paso residents rushing out of their homes.” (23) Morales says the chimney was “regarded as a public menace and might have endangered those attending games at Dudley Field.” (24)

Morales states that the papers for the Córdova Gardens Addition were filed with the city on July 14, 1941. This was the addition west of the Woodlawn Addition. Morales indicates it was later called “El Jardin,” but also took the name as “El Diablo” by neighborhood residents. Morales says that the Woodlawn Addition “was 60.04 acres of the old Martínez Estate.” He also mentions that the main streets going north south were Bush, Fresno and Oak, and heading west to east Copia, Latta and Hammet Streets. (sic.)(25)

Apparently, this addition ran west onto the La Isla. Morales describes the John H. Nusbaum nursery being near the end of Hammett at 400 S. Hammett Blvd., the “Molino de Nixtamal, owned by Concepción Hernández, at 508 S. Hammet and the City Salvage junkyard at 4037 Bush Street.”(26) (Sic.) At 35 Bush, Morales indicates was Manuel Chávez’ grocery. (27)

In reading Morales book, it is difficult to ascertain whether he places some of the Woodland Addition onto Córdova Island. Definitely, the international markers were on the western boundary of the Woodland Addition. Many Diablo residents to which I have spoken did not see themselves as being part of La Isla.

However, once passed Hammet while on Bush Street, it is safe to say that part of the barrio del Diablo was technically on La Isla. I’ve had mixed reaction from former residents of the Córdova Gardens Addition on to whether it was actually part of Diablo territory. Or did those in the Gardens identify themselves as from La Isla or Cordova Island. Around the 1940s, a fence was erected dividing off the Mexican half of La Isla. (28)

As stated before, some put the northern boundary of Diablo at the Franklin Canal, north of where Dudley Field use to stand at 3900 block of Cypress Avenue and Findley Avenue and the 200 block of Gateway North Blvd. Even until the late 1990s, there were houses directly to the west of Dudley Field toward Gateway North Blvd. It was a rather enclosed neighborhood with the elevated highway to the west, the field to the east, and Dudley Field’s parking lot to the south.

Nevertheless, by the 1970s, el Diablo was diminishing. Sánchez recalls in his poem “Homing” (29):

homing once again
as I cruise my Renault r-10
over the crumbling ruins
of el Diablo, that land of DDT(30) batos
who used to slice up life and hope
with filero and herre,
shooting up carga/chiva/dreams
into blueridged veins
hiding beneath la grasa of brown flesh,
finding sanctuary within the torpor,
but life is hell
with in poverty & self-hate,
homing as I see skeletal remains
of that home that saw me grow
at 3920 Oak, later avenida de las américas,
and now just a dead hulk
where only voices of the past can find refuge
if you listen closely-and carnal,
i think even la Llorona
used to live in el Diablo,
over by the algodonales del ayer,
there by the river as it cuts/flows
through sand and cactus,
when we use to slip over or under the fence
surrounding Isla de Córdova, that chunk of land
that méxico used to own, now traded in
as part of the chamizal pact,
and at those ranchitos
where we would trip out on mota/yesca/grifa
and dance
all night
to música reta chican/mexicana y bien rascuache,
or when even younger
we use to slip through the fence
and rip off watermelons, cantaloupes, and chavalas
and the old ranchitos
would threaten us with rusty/dysfunctional shotguns
spraying birdshot
overhead, and we would laugh
with childhood’s mirth,
in that barrio del eastside…
that barrio
now dead and full of shards
I found a rusty empty can of Mitchell’s Beer,
a relic of those times
almost twenty years before
when Mitchell’s had reigned
and all the barrio had drunk it,
I found it beside the crumbling wall
of that home my father had painstakingly built
when I had been a four year old toddler,
back then when we had lived
in a one room home
that grew into other rooms
with timely expansions of my father;
home again to el paso,
but no longer to my barrio,
but to alien worlds
which had been home for rivals
when I had been tush-hogging
with the X-9 batos,
riding herd on other barrios,
no longer
engaged within the mind searing stench
of Disneyland (31) or the coliseum at rodeo time…
turned, scowling,
to see a superfreeway
being built
to make it easier for tourists
to make it to juárez bistros and whorehouses,
that barrios must make way for progress,
and as I left,
to file another parole report,
heard soft voices of the past…
(it is good that el Diablo
never produced movement leaders
nor real estate scavengers nor
poverty pimping directors…)

The poets memories of his barrio cry out as the barrio is diminishing.

Pete Flores, in his book Guardians of the Gate, grew up a little outside Diablo at the corner of Copia and San Antonio. He recalls a “walk to the corner of Findley and San Antonio Street, now part of the Avenue of the Americas, the free international bridge leading into Juárez, México. As I stand atop the very spot of my birthplace, I now see a major thoroughfare called Paisano Drive.” (32) Flores goes on to say how much is now “covered in cement and asphalt” including the river channel, nonetheless, he remembers a “green luscious farm-filled valley.” (33)

St. Francis Xavier and churches

Both Tinajero and Flores said St. Xavier Catholic Church, at the corner of Findley Avenue and Paisano Drive, was “the center of attention in our neighborhood.”

St. Xavier

There, the people would have religious gatherings and socials several times in the year. Flores served as an alter boy. He describes his youth as a “time of joy and hard work, for our fathers had little or nothing but love to offer us. The church served as a playing ground and training ground in our maturing years. It was a poor environment, to say the least, but happy one, for we made our future by trail and error…”

“We would have matachines and kermezars all times,” describes Tinajero.

Pérez also remember the matachines, specifically a dance they did in a religious parade all the way up to Alabama Street near the mountain.

“Dancing Matachines,” says Margarita Vélez author of Stories from the Barrio and other ‘hoods, “a style derived from the Yaqui Indians…The red costumed men and women formed two lines and performed a series of steps to the beat of drums. Beaded dangles on their costumes flashed in the sun. Matachines have been called ‘Soldiers of the Virgin’ and their dancing added color….”(34)

St. Francis Xavier not only served Diablo’s residents as Flores shows us. Those who lived on La Isla and in neighborhoods bordering El Diablo also used St. Francis Xavier as their church. St. Francis Xavier was built in 1932 at 3733 Cypress Street, but before that, Morales describes residents “who lived in the section bounded by San Antonio, Findley and Cypress Streets, met in an old adobe apartment at the back of a vacant lot at the corner of Cypress and Latta Streets.” (35) Morales goes on to say:

The plans for the new church were made by Father Palomo, the pastor and Father Maya, the assistant pastor, of the Guardian Angel Church at 3025 Frutas Street. A large hall was built around the old church and afterward the old walls were dismantled. The first child baptized in the building was José Héctor Ramírez in 1932 with Father Mayo presiding. During the next few years, the congregation engaged in fund-raising activities to build a real church. In September of 1935, bull-fight, a softball game and a Mexican supper was held at Dudley Field to benefit the church. (36) (Sic.)

In Dec. 1938, the church began building a new building at the corner of S. Latta St. and Findley Ave. The new church building was built of rock. The pastor at the time was Benjamín Silva. (37) The church was dedicated on January 15, 1939. (38) Fathers Garde and Emaldia entered the parish’s service in 1943, with Father Tomas Matyschol becoming pastor. His assistant was Father Serrano. Later came Father Ornof. In 1944, Father Antimo G. Nebreda became pastor with Father Diego and Father De Azumeddi as assistants. (39)

In the 1950s, the church built a recreation center. It was probably responding to the times as children born during the war and baby boomers were reaching their teens, as well as the beginning of the pachuco area and gangs activity. Soto remembers San Xavier for "la pista" or the "donation to the poor as a sign of wealth" every Saturday around noon after the baptisms. He remembers the flowing water at the outdoor statue of Our Lady de Guadalupe. With the opening of the rec center, basketball became a pastime for kids like Tinajero, who also remembers the rec center being used for bailes.

Vélez, in her book, writes she was a member of an adolescent girls group at St. Xavier called “Las Hijas de María.(40) “Father Diego guided the voices of the ‘Daughters of Mary’ to sing High Mass in Latin,” says Vélez. (41) “As a teenager, I hiked up (Mount Cristo Rey) with Las Hijas de María,” adds Vélez, “We were like rambunctious daughters of Mary who loved rock and roll but focused on the mysteries of the rosary as we meandered up the rugged path. But on the way down, we laughed and talked about boys, of the earshot of Father Diego, of course.” (42)

Fischer-West describes that the Diablo had more than just Mexicans. West’s family was a German-Mexican mix. The Whites and Thompsons who lived across the street from her family were African American. The Greens were an interracial couple, “she Mexican, he African American” who “lived next door” to West and had two girls Patsy and Lizzie. (43) Most of the African Americans in Diablo were bussed to Douglas Elementary School before desegregation. She remembers Mr. Thompson was a jazz musician who would play his piano in the “early evening before he went out on gigs.” (44) The Whites, she remember them dressing up to attend Mount Zion Baptist Church, as the West’s family left to attend Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana in the Segundo Barrio at la Stanton y la quinta.

Diablo was not a mean place, but at some point down the line it gained a reputation, and as we will see in our next issue, the devil once lived in heaven before he went to hell.


1. Sánchez, Ricardo. Canto y grito mi liberación: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind Soul. “Desmadrazco,” p. 35.
2. Interview with Alejandro Rojas, Nov. 7, 2000.
3. Sánchez, Ricardo. Canto y grito mi liberación: The Liberation of a Chicano Mind Soul. “Mina o Quina.” p. 119.
4. Email interview with Al Soto.
5. Interview with Ester Pérez, September 2005.
6. Interview with Ignacio Tinajero, Summer 2004.
7. Morales, Fred. Córdova Island, self-published, 2002, 19. Although Morales provide some some good information and an occasional reference, he does not provide citations.
8. Morales, Fred. p. 4.
9. Historian Leon Metz in his book El Paso: Guided Through Time also mentions the importance of Hammett Blvd., 168. Like Morales Metz' book does not provide citations.
10. Córdova Island, or La Isla, was a island of land created by the shift of the Río Grande. The shift left a dry riverbed on the north (around Paisano Drive) and the Río Grande on its southern boundary. When the river shifted south, it left a large chuck of land belonging to Mexico on the north side of the river. La Isla was divided by a border fence or markers at several locations. The river shift left land in dispute, not only between the two countries but also by various land owners and later the ejido land distribution. This "La Isla" should not be confused with the "La Isla" near San Elizario and Fabens, Texas.
11. Morales, 21 (Sic.).
12. Fischer-West, Lucy. Child of Many Rivers, Texas Tech Univ Press: Lubbock (2005), 95.
13. The Chamizal Treaty was a landmark and peaceful end to the long dispute over La Isla. The treating was signed with great fanfare including visits and signature by both countries’ presidents.
14. Sánchez, Ricardo. Hechizospells, Creative Series Chicano Studies Center Univ. of California, Los Angeles: Los Angeles (1976), 35.
15. Morales, Fred, 4.
16. Morales, 4.
17. Morales says the addition stretched to “Frutas Street and the G.H. and S.A. railroad on the north, Steven’s Street to the west, Boone Street on the eat, and Oak Street and the Rio Grande to the south.” (Sic.) 4.
18. Morales at 5. Also see García, Mario T., Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920. Yale Univ. Press (1982).
19. Morales, 5.
20. Morales, 6.
21. Villegas, Adrian. “Barrio Daze,” text taken from performance (1998).
22. Morales, 9.
23. Morales, 18.
24. Morales, 18.
25. Morales, 18.
26. Morales, 19.
27. Ibid.
28. Morales, 17.
29. Hechizospells, 145-8. In Ricardo Sánchez book Canto y Grito mi liberación, El Paso artist and former Barrio del Barrio resident, Manuel Acosta made several sketches for the book, which can be seen as being sketches of Barrio del Diablo.
30. Del Diablo Territory
31. El Paso Sewage Plant near el diablo
32. Flores 14.
33. Ibid.
34. 50.
35. Morales 14.
36. Ibid.
37. Morales 16.
38. Ibid.
39. A History of St. Francis Xavier Church, reprinted in Morales (2002).
40. Vélez, Margarita. Stories from the Barrio and other ‘Hoods,’ Writers Club Press: Lincoln (2001), 15.
41. Ibid.
42. Vélez, 49.
43. Fischer-West, 68.
44. Ibid.

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