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

Octavio Romano

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lunes con Lalo Delgado: Segundo Barrio Housing, Gangs, and Squares

Segundo Barrio Housing, Gangs, and Squares

Interviewer's note: words in parenthesis added for explanation

Raymundo Rojas: Lalo, your work at the Our Lady Youth Center, that was in the 1950s?

Lalo: You can almost say from 1955 to 1965?

RR: Was "El Huevo" (Salvador Ramirez)(1) and some of these other guys also working with Father Rahm?

Lalo: No, no, El Huevo had his own little world over there with the Boys Club. Actually, the Boy's Club was famous for another reason. Most of us in the neighborhood, the barrios, did not have any showers, so we use to go to his place to shower. To Armijo Park. Nobody had showers. You had to pay a quarter to shower.

RR: What was the whole issue of housing in the Segundo Barrio at the time?

Lalo: The whole issue of housing didn't focus too much until we began to see, at least we talk about it as having a detrimental effect on people who grew up in these tenements, man. They see the world around them and it is so ugly and they grew up with another attitude toward life because it is ugly, it is filthy.

I'm talking literally filthy. You have three toilets for 20 families and two of them are out of wack. So you have to wait your turn to go to the toilet, somebody else goes first. I use to sleep naked by the window because it was so hot and you know how men wake up with erections in the morning because their bladders are full, (laugh out loud) the ladies would complain to my mother that I was over there with an erection in the morning. They look inside the window and saw, “What the heck! Put something over that guy.” You are forced to live literally in the eyes of everybody. Somebody gets married and you see the honeymoon noises coming through the walls (laugh). That's all that divides you.

That kind of life, I thought, was not life for people...to have six or seven individuals living in two rooms 9 x 12. We are very festive people. We still throw a bunch of parties. We took all the furniture our, hide it in the back, and put chairs all around. Then we have a nice hall for dancing for having a party. But, even then, we said, this is no good, people should live better. So we began to talk housing. Had conferences on housing and all that.

I wasn’t like a brand new discovery; it was that it was bad. Of course, we should be honest and say that as bad as they were, they were all we could afford. They were 20 dollars of rent of month.

Rojas: You mentioned you never knew who the owners were. They had an agent of the tenements.

Lalo: Yea, they had their agent, their representative, who collected the rent, the money, and kept a little bit for themselves. So nobody ever really knew unless you went to city hall, which we learned the secret later. That's how we learned that the place where the kids got burned was owned by the Catholic Church, so we got pretty irate, pretty angry.(2)

Rojas: Before that fire, were you already working on the housing issue?

Lalo: Yea, we had housing issues, obviously, because there were some infestations. There was always a lot of fighting between the ladies upstairs and the ladies downstairs. The apartments, some of them were even tripledeckers. I think the place where Andy Mares grew up had three levels, a tenement with three levels.

So these eyesores were all over South El Paso and more predominately, I grew up on Sixth and Mesa Street, and if I'm not mistaken, those tenements are still there. I grew up on 813 South Mesa and then on Oregon by the alley. Some of them are still there.

Centro Chicano building at 620 Mesa Street at Fr. Rahm (5th Street), demolished in May/June 2011

Even though, thanks to Carmen (Felix) and "Sopas" (Oscar Lozano), they came a few years later, and they really knew their business, they began to make beautiful homes for people and certainly, on the other side, my compadre, Joe Aguilar, was working for the housing authority and they opened up more housing projects. They did their best to change things around. Now, of course, the whole place we use to call our barrio is becoming a commercial zone so it's hard to tell that story with any meaning because people go by, and say, “What is he talking about?” There weren’t just businesses in the old days.

RR: With City Hall, there were many fights with the city council about the issue with the tenement owners about passing ordinances and enforcement of those ordinances.

Lalo: Right, one of the things that was obvious was that many of those tenements were out of compliance, blatantly. Any blind man could see it. They kind of played themselves dumb.

Because it was the barrio, we had other evils. We didn’t see it as evil then. We had people who use to sell alcohol to the alcoholics, literally raw alcohol cut down with a little mint tea. We had the drug dealers on every corner and we had the gangs that never quite vanished. Except for those years that we had this program (Juvenile Delinquency Program)(3) because we actually proved to the government that we didn't have gang fights. It wasn't so much because of us. It was because the little kids were waiting to grow up to become gang members (laugh).

Huevo said that it was cyclical, that these things happen on a ten-year cycle. He convinced the government to give us money to prevent the next cycle.

Rojas: Were the gangs, were they mischievous gangs, or was there violence between them?

Lalo: There was a particular gang that we had during Father Rahm's time. There was one that came about called the 4Fs, that was on Mesa Street. They were literally 4Fs, people who had failed to go into the army. They formed themselves into a gang because they were always being picked on by other well-known gangs,  and strong gangs, the 9's the 7's and the X's. Everybody had a little number.

Rojas: Did the number correspond with their street?

Lalo: Yea, the street 7th Street, 9th Street and some other barrios. Of course we're talking South El Paso only because there were gangs in East El Paso and all these other places, Smelta, and San Juan. I'm just confining my remarks to what I was living with, but I happened to be one of those people that never understood turf. I went wherever the hell I wanted to, all over the city. I had either girlfriends or friend that I went to go visit.

Rojas: Lalo, while growing up, were you part of any gang or were you able to resist that?

Lalo: (laugh). No, I think you can say that I was too chicken or just my mother really pulled my ears to go the straight way. I was also lucky that I had a good set of friends like myself that were not inclined to be gang members and all that. We were called the Chochos because we didn't associate, we were what you call nowadays, “Squares.”


The above excerpt is from a 2001 interview with Abelardo Delgado by Raymundo Eli Rojas.

1. Director of the El Paso Boys Club (aka The Goodwill), Salvador Ramirez was called "El Huevo" because according to Lalo Delgado "looked like a Chicano Humpty Dumpty, shaped like a huevo." Ramirez would co-found the Chicano Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

2. The 1967 tenement fire in Segundo Barrio killed four children and caused what was probably the first civil rights march in El Paso. The next year in April, Delgado would do his famous fast for better housing.

3. The Juvenile Delinquency Program was a War Against Poverty HEW program implemented in the Segundo Barrio in the late 1960s. It was directed by Salvador Ramirez and involved lieutenants such as Delgado, Andy Mares, among others. Organizations that came out of this program included the Mexican American Youth Association (MAYA) and the Mexican American Committee on Honor and Opportunity Services (MACHOS).

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