Tearing out the Heart of Las Cruces: An Unhealed Wound
by Denise Chavez
(In the 70s, several historic buildings--including St. Genevieve Parish, the Loretto Academy and the Rio Grande Hotel--were demolished to build a strip mall in Las Cruces as part of a downtown revitalization plan. It failed miserably. Today the mall area has little pedestrian traffic by day and none at night. Retail has suffered a slow death. After more than thirty years, Las Cruces author Denise Chavez writes, the divisions and wounds this downtown plan created in the community have not yet fully healed.)
I REMEMBER RECEIVING my high school diploma in 1961 from then Bishop of El Paso, Sidney Metzger. We were taught to respect all authority, especially clergy, who were the right hand of God extended and whose edict was the final ultimate word in what we, as Catholics, should be doing, thinking, and believing.
My choque with “authority” came early when our church, Saint Genevieve’s was torn out with so much as an apparent whimper. I didn’t know too much then about the real background of struggle, what the playing field was, and how many faithful parishioners and local folk fought to save the historic church from destruction. Later, as I was growing up, I heard whispers, only whispers of how Bishop Metzger that threatened to excommunicate members of the parish if they proceeded with their plan to stop the demolition of what was the heart and soul of our community, a church loved by all.
In even later years I have heard again, through whispers and sighs, and not without some justified sense of great loss, about the excommunication, this time for real of various family members in the area who refused to comply with Bishop Metzger’s mandate to give land for a church in the valley. One part of the family did comply and remain to this day Catholics, and the others, well, they were excommunicated when they protested the takeover of land. They are now Protestants. The problem of belief presented itself during a recent family reunion. A mass was to be said. But not all the family members would attend. They were still protesting the loss of land and the sad way in which they had been treated by authority. Again, nothing was said out loud, there were only whispers and a deep sense of unjust loss.
For many years, since the destruction of our landmark and well-loved Church, Saint Genevieve’s, there has been a sense of having our heart and soul ripped out. A small token monument on the Las Cruces Downtown Mall will never make amends for what is the great loss of a historical building, causing rifts between people, displacement of energy and a general malaise of people who know they were taken for a ride.
As I follow the news of the El Paso redistricting plan, I can’t help but see some analogies to our situation in Las Cruces. I admit that I don’t know all the ramifications of the plan, but I have seen the map of how the downtown area would look following the destruction of homes. I have talked to too many people, lay people, la gente, la plebe, you call it what you will, those who live and love in the downtown area and I know they are, for the most part, not in favor of the plan.
Besides having gone about things in this moviemiento “troche moche/helter skelter” without the proper respeto and cariño, there is the undefinable taste of authority in this story. Who benefits? Who is in charge? Why are a people being displaced? And ultimately, who gets excommunicated?
In this case, the perdida/loss is of roots, raíces, the home and heart place that resides within and because of neighborhood.
We in Las Cruces have lived too long with the stigma of what has gone down in our homeplace. Things will never be the same. And you ask, should they? We know life is not a constant. And yes, many things should be improved and updated and re-evaluated and remodeled. But at what a cost and how?
If we injure ourselves in the process of creating what some believe will be a new and improved home place, then there will be repercussions and bad sentido for years to come.
The time of whispers is over. Residents, speak your truth and save your homes and ancestral roots.
As an artist, I have taught myself and been taught to question what others might consider a given. Money talks. But so does love. What will happen to all the historic homes in la vecindad, including the residence of Teresa Urrea, the Santa Cabora, become a cult figure in Mexican history and in Luis Urrea’s novel, The Hummingbirds’s Daughter. What about all the other historic homes? What will happen to them? Will they just become a drive-by memory? What about the memories of a people, will they be silenced? Can they EVER be silenced?
Dialogue is sometimes one sided. With those in power and with authority, one is taught to be quiet. Es cosa de los autoridades. But who is the authority in this case? And how did they become authority? It’s good to look at what card authority holds in its hand. How will the playing of that mighty hand benefit all? We are taught to stand up and salute and then to sit down and be still.
If there was ever a time to step forward, vecinos queridos, this is the time. May the memory of our loss spark you to action and to reflection. We live in the shadow of irreversible destruction and with a loss that can never be tamed, no matter how mellifluous the words or the bandage that never staunches the wound.
And still, there are whispers. . .if only. . .how could this happen. . . ¿Qué pasó y porque?
The real question to ask whose choice the action is? And what is to be gained and lost.
It’s good to remember that somewhere very close, families will be and have been torn asunder by what others believed to be for their own good.
There’s always someone to tell us how to stand and sit and when to get up and when to lay down. And if they don’t like it, then they can excommunicate us if we misbehave with the power and word of the just.
Look around, it’s happening everywhere.
So what is it to be? Excommunication or what?
Denise Chávez has her roots in New Mexico, Texas and México. She grew up in Las Cruces, NM with her father’s family and in Far West Texas with her mother's family. She is the author of the novels Loving Pedro Infante, Face of An Angel, a short story collection, The Last of the Menu Girls and most recently A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture. She is the Director of The Border Book Festival, a national and regional book festival in Mesilla, NM: www.borderbookfestival.org