Photos by Angelina Marie, Short eared Dog Photography
“My heart is in East Amarillo,” says David Rosas. “That’s my backyard. That’s my playground.” A fixture in the local car business, Rosas works as a salesman at Greg Lair Buick GMC. But by virtue of his heritage, he’s also something of an elder statesman in Amarillo’s Barrio.
Spanish for “neighborhood,” barrio is the loving term Rosas and other families use to refer to the 950-acre, multigenerational neighborhood in East Amarillo, just blocks from downtown. It’s bordered by the railroad to the north and west, Ross and Osage streets to the east, and 27th to the south. It includes the Mirror and Glenwood subdivisions, El Alamo and East parks, and major corridors like Third Avenue, 10th Avenue, and Arthur Street.
It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Amarillo. In fact, the Hispanic Barrio is as old as Amarillo itself.
Amarillo history starts with the railroad. The townsite began at the central Panhandle point where the diagonal paths of the Fort Worth & Denver City Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad intersected. That was in 1887. The oldest parts of the Barrio date back to 1889.
By the time tracks were being laid across the Panhandle—in fact, across the entire western United States—rail construction had been occurring for decades in Mexico. So the railroad companies hired Mexican rail workers, bringing them legally into the United States to construct and maintain these new lines. Known as traqueros, these Mexican and Mexican-American laborers proved essential to the development of the Texas Panhandle. They represented some of the first residents of Amarillo.
The Barrio became their home. Located alongside the track, the oldest part of the neighborhood served to house them and their families. “Many of the original settlers lived on the dirt surrounding the tracks. They built shanties and huts until they were able to purchase property,” says Rosas. “The first houses were built from scraps dragged from the railroad.”
One of those workers was Rosas’s grandfather, Mateo Lopez, a horse-trainer from Mexico who came to Amarillo to work for the Santa Fe railroad in 1921. “He was told to go back and get family members and bring people willing to work,” Rosas says, relying on stories his grandmother passed down over the years. Mateo Lopez brought countless families to Amarillo. At first he lived in the railroad’s barracks. Later, he was able to build his first home at 1414 S. Cleveland St., and then help other families find jobs, establish homes, and help develop the neighborhood. “Strangers would just show up and my grandmother would feed them,” remembers Rosas.
Back then, Lopez and his contemporaries thought bigger than a single lot. Rosas says families would work to acquire a whole section of a city block and then the entire family would build houses there. “My family members still occupy the whole 1400 block of South Cleveland, on my mother’s side,” he says.
The Richness of Family
Like Rosas, many of the Barrio’s residents today can trace their family lineage and their property to those original settlers. Nearly half of Barrio residents own their own homes and many of those homes have been passed down from one generation to another. “Those original families remain in properties that were bought a hundred years ago and that population is getting older. The ones that stay pass their properties along to their children through inheritance or sale,” says Rosas. “Your aunt, uncle, grandmother will live on the same block.”
“You knew all your neighbors,” says Manny De Los Santos, lead pastor at Power Church on 10th Avenue. Many congregants of this 1,700-member church still live in the neighborhood or have family in the Barrio. “To this day, I could go up and down these streets and tell you the last name of the family that lives there. If the Garcias lived in that house in the ’80s, then it’s still the same Garcias—just a different generation,” he says.
Mercy Murguia also grew up in the neighborhood. A former Potter County Commissioner, she has spent the past ten years representing Precinct Two, which includes the Barrio, but is moving this fall to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Her family experience matches those of Rosas and De Los Santos. “My grandfather’s property is on one corner, my mom lives on the other, my aunt lives on the other. You’re in quadrants of families,” she says.
But she says the concept of family extends beyond blood relationships and property placement. “The richness of family [in the Barrio] transcends how we think about a spouse or children. All these independent families saw each other as family and would help each other in that space. Whether it was work that needed to be done, a meal, advocating for each other—the richness of that comes from the idea of family,” Murguia explains.
Her own grandparents lived in the Barrio and once owned a thriving business there. Abe Garcia drove a taxi—in the Mesa Petroleum days, he often served as a driver for the late T. Boone Pickens—and with his wife, Annie, also owned Annie’s Drive-In. This traditional, carhop-style restaurant was one of the first popular places to serve authentic Mexican food in the city. Famous for its gorditas, Annie’s stood across 10th Avenue from the Tri-State Fairgrounds. (The building is now a used car lot.) Murguia grew up in the restaurant, working as a carhop throughout high school.
Abe passed away in 1997, the year Murguia graduated from Caprock High School, and Annie died a few years later. Like Mateo Lopez, they were pillars of the community, and when Murguia ran for commissioner the Barrio knew her already. “I would go knocking on doors saying, ‘I need your vote,’ and they would ask, ‘Are you even old enough to vote?’”
She even lived with her grandparents for several years, growing up in a multigenerational household. That close-knit family structure is not uncommon in the Barrio. “A lot of these families all worked together in this neighborhood, raised children together, were small business owners together. You just can imagine this tapestry of life and how vibrant it was at that time. Now, we’re the fruits of a lot of that labor,” she says. As a political leader representing the neighborhood, Murguia felt driven to represent the older generations well.
Foundations of Faith
Family ties the Barrio together over the generations, but so does faith. As Amarillo grew and the railroad brought a Mexican and Roman Catholic workforce to town, the city’s Spanish-speaking residents wanted a place to worship. Every payday, two women—Doña Maria Vasquez and Susan Morris (known as “la mis Susana”)—would visit the railroad camps and solicit donations for a church building.
By 1916, those donations were enough to start construction of Sacred Heart Cathedral at Ninth and Tyler streets downtown. In those days, Amarillo fell under the authority of the Diocese of Dallas, and in 1918 the diocese decided to move the church building to 11th and Arthur, in the heart of the Barrio. Catholic leaders renamed the church Our Lady of Guadalupe, dedicating it for the use of the city’s Spanish-speaking population. Guided by Father Cesario Gutierrez and new Amarillo Bishop Rudolf A. Gerken, the church moved again in 1927 to a full block on Houston and 11th, where the diocese also constructed a parochial school.
The landmark church and school still serve the community today. Generations of residents attended school at Our Lady and continue to worship there. “My whole family attended the Catholic school,” says Rosas, who heard stories about his grandfather’s generation pitching in to build the current structure, brick by brick. “I give a lot of thanks and praise that I was raised in that school.”
Helen Burton feels the same way. She grew up on Garfield, two blocks from the church. Her parents, Bennie and Irma Lucero, met in an agricultural labor camp in Hereford, married in their late teens, and came to Amarillo to find better work and new opportunities. That brought them to the Barrio and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her father worked as a machinist and served the church as a musician. Her mom took care of the family. “She was like most typical Hispanic women and stayed home, made sure she tended to the house and the kids,” says Burton, who now owns Burton Insurance Agency. “Then I remember when we started going to Our Lady, it was expensive to go to private school, so she started working in the cafeteria to supplement [income] and be close to her kids.”
The family would walk to church together on weekends and walk to school together on weekdays. “Faith was so important,” says Burton. “It all just really instilled the importance of those traditions and rituals. It was important to them that we had that foundation.”
Other locations in the Barrio have been just as important as Our Lady. The city established El Alamo Park in 1945 and it quickly became a gathering place for the neighborhood. David Coronado, the uncle of Manny De Los Santos, won a $25 savings bond for naming the park in a city-wide contest. “Every person who lives here visits that park at some point,” says De Los Santos. “Every festival, every community event happens there. I would call it the epicenter of what happens here in our community.”
The Wesley Community Center, which sits right across Roberts street on the park’s northeast corner, should be included in that epicenter. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year (see sidebar), the Wesley provides community services for residents from infants to senior adults. Burton remembers taking sewing classes at the Wesley when it was located in a three-bedroom home across from El Alamo (see below).
“I’m a product of the Wesley,” says De Los Santos. “I spent countless summers there.”
Rosas’s grandfather, Mateo Lopez, gathered other mid-century community leaders to found and build the El Alamo Community Center at 15th and Cleveland—and that historic building is now overseen by the Wesley.
Food has always been central to the Hispanic and Mexican-American culture, and that meant the Cuellar Grocery Store played a prominent role in the early days of the Barrio. Juan and Teresa Cuellar opened the grocery at 14th and Arthur in 1934. Twenty years later, it became Cuellar Grocery & Tortilla Company—the first corn tortilla business in the city. That original structure is now located by the popular restaurant La Frontera, owned by the Martinez family. La Frontera pays homage to the building’s history on its interior walls.
Another grocery store, Scivally’s, served the community on East 10th, before Bob Copheranham bought it in the late 1970s. That company is part of the heritage of Fiesta Foods, a grocery chain now owned by Bob’s son, Ken Copheranham, and grandson, Jarrett. Representing another multi-generational legacy in the Barrio, this bilingual business has catered to neighborhood residents for nearly half a century, right down to playing Hispanic music and selling what many consider the best tortillas in the city.
Influence Beyond the Barrio
But the history and impact of the Barrio are not confined merely to the neighborhood. The city of Amarillo itself is a product of the Barrio, starting with the railroad and the traqueros who built it. The city exists because of the railroad, and the railroad exists because of the Mexican workers who moved here—into the Barrio—to build it.
That’s not all. “Residents that didn’t work for the railroad were laborers who worked for the city. They worked for the county. They worked for road-building companies and the construction companies that built housing or schools,” explains David Rosas. They laid the brick streets that gave definition to early Amarillo and they helped build the stately homes that housed the city’s earliest ranching families and bank presidents and mayors. “All the employers of Amarillo have benefited from the Mexican-American labor force,” Rosas adds. “Concrete companies, roofers, skilled labor—they have touched every quadrant of the city with those trades and their work ethic. It brings me a sense of pride to see that.”
Pastor De Los Santos shares that perspective. “You can drive up and down the streets of Amarillo, go to the Greenways or any place getting a house built, and the people building it are from here,” he says of the Barrio. “The hotels built downtown, the streets being paved, that’s getting done by the majority of residents in and around this area.”
When Hodgetown opened in 2019—a pivotal moment for the city and downtown revitalization—Murguia participated in the ribbon-cutting. As the festivities died down, she walked around the outside of the building, where work crews completed some of the finishing details. Speaking in English and Spanish, she thanked them for their work. “I knew some of them lived in our neighborhood, and I knew they don’t always get the attention they deserve,” she says. “I wanted them to be aware that we appreciate all they’re doing.”
She points out that the Barrio residents who work in Amarillo’s service and construction industries have learned to remain low-key, to stay behind the scenes, or to “serve behind the curtains,” as Murguia describes it. That makes the collective voice of the Barrio quieter than that of other neighborhoods. “We have to be more intentional. We need to recognize these invisible workers, these lost workers” for who they are and how they’ve impacted the city, she says.
And, of course, we can’t overlook the neighborhood that binds them together. Over the past decade, the city of Amarillo has recognized that historic, lower-income neighborhoods like the Barrio, the North Heights and San Jacinto had been neglected over the decades—the result of a complex set of economic, racial and political factors, including a lack of political representation (see sidebar)—but new initiatives like the Barrio Neighborhood Plan have been designed to address these challenges.
Community leaders like Burton, Rosas, De Los Santos are making sure that progress continues. All serve on nonprofit boards, advisory groups and other partnerships focused on improving quality of life in this influential neighborhood. “The larger story is that the neighborhood has declined because it was ignored for so long. But now the wheels are in motion for some improvements,” Burton says.
Murguia turns to the same metaphor. While her efforts on behalf of the neighborhood are coming to an end, she hopes the momentum continues. “The wheels are turning in the right direction,” she says. “We are trying to move forward generations upon generations of work. We are trying to catch up.”
“Right now my big concern and goal in life is to improve the looks of the original heart of the Barrio,” says David Rosas. “It’s a diverse community that touches the whole city through its work.”
Some may look at a map of Amarillo and assume the downtown district represents the beating heart of the city. Maybe that’s true. But just a few blocks east, down arteries like Arthur or 10th or under the shade of elm trees at El Alamo Park, a multi-generational neighborhood has been part of Amarillo’s story from the beginning—and will play a critical role in the city’s health and infrastructure moving forward.
“I just want to wave a flag that says, ‘We’re here,’” says De Los Santos. “The people coming up out of the Barrio are accomplishing great things. All these businesses are being birthed out of this community. You can walk through the neighborhood and see the work ethic and the drive in every person here. I think that’s worth celebrating.”
70 Years of the Wesley
In institution within the Barrio, the Wesley Community Center dates back to 1951 when a group of volunteer women from Polk Street United Methodist Church recognized several needs in this underserved neighborhood. A local family, the Cliffords, donated a large home and other land across from Alamo Park. From that home, the Methodist women began offering sewing classes, youth activities, daycare services and English as a Second Language courses. Since then, the organization has served multiple generations of Barrio residents, adding summer camps, afterschool programs, senior citizens’ activities, youth mentoring, mental health programming and a nationally recognized wrestling club to its list of social services.
The Wesley added its current building in 1981 under the longtime leadership of Rev. Jacinto Alderrette, who served as its executive director for 32 years. Today, it’s guided by Liz Rascón-Alaniz. “The Wesley serves children from 6 weeks old to senior citizens who are 100 years old,” she says. “Our daycare is one of the most affordable in Amarillo and has a waiting list. Our summer programs help out parents who may be working two or three jobs. It keeps kids off the streets and helps them avoid risky behaviors.”
This summer, around 90 kids participated in the summer camp and other activities, with a third of them attending on scholarship because of special fundraising. Now that the school year has resumed, structured afterschool programs allow kids a place to complete their homework, with close to 100 students participating several days a week in the Wesley Wrestling Club. Meanwhile, the senior citizen program offers social and recreational activities on weekdays to as many as 80 adults.
50 Years of Los Barrios de Amarillo
In 1971, a small group of volunteers and community leaders—including Rev. Jacinto Alderrette of the Wesley Community Center—became concerned with the high dropout rate of Hispanic males at Caprock High School.
They established this youth leadership organization to address the cultural, educational or socioeconomic hurdles that prevent these young Barrio residents from thriving. Eventually, the focus of the organization expanded out of the neighborhood. Los Barrios now works to help all students in Region 16 achieve educational and career goals.
Los Barrios board president Mary Bralley says the organization provides scholarships and mentorship programs for students but is best known for its Step Up 2.0 job shadowing program and its Epic Success Career Conferences for middle and high school students, all of which involve rely on professionals in the community giving hands-on, one-on-one introductions to potential careers. Other volunteers mentor scholarship students as they pursue post-secondary degrees.
Dylan Lara Perez is one of those scholarship recipients. A recent graduate of Palo Duro High School, he’s now attending West Texas A&M University to study graphic design, and represents one of the first in his family to attend college. “I think it will better benefit me in the future. I want a good career,” Perez says of his college plans. His scholarship was sponsored by the Amarillo Police Department. Other local businesses, including Tyson, Amarillo National Bank and Atmos Energy, also fund scholarships through Los Barrios.
“It’s just grown and grown and grown,” says Bralley of the program, noting that past scholarship beneficiaries have gone on to start businesses and lead nonprofits throughout the Texas Panhandle. “Our goal is to help these students. We’re trying to remove barriers.”
A Monument to a Historic Region
In 2010, the City of Amarillo adopted its Amarillo Comprehensive Plan, a framework for guiding “future development, redevelopment, and community enhancement,” specifically in underserved communities like the Barrio, North Heights and San Jacinto. That framework included adoption of the Barrio Neighborhood Plan in 2018, which was put together with the help of an advisory committee. That committee included Teresa Kenedy, a retired drug and violence prevention educator with AISD and the author of the book Amarillo Barrio Historical District: Past, Present & Future. Kenedy continues to work on behalf of the neighborhood as the leader of the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee.
Next month, on Oct. 13, the committee unveils a new monument to the Barrio at a prominent location at 10th and Arthur. Including a historical map of the neighborhood, the monument highlights local sponsors of the Barrio’s efforts to create an enhanced streetscape down 10th Avenue.
“We know that 10th Avenue is one of the main corridors coming into the Barrio neighborhood,” says Kenedy, who worked with Caprock cluster schools including Sanborn and Glenwood elementaries. “Just like your home needs renovating sometimes, this neighborhood needs a makeover. We decided to focus on corridors because that’s how people come into and out of the neighborhood.”
The proposed streetscape is part of a $3 million renovation potentially funded by grants and private donations. It includes a shaded plaza across from Fiesta Foods and 192 cedar elm trees lining 10th, plus benches, crosswalks and well-lit, ADA-accessible sidewalks.
“We have eight or nine projects in motion right now, but 10th Avenue is number one,” says Kenedy. She points out that more than 30 small businesses are located along this thoroughfare in the Barrio. “We just want a place that’s functional, safe and secure, a place that’s beautiful where people want to get out more in the evening.”