Written by Moisés Acuña Gurrola
The barrio, a working-class neighborhood populated by Latinos, is central to the preservation of cultural heritage. Like present-day African American neighborhoods that house generations of residents the Southwestern barrio is also a remnant of racial segregation and predatory urban policies. Building off of Mario Barrera’s Race and Class in the Southwest, historian David R. Diaz writes in Barrio Urbanism (see Projects) that “Las Colonias y el barrios, segregated and marginalized zones, were essential to addressing (a term that seems inappropriate in relation to actual conditions) the housing requirements of a colonial labor force that facilitated the economic expansion of the region,” (Diaz, 17). In Fort Worth, economic expansion was achieved via the meatpacking, steel, and railroad industries, which depended on unskilled and semi-skilled labor, a workforce that resided in the barrios near major facilities. To view maps of the city and its neighborhoods, click underlined words and phrases embedded throughout this essay.
In the middle to late nineteenth-century, when Fort Worth was a preferred rest stop for transients, cowboys, vaqueros, traqueros (railroad workers), and Westward travelers, the city’s Latino population was small and marginal. In Stories from the Barrio: A History of Mexican Fort Worth, author and historian Carlos E. Cuéllar pieces together the bits of documented evidence to propose that the few Spanish-surnamed residents of Fort Worth in the late 1800s and early 1900s were grouped within Hell’s Half Acre and eventually spread outward to form the barrio known as La Diecisiete. In the video clips below, we hear Juan Daniel Garcia describe the neighborhood conditions and the rigid system of residential segregation that his parents were raised in (a topic further detailed in the Activism & Public Service). Rita Rodriguez Utt traces her family lineage to Hell’s Half Acre, and Rosa Gomez explains some of the sights of La Diecisiete and the remnants of Hell’s Half Acre.
According to Cuéllar, La Corte was Fort Worth’s second area with a dense ethnic Mexican population, though it also housed some African Americans and Anglos in the early 1900s. The neighborhood took its name from the courthouse located in the area. Mostly populated by service industry employees, the neighborhood was small and considered one of the most unsightly and dangerous sections of town. In the following videos, Ernest Gutiérrez describes La Corte as he remembers it, and Patricia Zapata Benton talks about the neighborhood in which her father, Louis Zapata, was born and raised.
It was not until the arrival of the Swift and Company and the Armour Packing Company in Fort Worth in 1902 that a distinct Mexican barrio began to emerge near the facilities and the stockyards: the North Side. The new employment opportunities presented by the meat-packing industry attracted mexicanos from across the state. In the clips below, we hear some of the children of local activist and community leader Joe Lazo describe the role that the Swift and Company had in bringing the family to the city. Additionally, Esperanza Padilla Ayala describes her parents’ arrival to Fort Worth, her father’s employment with Swift and Company, and the conditions in the neighborhood. Ernest Gutierrez tells us that following World War II, many residents of the area around La Corte, La Diecisiete, and Hell’s Half Acre relocated to the North Side where they found steady employment at the packing houses. Ernest Rodriguez explains that most of the North Side residents worked in either the packing houses or for the railroads, and he also describes the conditions in the neighborhood.
Another major contributor to the city’s population boom and growth of the city’s barrios was the railroad industry, one of the first major industries to arrive in Fort Worth in the late 1800s. El TP took its name from the Texas & Pacific Railway, which employed many of the barrio’s residents. In the following video clips, Chris Contreras and Emerico Perez give a brief overview of the history of the TP neighborhood, and Lucia Marquez and Enosencia Villegas describe the neighborhood’s conditions.
Sub-barrios and mini-barrios existed in and around the North Side of Fort Worth as well. In the following clips, Santiago Díaz gives a brief overview of the city’s smaller barrios including El Papalote, El Pujido, La Garra, El Poso, La Fundicion in the South Side, and La Loma; Cirilo Perez and Eva Bonilla describe the Wiesenberger barrio as they remember it; Pauletta Reyna Gonzalez describes conditions in Rock Island, a predominantly African American neighborhood near the ethnic Mexican barrios; and Antonio Ayala discusses a sense of solidarity among residents of El Pujido and La Garra.
The meatpacking industry and the railroad were two major factors behind the creation and growth of the ethnic Mexican population in Fort Worth but they were not the only ones. The steel industry was central to the economic and demographic growth of Fort Worth and the formation of La Fundición, the South Side. The introduction of Texas Rolling Mills, later renamed Texas Steel, and several other smaller steel mills in the city’s south side in 1908 meant more job opportunities for laborers and a safe haven for Mexicans who fled the revolution in the 1910s and who continued to make their way into the city as the century progressed. Despite its long history as a community that literally and figuratively built Fort Worth, very little about it has been recorded, even as compared to the already marginalized history of all Latinos in North Texas and Fort Worth. It is a community that at once grew with the city and bore the brunt of exclusionary city resource allocations. A heightened sense of distrust toward city elites existed among South Side residents to the point that, although it was one of the most blighted neighborhoods in Fort Worth in the 1970s, it also reported the lowest numbers of voter turnout in local elections.  This could be attributed to the surge of ex-TP and other North Side barrio residents who, after having relocated to the South Side in the midst of major construction projects, felt betrayed by city elites.
We hear in the following clips from Richard Renteria and Brian Renteria, descendants of one of the first homeowners in the South Side. They give us a brief overview of what encompassed the South Side and their family’s history in the neighborhood. Unlike other communities in Fort Worth that had their own sub-barrios or were disconnected from other mini-barrios, explains Richard Renteria, the South Side was collectively one large neighborhood. Hortencia Laguna summarizes the history of La Fundicion and talks about her parents’ migration from Mexico to South Side Fort Worth as well as the conditions that made it dangerous for mexicanos to cross Hemphill into the Anglo part of town. Lastly, we hear from Rey Martinez and Tony Castillo, who both offer glimpses into what life was like in the South Side barrio in the latter half of the twentieth century.
As the percentage of the Latino population in Fort Worth grew, so too did the numbers of Latinos who entered the middle class. In short, the town’s original barrios could no longer “contain” upwardly-mobile ethnic Mexicans who sought middle-class homes, homes they could now afford. Many looked to Diamond Hill in the far north side of the city, but a large number of middle-class Anglos relocated after a growing segment of middle class Latinos moved in. As a result of “white flight,” a trend common in cities across the country in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, property values dropped, and the neighborhood’s infrastructure deteriorated. Whereas Rosa Navejar briefly describes Diamond Hill in the early 1970s as a generally middle-class neighborhood, Cynthia Montes talks about what life was like in that same community in the late 1980s and in the 1990s.
A growing literature exists on the gentrification and razing of Southwestern American barrios in the 1950s and beyond (see Resources). Large concentrations of ethnic Mexicans were displaced to make way for highways, shopping centers, sports stadiums, and middle-to-upper income housing developments. Additionally, residential segregation meant that many of the barrios were built in areas most susceptible to total erasure during natural disasters. In this sense, Fort Worth was hardly unique relative to other Southwestern cities with large Latino populations. Several construction projects in Fort Worth led to the gentrification or complete removal of some of the city’s oldest barrios.
One of the most notable instances of a major construction project having been built over a neighborhood is the construction of Interstate 30 and the Vickery-Rosedale connection over El TP and other South Side barrios, which displaced hundreds of residents. The expansion of the medical district also contributed to the diminishing of Latino communities in and around the South Side. Finally, the draining of Katy Lake in the South Side signaled the transformation of a beloved natural landmark into what would become a blighted shopping area for decades before it was remodeled into La Gran Plaza in 2004.
In the following interview clips, Rosa Gomez describes the 1949 overflowing of the Trinity River that resulted in the near total destruction of sections of the North Side barrios. Ernest Gutierrez and Santiago Diaz describe the current state of North Side barrios; Chris Contreras and Emerico Perez lament the construction of the Vickery bridge as the harbinger of construction projects that would displace the residents of El TP; Enosencia Villegas discusses the razing of her family’s home to make way for the first of many medical buildings; and Rey Martinez and Juanita Salinas recall Katy Lake as a once important landmark for South Side Fort Worth residents.