San Elizario: Where culture is always on exhibit
Story and photos by: Ricky Jimenez Carrasco
Speak to Al Borrego for a few minutes and you will get a history and art lesson spanning centuries. Borrego, president of the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society, is fiercely proud of the area and has worked for the past four years to improve and promote the area and put it on the map. Working in tandem with the Society and other artists and community leaders, Borrego has built up the area and made it more attractive to tourists who come to see the area’s history.
The newest improvement to the area is the installation of sign-posts that make for an interactive self-guided walking tour of the San Elizario historical district. The markers have basic information about each location and have scan codes that can be read by smart-phones. By scanning the bar codes, an automated message in either English or Spanish about each site will automatically begin to play and share more in-depth information. The signposts, which are unique to the El Paso area, were built and installed by volunteers. Borrego explained the cost was similar to making a good quantity of printed paper pamphlets, but this method is much more user friendly and cost-effective. Guided tours are still available at designated times, but the signs are available to tourists who do not come at the appointed times.
San Elizario has also recently been designated as an official cultural district by the Texas Commission on the Arts. As of today, there are only 24 such districts in Texas, most near the downtown metropolitan areas of Texas cities. 5 new districts were appointed since last September. San Elizario became the 21st, the only one that is not situated in a city. San Elizario is a rural community of about 13,000 that is currently unincorporated.
Borrego and the San Elizario Historical Society got help from State Representative Mary Gonzalez. “She helped to compile the information, submit the application, and helped promote it from her office in Austin. The Texas Commission on the Arts designates areas as cultural districts through a process to see if you qualify or not. This past year, 8 locations in Texas submitted applications and only 5 were approved.” The new designation, other than opening many new possibilities for the area, also allows the Society to apply for further State funding for further revitalization and restoration efforts. “You have to show how the area will have an economic impact on the local community, be a center providing cultural activities for tourism, promote historic preservation and education.”
Borrego continued, “We are already doing most of these. We are currently hosting 88 free events a year. We host everything from monthly tours of the district, the Billy the Kid festival, the upcoming Celebration of Our Cultural festival, and the Kris Kindle market prior to the Christmas Holidays. We hold 9 art markets a year with many local artists. We host about 20 Billy the Kid re-enactment shows a year. We host the ghost tours every first Friday of the month. We say that this is where culture is on exhibit all the time. Our slogan is “See it. Feel it. Believe it.”
Borrego’s family has deep roots in San Elizario. “This all started because I got into art.” He saw that various other privately owned art galleries in El Paso were closing down. He started showing his paintings in El Paso and then eventually at an improvised farmer’s market in the San Eli church plaza. He noticed that tourists were coming to see the history of the church and the area, but with no central organization or leadership. He had the epiphany that the area resembled, and surpassed, Santa Fe in terms of history, and size if the rest of the Mission Trail is included.
At first, the only plan was to have a small art gallery. Then the gallery evolved to having monthly art markets showcasing many El Paso area artists. Then that evolved to showing the area’s history like not only the San Elizario church, but also the newly expanded Veteran’s museum. Borrego would hope that El Pasoans would promote this area as much as the Mesilla area is usually promoted as a cultural tourist spot.
Borrego foresees the movement continuing, improving, and expanding under the leadership of the Historic Society. “Now, not only has it run the museum for the past 23 years, It’s the driving force of everything here. It’s the steward of the cultural district designation. It’s the steward of both of the National designations: National Historic District and National Historic Trail. Now we’re part of the Texas scene. We’re no longer just a historic chapel ‘in El Paso’. We are our own entity. We certainly have enough history. This is where Onate came to have a first meal with the Manzos. This is where the actual pass to the north was located. This is where the Salt War was located. The oldest Main Street in the US is located here. This is where the first county seat was located before there was even a town name ‘El Paso.’”
If you would like to experience a part of San Elizario’s 400 year history, there are many upcoming events you can attend. On November 9th and 10th, the area will host the 17th annual Veteran’s Day parade and celebration. The following weekend, Borrego is proud to show the 2nd annual “Celebration of Our Culture” which will showcase Native American culture from all over the southwest including presentations, talks, and dances from tribes as far away as Oklahoma. On December 6, 7, 8, the annual “Kris Kindle Market” will host over 50 vendors selling art, crafts and food.