A drive through Barelas reveals vibrantly painted murals, narrow streets lined with shotgun houses in various stages of aging next to new adobe homes and storefronts that once served as service stations.
People on bicycles or on foot are a common sight. Tucked away at the intersection of Barelas Road and Hazeldine Avenue is the community center citizens united to build in the 1940s.
It’s also home to the ABQ BioPark Zoo, the revered Barelas Coffee House, the National Hispanic Cultural Center and the Albuquerque Rail Yards. People usually place the neighborhood under the South Valley umbrella, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Barelas has deep cultural roots that flow all the way back to the time of the conquistadors.
One of the city’s oldest communities, Barelas is a triangular-shaped area south of Coal, sandwiched between Interstate 25 and the Rio Grande. Its location has often made it the target, and victim, of big industry and big projects. It’s considered an inner-city neighborhood but it was once a main river crossing for 17th century travelers and later a lush agricultural community. People believe it was named for local landowner Pedro Varela (also known as Barela) who owned a nearby estancia, which is the Spanish term for a cattle ranch.
It’s a mix of the new and the old, the decaying and the shining. A community of people that cling fiercely to their cultural heritage while stepping gingerly, and sometimes apprehensively, into the future.
One constant thread that runs through its entire history is that Barelas has always existed along a major traveling corridor. This, more than anything, has driven its narrative. Little doubt exists that two of the most influential factors that shaped the current day neighborhood are the railroad and the interstate system.
Barelas got its start in the 17th century as a colonial settlement along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior), a major trade route that began in Mexico City and ferried travelers to Santa Fe. It provided an ideal location to cross the Rio Grande. That idea might seem silly now because some days the water drops so low the river appears to be more of a stream, but the Rio Grande was wild, fast flowing and unpredictable when the conquistadors came to its banks.
The Spanish government recognized the community as an official settlement in 1662. Getting an official designation didn’t seem to impress people much, or so I’m guessing, because it remained mostly unpopulated. In the 1800s, it became an agricultural community outside the city limits. According to the census, the population in 1870 was 309 and only had 41 more people by the time the 1880 census rolled out. The most activity Barelas probably saw in the 1800s was a Civil War skirmish called the Battle of Albuquerque. It took place in 1862 but only lasted a few hours and there were no casualties.
It may have gone on as a quiet village had it not been for the arrival of the railroad to Albuquerque in 1880. The community was forever changed. Downtown sprung up around the railroad stop just down the way, bringing to the area commercial activity. A few years later, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built the Santa Fe Railway Shops in Barelas creating 1,500 jobs. People from around the city, the state and the country came to Barelas to work at the shops. The population of the once small village swelled to 1,200 residents by 1900. Barelas was transformed from a primarily Hispanic, rural village into a blue-collar, urban mixing pot. The city annexed it in 1891.
In 1926, Fourth Street, which ran right through Barelas, became part of Route 66. Fourth Street became the community’s main street. Gas stations, garages, cafes and shops sprung up along Fourth Street.
Even then, its rural roots were not far. A cow escaped her enclosure and went on a rampage terrorizing the workers at the railway shops according to an Oct. 21, 1935, Albuquerque Tribune story.
“Section foremen, laborers and brakemen were chased from their work in the lower yards by the bovine critter who feared nothing,” it reads. “In the Abajo yards, brakemen climbed atop freight cars and refused to come down until she was chased away.”
Two policeman tried to rope the animal but their cowboy skills were lacking. The cow went on to terrorize women and children in the neighborhood until she was eventually dragged back home and corralled.
Route 66 was realigned in 1937, bypassing Barelas all together, and redirected down Central Avenue. The community still received some overflow traffic but it was an indication of things to come.
Declining railroad usage landed the next blow. Instead of laying tracks, crews began laying asphalt. Interstate 25 came through in 1957 and the automobile that had brought the profits now passed the community by at high speeds.
The rail shops downsized in 1970 and jobs went from 1,500 to about 100. Families began leaving. Soon after, the city razed South Barelas as part of an urban renewal development program and relocated its residents, a move that was tinged with accusations of prejudice. Some residents felt the city was targeting their neighborhood because it was poor and primarily Spanish American and Mexican American families.
South Barelas residents were scattered throughout the city, their community fractured. Many businesses, with their customer base depleted, were forced to shutter or relocate. But one longtime resident, Michael Gonzales, stayed to fight for the survival of the place he grew up. He opened Barelas Coffee House, which is today a quintessential part of the Albuquerque experience.
The community is now experiencing a revival.
A coalition was formed to decide how citizens want to see their community developed. So much of their tale has been written by others, but Barelas, once a route for royalty, has decided it’s time to create their own story.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”