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Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Barelas Community Rich in History

By Isabel Sanchez
Journal Staff Report
    South on Fourth Street, past the Victorian-looking street lamps and the pillars bordered with blue and yellow tiles, past the shops offering flowers or music or auto glass, is the river crossing where Barelas was born.
    It began as many towns settled by the Spanish, a place on the Rio Grande where there was safety in numbers. It was chartered by Gov. Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa on land belonging to Pedro Barela in 1662. Barelas is older than Albuquerque.
    Three centuries later, Barelas was a blue-collar neighborhood edging Downtown near the zoo and Tingley Park, where the Dukes played.
    "It was a very Huckleberry Finn sort of childhood," recalls Richard Romero, who grew up in Barelas.
    It was close to the Downtown theaters, like the KiMo and El Rey. Kids from Atrisco and other South Valley rural areas walked to school past the urban "wanna-be thugs" like Romero. You could dive into the flood-control canals or fish at Tingley Beach, and from your house you could hear the lions and peacocks.
    "It was a great neighborhood," says Romero, who grew up to become a high school principal and a state senator. "It was a wonderful existence."
    Barelas was home to state Sen. Manny Aragon, who was born there, and to Gov. Octaviano Larrazolo, who died there. It was home to Squealer, who Romero says was the first inmate killed in the infamous 1980 state prison riot, and to Pete Padilla, a Golden Gloves boxer and Vietnam war hero who died on his second tour. A park was named after him.
    "Jarhead, we used to call him," Romero says. "He was a pretty good student, one of those guys who was straight. Nobody would mess with him, nobody. Pete was about 5-7, 140 pounds. He was kind of a little idol for us because he was so tough. But he was a very nice guy."
    The tide of events the segue of power from Spain to Mexico to the United States, the opening of the West by Anglo merchants on wagon trails and trains swirled around but did not budge Barelas.
    "When the railroad came in 1880, Barelas was already a sizable community, possibly larger than Albuquerque," says Juan Jose Peña, historian and vice president of the Barelas Community Development Corp.
    Barelas was a lively place, Peña says. It had been a center of commerce under Spanish and Mexican rule, and it later fed workers to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe. Billy the Kid and Elfego Baca, gunfighter and lawman, worked for a butcher shop in Barelas and played in Old Town, a hotbed of saloons and gambling.
    But progress diminished Barelas. The freeways replaced the main thoroughfares of Route 66 and U.S. 85, which had brought merchants and wares.
    South Barelas "Tortilla Flats," people called it into an industrial park. Homeless shelters moved in; homeowners moved out.
    It's now one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest states. Census figures for 1990 said 58 percent of its households had incomes of less than $15,000. More than half its residents 25 years and older lacked high school diplomas. Its crime rate was the worst among Albuquerque's high-crime neighborhoods in 1996.
    "I always thought of it as the Ellis Island of New Mexico," Romero says. Barelas was a place to land for the immigrants to the New World, and to New Mexico.
    The National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico, literally a dream come true for Barelas residents and for the people who worked to create the center, came to Barelas in part because of Manny Aragon, who lived there until the age of 10 or 11.
    Aragon, now state Senate president pro tem, sponsored the money measure that started the center on its way to reality.
    He wanted it somewhere in the southwest part of the city. He had two reasons, he says.
    "I thought it was important to spread out some of the capital projects we have throughout the state. And it served notice to the people that they were also important to the state of New Mexico."
    Six sites were suggested for the center, says Edward Lujan, chairman of the center's board.
    "There was no question" that Barelas was the best choice, he says. "It wasn't even close."
    The little trading spot near the river, where wool was bought and sold and where the railroad's roundhouse brought a boom until it left for Belen, will host one of the biggest parties in the state's history when the center opens: 15,000 mailed invitations, not counting the open invitation to the public.
    Aztec dancers and a Spanish prince will be there. To get to Barelas, go south on Fourth Street.
    It dead-ends at the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico.