Reflecting on Shirley Achor’s Mexican Americans in a Dallas Barrio Forty Years Later
Lydia R. Otero
Ethnic communities surrounding major urban areas across the United States are currently struggling to retain their cultural identity as the forces aligned with gentrification undermine their existence. Barrios located near downtown Dallas, Texas, are no exception. Local organizations including the Dallas Mexican American Historical League have stepped up their efforts to contest the forces that may one day lead to the extinction of barrios such as La Bajada. In 1972 anthropologist Shirley Achor left her wealthy suburban Dallas lifestyle to live in this large and densely populated barrio for six months. At the time Mexican Americans formed the majority of residents who lived in La Bajada (“the lowland”), the former floodplain of the Trinity River. Achor’s fieldwork and research resulted in the publication of Mexican Americans in a Dallas Barrio, published by the University of Arizona Press in 1978.
But today the number of Mexican American households in this barrio is shrinking. It is currently being rebranded as Trinity Groves; one of the city’s revitalization efforts touts the area as a “foodie mecca,” and the construction of new office and retail spaces and residences, along with abundant parking, have contributed to the barrio’s near demise. Patrons are enticed by a variety of amenities and entertainment venues that these new enterprises offer, but former and current residents of La Bajada are likely to find these types of rebranding pronouncements the most egregious: “We invite you to come out to Trinity Groves to support Dallas’ [sic] next generation of young entrepreneurs and experience history in the making.”* Foremost, those connected to La Bajada recognize that the area has a history and understand the dangers involved with creating a new one. In her wildest imaginings, Shirley Achor—and others who have lived in the barrio—could never have envisioned the unmaking of La Bajada and its past. But as a physical site, Trinity Groves continues to grow, making the inclusion of Mexican Americans in a Dallas Barrio an important addition to the Open Arizona project. It is not only timely but critical in ensuring the survival of La Bajada’s history and its people.
Since the city’s inception, the ever-prominent Trinity River signaled important ethnic divisions in Dallas. In the 1970s it separated the prosperous glass-plated downtown metropolis from the poor communities of color who lived across the river in South and West Dallas. Residential segregation patterns recognized as “white flight,” which had begun in the 1960s, became etched on to the landscape. This exodus resulted in an explosion of suburbs located north and east of Dallas, and by 1970 these areas were 94 percent were white (Achor 50).
Another demographic shift took place during this decade as Mexican Americans, lured by the availability of employment opportunities, moved to Dallas. Their population doubled between 1960 and 1970 (65). Many of these new urbanites found their way to La Bajada, where they established more than 200 households in residences that had been relinquished by whites. As she approached her study of La Bajada, Achor encountered these Mexican American families, as well as two African American families, and forty white families who had not found a means to join their former neighbors in new suburban developments. At the time of Achor’s study, La Bajada comprised 254 households. Today, more than half of these households have disappeared.
In 1972 La Bajada residents faced the general lack of amenities, such as unpaved streets, open drainage ditches, and overcrowding, that often plagues underserved segregated communities. When Achor studied the neighborhood, it was considered to be in decline because whites had elected to flee to more affluent areas. But Shirley Achor’s work provides a different viewpoint, describing an active neighborhood: “Leafy trees shade several streets. Many residents grow flowers and greenery in their small yards, and decorate front porches with plants in colorful Mexican pots or oversized tin cans. Some houses have small vegetable gardens in the back” (21). Most of the houses in La Bajada were detached small wood frame houses with four rooms; Achor described them as ranging from what she called “dilapidated” to well maintained. Residents invested time and energy to distinguish their residences from others, and Anchor noted that they often painted their houses “such vivid colors magenta, bright yellow, apple green, or robin’s-egg blue” (26).
The researcher’s observations and insights into the daily flow of life in La Bajada in the 1970s stand as the book’s strongest assets. Although based largely on her field notes, Achor also includes snippets of interviews. She details celebrations and dating rituals and describes the music that resonated through the barrio as “old-fashioned polkas and loud Mexican rocks tunes interspersed with laments of unrequited love or early death” (80).
Anchor’s perspective markedly differed from her anthropological contemporaries that portrayed Mexican people as complacent and fatalistic; she noted the presence of an elaborate underground economy where residents exchanged goods and services, confirming industrious activities. Street vendors in La Bajada sold produce such as cantaloupes, tomatoes, and eggs door to door and on foot—a necessity when the closest market was about two miles away. Women who gained a reputation for their cooking skills often supplemented their income by selling tamales and other food specialties from their homes, while skilled seamstresses and auto mechanics also found the means to earn additional cash. These types of transactions, exchanges, and services depended on face-to-face contact and home visits because most La Bajada residents did not have telephones.
Achor’s insistence on studying La Bajada as a microenvironment also is one of its strengths. In her own words she posits, “my approach has been to view the city of Dallas as a cultural and natural macroenvironment, affording both resources and constraints, to which Mexican American residents are continuously adapting.” Achor positioned the barrio in this relationship “as a microenvironment . . . in which change can be observed and analyzed” (168). A few ethnocentric value judgments about La Bajada residents do, however, become apparent in her application of theoretical models and efforts to apply categories such as “alienation” and “environmental stress” to barrio residents.
Most of the activists and residents whom Achor interviewed in 1972 are deceased or very elderly; Achor herself died in 2005. Her adherence to anthropological methods influenced her decision to assign pseudonyms to the sites and people mentioned throughout the book. She even referred to La Bajada as “La Bajura.” This factor might be considered restricting to future research efforts, but new developments make the possibility of building on Achor’s work more fruitful. In 2012 her daughter Tracy reached out to the Dallas Mexican American Historical League and offered them her mother’s papers. The organization took possession of the extensive field notes and research materials gathered by Shirley Achor. This also included many unpublished interviews and photographs. The organization has cataloged the materials and held two public exhibitions on La Bajada using the donated materials. New research or oral history projects can build on the information collected by Achor to gain an understanding of how La Bajada has changed.
As is true within the gentrification process, each ending signals a new beginning, and the barrio that Shirley Achor lived in and wrote about has dramatically changed. Although her book has been extensively cited in the past, its reach and influence may become more pronounced through its newfound availability in the Open Arizona project. As a microenvironment, La Bajada continues to morph into something new—but Mexican Americans in a Dallas Barrio represents an important resource for reclaiming the area’s history and identity. In recent years new retail spaces and residences have caused La Bajada to diminish in size, but Achor’s book, along with persistent residents and organizations like the Dallas Mexican American Historical League that are invested in its past, will ensure that La Bajada’s place in the city’s history and memory will continue to grow.