Little Mexico is a former neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, encompassing the area bordered by Maple Avenue, McKinney Avenue and the MKT (Missouri, Kansas, Texas) Railroad. Formerly a Polish Jewish neighborhood, it grew into Little Mexico starting from the 1910s until the 1980s. Today its remnants are in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas including the Arts and West End Districts.
Beginning as a Polish Jewish neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, Mexicans began coming to the area after the defeat of President Porfirio Diaz and his government and the start of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Mexicans from all walks of life came to the Dallas area to take jobs in factories, agriculture, and the railroads. As the local population of mostly Jews moved out, Mexicans replaced them and grew in numbers. By 1919, the area already was known as "Little Mexico," and a Dallas Morning News article about a sanitation drive defines the area as "[t]he entire district bounded by Cochran and Payne streets and the Missouri, Kansas & Texas tracks and taking in the vast districts on lower Ross and McKinney avenues."
Housing became scarce in the 1920s and 1930s as more Mexicans poured into Little Mexico. Railroad workers were allowed to set up house in abandoned railroad cars and houses were built on all available land. Yards and play areas were luxuries the new residents could not afford. Many houses were quickly built with scrap wood and tar paper and streets were left unpaved. According to the 1940s United States Census, 50% of homes lacked running water and 65% burned wood, kerosene and gasoline for heat. Medical help was not available which led to a high mortality rate. Children did not get the vaccines available at the time. Families relied on home remedies and old folk customs. Francisco Pancho Medrano (1920–2002) tells of cutting his foot as a boy and his mother sending others for cobwebs from under the house to help stop the bleeding. As years passed and with the expansion of Dallas came paved roads and a modernization of Little Mexico. However, it continued to be a low income area throughout its existence. In the 1950s revitalization began to occur with older homes being torn down and replaced.
In the 1940s U.S. Census of the 2,284 residents of Little Mexico, 77% had no more than six years of education. The children of Little Mexico were sent to Benito Juarez, Travis, Cumberland Hills and Crozier Technical High School in the Dallas Independent School District, as well as St. Anne’s school run by the Catholic Diocese. Both Travis and Cumberland Hills were built in the 1890s and by the 1950s, in deplorable maintenance, were composed of 95%-100% Mexican students. In April 1955, Travis Elementary burned to the ground and all students were transferred to deteriorating Cumberland Hills. Mrs. Woodall Rodgers, wife of former Dallas mayor, was made aware of the dangers and upkeep of the schools which led to a newspaper article exposing the conditions. In 1958 a new Travis Elementary was built with the latest amenities available at the time including a gym. St. Anne’s was an alternative to public education and tuition was kept low for the working-class neighborhood. Though most girls were kept out of school according to Mexican traditions and culture, St. Anne’s opened a commercial school for girls in 1946.
Pike Park is considered the heart of Little Mexico. It is almost all that is left of the neighborhood and was designated a Dallas Historic Landmark in 1981. Open in 1912 as Summit Play Park and renamed Pike Park in July 1927, it is the home to the first Diez y Seis de Septiembre festivities in September 1926. Though originally opened only to Whites, in 1931 it became the first park to allow Mexicans to use its facilities. In 1978 it went through a $400,000 renovation by the City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department. A gazebo, styled similarly to one in Monterrey, Mexico, was added, as was a Mexican style tiled roof and stucco façade. In 1985 a reunion of Little Mexico was held with over 1,000 in attendance. Today its legacy is continued by the Pike Park Preservation League.
It has also been a rallying point for Mexican Americans. On July 24, 1973 at 3:00 am, Dallas police knocked on the door of David and Santos Rodriguez. The 13-year-old and 12-year-old were wanted for questioning in the burglarizing of $8 from a soda machine. While Officer Darrell Cain and his partner questioned the brothers in the back of their police car, Cain put his .357 caliber revolver up to Santos’s head and fired, killing the 12-year-old. Three days later activists marched from Pike Park in protest of Officer Cain’s $3,000 bail. Office Cain was later sentenced to 5 years in jail by an all-white jury in Austin. He stated he thought the revolver was empty.
From the origins of Little Mexico soldiers, business men and the poor would arrive in the Dallas neighborhood. Middle class residents from Mexico would find themselves in a culture shock now qualified for only low paying jobs and discrimination. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dallas like most of the South was segregated. Blacks and whites attended different schools, couldn’t eat and shop in the same stores or sit in the front of buses. Though not official, Mexicans were also regulated to second-class citizens. No signs were present, but many businesses, including Woolworth’s, would tell Mexicans they were not wanted the moment they walked in the front doors. The local park (Pike Park) was not open to Mexicans until 1931. Francisco Pancho Medrano (1920–2002) remembers as a child only being allowed to swim in the pool early in the day when it was cold and before the pool was drained from the previous day and refilled with fresh water for the White swimmers. High School students from Little Mexico were “highly encouraged” to attend Crozier Technical High School nicknamed “Taco Tech” by naysayers. Pauline Castillo Lozano (1903–2000) told of moving out of Little Mexico in the 1940s and letting her new neighbors in a predominately White neighborhood assume she was the maid for her lighter-skinned husband and adopted white daughter.
Little Mexico has spawned several Dallas staples like El Fenix and Luna’s Tortilla Factory. El Fenix was established in 1918 by Mike Martinez. Martinez was a cook at the Adolphus Hotel in Downtown Dallas. When customers began clammoring for him to make the food he brought for lunch, he opened his restaurant on Griffin and McKinney. Today, El Fenix is still family-owned and operated with locations throughout North Texas. Luna’s Tortilla Factory was started by Maria Luna in 1924. A widow with 2 young children, she was an entrepreneur ahead of her time. She had a tough time getting employees due to the heavy Mexican and American traditions of women not working outside of the home. When she couldn’t find women to come to her to make tortillas, she would drop off masa at willing women’s homes. As she became trusted, husbands allowed their wives to go and work for Luna. By 1925, she had 25 employees and was turning out 500 dozen tortillas a day. Today Luna’s Tortilla Factory makes over 1,800 dozen an hour. In 1950 the establishment of Dallas Tortilla Factory was founded by Ruben Leal Sr. and his wife Elvira. With a handful of recipes they started making a name with their now famous Tamales, along with other Mexican favorites like Menudo (beef tripe soup), Barbacoa, Lengua and fresh made tortillas. They instantly became the talk of the Barrio. Even being visited by such famous celebrities as actor of then the hit television show Dallas, Larry Hagman, his co-star Linda Gray, boxer champion Salvador Sanchez and mega hunk Brad Pitt .
Baseball was played in Little Mexico affectionately called El Barrio. Teams from local schools would play other teams from North Texas Mexican neighborhoods in tournaments. Boxing also became popular as a way to keep boys out of trouble. In 1953 in the basement of Pike Park, Mike “Nino” Rodriguez started training boys to box.
Music played throughout Little Mexico festivities with influences from Latin, Puerto Rican and Cuban sounds. Singer Trini Lopez cut his first record in 1958. Religious plays and Las Posadas were acted out at the local schools, churches and at Pike Park. Fiestas for Diez y Seis de Septiembre and Cinco de Mayo were big draws to Pike Park. People made food for the sick and poor and life centered on the local churches and organizations. Our Lady of Guadalupe was established in 1924.
Little Mexico flourished to its peak in the early 1960s. Unlike the similar neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Little Mexico was land-locked by major highways and surrounding neighborhoods which made it unable to grow. The Dallas North Tollway began in 1966, cut straight through the middle of Little Mexico and Woodall Rodgers Freeway locked Little Mexico on the south side. However, with the end to segregation came the flight of some Mexican Americans to better areas of Dallas. Downtown expanded and Little Mexico became prime real estate. Streets were expanded, high-rises moved in, homes were bought from residents as a part of eminent domain and renters were forced out. Today all that remains of Little Mexico is a few hold-outs and Pike Park. Little Mexico and Pike Park stands in the shadow of Downtown, luxury apartments and the American Airlines Center, home to the Dallas Stars hockey team and Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
- No author. "To make sanitation drive in 'Little Mexico'," The Dallas Morning News, August 15, 1919, page 17.
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- Preservation Dallas. (June 3, 2008). 2008 Dallas 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Retrieved from http://www.preservationdallas.org/new_site/issues/mostEndangered-08.php
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- Researched and started in June 2010 by Marco C. Rodriguez