Road plan would cut through holy site for El Paso’s Tigua

Alicia A. Caldwell
El Paso, Texas (AP) 9-07

It looks like an undeveloped dirt lot in a residential neighborhood, so city officials decided to put a long-awaited four-lane road extension right through it.

But the square of dirt is actually a holy site of the Tigua Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe and the site of the tribe’s original pueblo.

That’s not the only problem with the plan for the road that cuts across other private property to create a direct path from Interstate 10 to a border highway on the city’s congested southeast side.

It also eliminates the parking lot for a Catholic monastery, and other city residents say they don’t need it and don’t want it. The City Council debate drove one member to tears after the 5-4 vote in favor of the road, which has been in the works for more than 30 years.

“We’ve been here since 1680,” said Arturo Senclair, tribal governor of the Tiguas.

Senclair said council members who support the latest incarnation of the road extension are ignoring the history and significance of the site, even if looks are deceiving.

While the project still has several hurdles to overcome, including a vote later this month by the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, Senclair said he and other tribal leaders see the city’s vote as an insult.

The Tigua tribe, which was recognized as a sovereign nation in 1987, was one of several tribes forced to shut down lucrative casinos after being targeted by Jack Abramoff. The disgraced former lobbyist pleaded guilty in 2006 to bilking the tribes out of millions of dollars amid promises to lobby in Congress and the Interior Department on their behalf.

Most everyone thought the project was dead two years ago after hundreds of area residents demanded it be abandoned. That plan would have required the destruction of as many as 250 houses and was unanimously rejected.

The extension project was revived earlier this year after city representative Alexandro Lozano, a restaurant owner and graphic artist, suggested the latest route. Previous plans called for the road to be built near the tribal holy site, but not over it.

Angry residents stormed out the council chambers this week and a first-term councilwoman wept after Tuesday’s vote. Even Lozano voted against it, saying the opposition made him change his mind.

A teary Rachel Quintana said she worried that destroying the Tigua site is “setting a precedent that we aren’t sympathetic to their culture, their religion.”

“I don’t know how we are going to be looked at as a city,” Quintana said. “What worries me is just the message we are sending: if we want something, we are going to do it no matter who is in our way.”

Supporters see it as an infrastructure project long overdue.

“It’s waned for about 20 years,” councilman Steve Ortega said. “This makes the most sense. Number one, it addresses traffic congestion, number two it takes the least number of homes, and number three the alternatives were cost prohibitive. The question is, do something or do nothing. I’d rather do something.”

The route for the road in the Mission Valley area has long been troubled by disputes. Maps of the area, including at least one drafted by the Texas Department of Transportation, are dotted with historic and culturally significant sites.

Among them is a Catholic monastery whose parking lot would likely be demolished if the road is built.

Ortega and Mayor John Cook, who cast the tie-breaking vote for the road extension, have pledged to work with the tribe, church officials at the Monastery of Perpetual Adoration-Corpus Christi and other area residents to “minimize, to the greatest extent, the impact.”

Cook has even offered to close the road for three days – including the day before and after the annual Tigua tribe’s St. Anthony’s Feast celebration each June – or trade the Tiguas for another piece of property.

But Senclair said there is no room for negotiation.

“They just don’t understand us as tribes,” Senclair said. “You start giving a little bit and then a little bit more and then there is never an end.”