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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Portrait of a Barrio: Memory and Popular Culture in Barelas, NM, 1880-2000

  • Author(s): Romero, Alicia M.
  • Advisor(s): Yang, Alice
  • et al.

Drawing on cultural history, Portrait of a Barrio: Memory and Popular Culture in Barelas, NM, 1881-2000, by Alicia M. Romero, traces the creation and evolution of a stereotype of Barelas, a centuries-old Albuquerque community. It demonstrates how popular culture affected social membership, the criminalization of identity, the racialization of poverty, and complicates questions concerning national memory and claims of belonging. It explores how the people of Barelas, and communities of color more generally, often competed with and at times embraced identities enforced upon them. Those identities in Barelas varied with developments in urbanization, popular culture, public policy, and academic inquiry throughout the twentieth century. They also depended on internal developments in the community itself; the residents’ voices are highlighted as a means to combat constructed representations of and for Barelas. Portrait of a Barrio considers how Barelas was indeed framed – criminally and visually – and how the resulting stereotypes of that frame determined social membership for over a century.

The study begins in the 1880s, when modes of industrialization effectively transformed what was for the most part an agricultural, Spanish-speaking community into an urban barrio that worked to support the new American economic structure in Albuquerque. East coast photographers new to the area visually framed the neighborhood, celebrating the open landscapes and its exotic non-white inhabitants. These images provided the first reference points that influenced future outsider perspectives of Hispanic life and cultural norms in New Mexico. Over the course of several generations, Barelas’ image and representations of the residents – los Bareleños – mirrored trends in the ill treatment of people of color nationwide. Ultimately by the 1970s, those negative representations denied membership to half of the community and resulted in their displacement. After years of inattention and neglect from the local government, by the 1990s a fight ensued over Barelas’ memory, its location, and its history as the State of New Mexico battled a lifelong, elderly resident for control of the barrio’s future.

The wedding together of oral history and photography provides an alternative to the standard barrio narrative that leaves little room for resident agency. The memories and vernacular photography used here suggest that, while ultimately unsuccessful in the urban renewal fight, Bareleños’ centuries-old identification with their community lasted long after many of their homes faced destruction. Supplementing the photographs and memories with novels, film, and variety of traditional sources truly reveals the many elements at play that coalesced to shape one community’s future and fortune. These sources detail a community’s struggle to maintain its sense of self and belonging, despite negative formations of public opinion that ultimately proved damaging to community livelihood. Negative public opinion served to erase prior generations of prosperity and replace those memories with near inescapable representations of backwardness, poverty, and un-Americanness.

Portrait of a Barrio is an investigation into the construction of an evolving external identity and the struggle to preserve and celebrate an internal, heterogeneous one for Nuevomexicanos (Spanish-speaking, multi-generational New Mexicans) in one Albuquerque barrio. It privileges community voices and perspectives over those of the oppressive sociopolitical forces that silenced them over time. For the history of New Mexico, it adds to the historiographical overhaul of a Spanish identity tied to a tri-cultural harmony. For Chicano/a and borderlands histories, this study contributes to the growing scholarship of urban renewal in the Southwest and provides the residents themselves to tell their own story contrary to the story that has been constructed for them. The people of Barelas are actively fighting to regain the right to their own individual self-determination and the assertion of new, positive identities for their barrio as a whole, and in fact, they are recreating and celebrating a frame of their own design.

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