Connecting Cultural Roots in "Little Mexico"

Meadows Art History Professor, Students, Civic Groups Create New Summer Program for Pike Park Children

Urban renewal is slowly covering the cultural past of “Little Mexico,” a neighborhood on the western edge of downtown Dallas. To help preserve the area’s heritage, SMU Meadows Associate Professor of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton, two SMU students and several civic groups have combined efforts to create a new summer day camp for neighborhood kids to reintroduce them to the area’s rich ethnic past.

The camp, “Pike Park Summer Program,” will take place at Pike Park, a four-acre green space in the neighborhood. Founded in 1913, Pike Park has been a gathering place for various populations of immigrants to Dallas and has been known in turns as “Little Jerusalem,” “El Barrio” and “Little Mexico.”

In recent decades, the Pike Park area has undergone tremendous change. For several years it was largely residential with many Spanish-speaking families. Now it is nearly engulfed by urban development and is considered to be part of the tony “Uptown” section spreading across the north and west sides of downtown Dallas. Many of the Spanish-speaking families who once lived near Pike Park are gone, their homes replaced by high-rise office towers, chic nightclubs, restaurants and the giant American Airlines Center entertainment complex.

Today, Pike Park is a gathering place for the remaining local families, new high-rise dwellers and downtown workers. The grounds include a basketball court and a small recreation center, and one of only three buildings with a Mexican American history in Dallas to be declared a historical landmark.

Recapturing cultural roots

Bergman-Carton and two SMU students have been working with the Dallas Park & Recreation Department, Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL), Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico and KERA TV/FM to create the new summer program, which will feature gardening, dance, storytelling, the creation of a mural, lessons in money management, production of a play and more.

Serving as overall coordinator for the new program is Artemas McGee of Dallas Park & Recreation. McGee has invited schoolchildren ages 6-12 living in apartments and in the nearby Little Mexico Village housing project to participate in the free activities. Children living in other areas of Dallas are also welcome to register.

Meadows involvement in the Pike Park Summer Program

Bergman-Carton, Meadows student Nicolas Gonzalez (B.F.A. Art and B.A. Art History ’17) and members of DMAHL are creating two “My Pike Park” components of the summer program. Gonzalez will teach storytelling and lead kids in the creation of a mural project based on the history of the area and will guide the youngsters in the artistic principles of design needed to create a coherent and beautiful 20-by-8-foot mural that best represents the spirit of the Pike Park neighborhood. He will sketch the mural’s outlines and the children will paint the elements under his guidance. At the time of this writing, discussion was underway about the possibility of the kids’ My Pike Park mural traveling to various spots in Dallas.

The program also includes a scavenger hunt targeting important sites and moments in the history of Pike Park, as well as visits with community elders raised in “Little Mexico” who will share their stories. The children will then create “My Pike Park” stories of their own.

In addition, special field trips will be made to the studios of KERA and to the 1930s WPA (Works Progress Administration) art deco murals at the Hall of State in Fair Park.

“I want to give back to the community in any way that I can to the best of my ability,” says Gonzalez. “As a first generation Mexican American, I grew up in an underprivileged home where my parents just made ends meet. Growing up, I found it difficult to find someone to steer me in the right direction. I searched for local historical figures to whom I could relate. At the age of 21, I came to realize my artistic talent might create opportunities.

“I want to be the kind of mentor or spark of inspiration to those children that I was always looking for.”

Bergman-Carton says the great thing about the Pike Park Summer Program is that kids from the Little Mexico housing project and from nearby schools will get a chance to learn how important their park was to the history of Dallas. “In the early 20th century,” she says, “the first settlers to use Pike Park were the Irish, German, Scottish, Polish, Jewish and Mexican immigrants who came here to make better lives for their families and to use their skills and expertise to help build this young city. The children will also have a chance to work with people from SMU, the Dallas Park & Recreation Department and DMAHL on bringing Pike Park back to its former life as a much-used and much-loved urban social space."

Ongoing Community Engagement

“My Pike Park” is the third community project that Meadows students have worked on with members of DMAHL.

Previous to the Pike Park Summer Program project, Bergman-Carton led 17 Meadows Scholars students in the Artspace: Mapping Sites of Social Change project in 2011-12, a semester-long mission to capture the history and heritage of the West Dallas barrios before impending urban renewal brought culture-shifting changes to the area. In 2012, under the supervision of Adrianna Stephenson, head of the SMU Visual Resources Library, four Meadows alums completed internships with DMAHL cataloging and producing metadata for the DMAHL photo archive.

Then in 2014, Bergman-Carton and graduate student Lucy Anderton McGuigan (M.A. Art History ’16) worked on the “Pike Park: Little Jerusalem to Little Mexico, 100 Years of Settlement” exhibit at the Latino Cultural Center, exploring the Dallas immigrant experience.

Camp Schedule

The new Pike Park Summer Program will run from mid-June through the end of July:

June 15-19

Ballet Folklorico: Campers learn about and try the footwork of the regional dances of Mexico, under the expert leadership of Lisa Mesa Rogers, executive director of the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico.

June 22-26

Master Gardeners: The kids will transform a former in-ground swimming pool into a Serenity Garden under the guidance of members of the Master Gardeners of Dallas; Texas A&M AgriLife Extension; and outdoor maintenance supervisors from the Dallas Park & Recreation Department.

June 29-July 3

“My Pike Park” Project I: A storytelling and historical mural project taught by SMU art student Nicolas Gonzalez, with the help of Associate Professor of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton and members of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Includes talking with community elders and field trips to nearby KERA TV/FM and to Fair Park for an up-close look at the art deco murals of the 1930s.

July 6-16

Junior Players Program, the oldest children's theater in Dallas, provides creative opportunities to low-income youth during non-school hours through free after-school and summer arts education programs. The group will work with the children on a production connected to the “My Pike Park” project.

July 20-24

“My Pike Park” Project II: A storytelling and historical mural project taught by SMU art student Nicolas Gonzalez.

July 27-30

“What is Money? What’s it Worth?” Taught by Lia Nanez, SMU student in the Cox School of Business, kids learn about managing their money, their spending and savings habits, an introduction to how the world’s economy works and more. Includes a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

To find out more about the Pike Park Summer Program, contact Artemas McGee ‎or Janis Bergman-Carton.

Read more about Meadows School of the Arts’ Art History Department and Division of Art.