Capturing the history and heritage of the West Dallas barrios

Meadows students and the Dallas Mexican American Historical League capture the history and heritage of the West Dallas barrios.

Students from SMU Meadows School of the Arts and members of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League have been on a semester-long mission to capture the history and heritage of the West Dallas barrios before impending urban renewal changes the area forever.

DALLAS (SMU) – Students from SMU Meadows School of the Arts and members of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League have been on a semester-long mission to capture the history and heritage of the West Dallas barrios before impending urban renewal changes the area forever. 

On Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Owen Arts Center on the SMU campus, the public can see the results of the semester’s efforts. “Artspaces 2011: Las huellas: footsteps in West Dallas” is an art installation/dance performance that will showcase the current and past heritage of the Mexican-American community in West Dallas. 

It will include photographs of residents and their surroundings; videos of oral histories; a student-performed “mapping” dance interpretation inspired by the foot traffic patterns of today’s West Dallas residents; silhouette art inspired by signage present in the barrios; and a presentation by Dallas author Sol Villasana on changes in the Mexican-American community over the decades.

“Las huellas…” begins at 6:30 p.m. in O’Donnell Hall (Room 2130) with the Villasana lecture, then moves to the Doolin Gallery (Room 1601) at 7:30 p.m., where refreshments will be served amid the art, videos, photos and dance presentation until 9 p.m. In addition, Villasana will sign copies of his book, Dallas’s Little Mexico. The event is free to the public. For more information, call 214-768-2698.


Members of DMAHL are well aware that the coming of the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge connecting downtown with West Dallas is likely to bring new development and urban renewal to the barrios. Wary of how the recent gentrification of Dallas’s “Little Mexico” neighborhood displaced generations of long-established Mexican-American families, DMAHL wants to capture the heritage of the West Dallas barrios before urban renewal bulldozes it away.

“DMAHL doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress, but it does want to preserve Mexican-American heritage, and to share the story of how Mexican-Americans helped build the city,” said DMAHL vice president Albert Valtierra.  Many Dallas families including several from West Dallas have contributed thousands of photographs, documents and mementos, so many that DMAHL needed help digitizing and conserving the collection to share with future generations. 

When SMU Associate Professor and Chair of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton heard of DMAHL’s preservation efforts, she recognized the right opportunity for students in a newly launched SMU class to become involved, and the “Las huellas” collaboration began.


“The class, ‘Artspaces: Mapping Sites of Social Change,’  began this semester as the first curricular piece to come out of the recommendations of our 2009 Meadows Prize winner, Creative Time,” Bergman-Carton said.  “Creative Time’s ideas for civic championing of the arts through urban planning, presenting art in diverse sites in Dallas, and linking fragmented populations, and for the creative practice of ‘participatory art,’ provided the framework for class studies. The DMAHL project enabled us to put the ideas into action.”

Seventeen first-year “Meadows Scholars” from various arts backgrounds, including journalism, dance and art, signed up for the course. (Meadows Scholars are a select group of high SAT/GPA students who receive special scholarship and travel/research funding.) Bergman-Carton assigned the students to aspects of the project that dovetailed with their majors, tapping their videotaping, editing, interviewing, photography, music, dance and art skills.

She also brought in two mentor specialists, architect Jessie Marshall Zarazaga and multi-media conceptual artist Celia Alvarez Muñoz, to work with the students.  Additionally, she invited DMAHL’s Valtierra and DMAHL’s project coordinator in West Dallas, Pauline Marceleno Laws, to speak to the class. The students also spent time in West Dallas photographing sites important to that community’s Mexican-American history, recording oral histories, and working with artist-in-residence Bernardo Diaz, a graduate of SMU’s Division of Art who runs art education classes for children in after-school programs at West Dallas Community Centers.

Abby Marchesseault

Class participant Abby Marchesseault (Dance and Pre-Med, ‘16) said the students were careful not to impose their “outsider” way of perceiving things on the West Dallas residents. “We wanted to be able to tell their story without the filter of our own perspectives,” she said. “We learned as many facts as we could about the area and the people, by listening to the residents and learning from them.”

Natalie Yezbick

Student Natalie Yezbick (Communication Studies and Journalism, ‘16) said, “We met people passionate about their past. The project is important because you learn from your roots, where you come from, the struggles your family went through. This project, and its richness of the history and heritage, shows the kids living in West Dallas that they have opportunities here that their families struggled to give them.”

Professor Bergman-Carton said the project took on a life of its own and expanded as they moved forward. “The class was an invitation for students to become stakeholders and participants in Meadows’ initiative for urban engagement and creativity,” she said. “We have learned a lot in this effort.  I believe this is just the beginning of a larger campus/community collaboration to come.”

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