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New Film 'Wela' Aims To Keep Cemento Grande's Memories And History Alive

Courtesy of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League
Cemento Grande workers of the Trinity Portland Cement Company gather during a company picnic on July 4, 1929.

Growing up, Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz didn’t hear her grandmother talk about life in Cemento Grande or Cement City, the town built for workers of The Trinity Portland Cement Company in the early 1900s.

She’s in her 80s now and Ferrell-Ortiz wanted to document her story before it’s too late.

So she interviewed her and made a film. It’s called “Wela,” short for abuelita, or grandmother in Spanish. Ferrell-Ortiz said it’s a way to honor Lupe Barrera Chapa and others with ties to Cemento Grande.

“I really hope that people, especially residents from West Dallas, feel empowered by their history and empowered to use that history in the present and future to activate their voices and express the needs and wants they have for their larger community," she said.

Credit Courtesy of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League
Courtesy of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League
Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz's family: Barrerra-Sanchez family, workers and residents of Cemento Grande company town.

Ferrell-Ortiz’s grandmother has lived in the area about 70 years. Her father and brother worked at the cement plant, which is how she met her husband.

The town of Cement City was incorporated in the early 1900s. Many who lived there were Mexican immigrants, who fled the Mexican Revolution.

In Cement City, roads weren’t paved and wood-framed homes had outdoor plumbing. It had its own post office, stores and schools.

Ferrell-Ortiz interviewed a resident who remembers the neighborhood as gray and drab.

“Sediment would settle from the cement smelters at night and she would go outside to see that,” Ferrell-Ortiz said. “There weren’t many plants growing.”

Ferrell-Ortiz said working on the film didn’t just help her understand her family’s history. She learned the role Cement City played in the city of Dallas.

“So cement from the plant was actually used to build the Houston Street Viaduct that at the time it was built, was the largest standing concrete bridge,” she said.

Ferrell-Ortiz is an accountant by day but spent the past year and a half working on the documentary and raising money to make it happen.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz is director of a new documentary called "Wela." She interviews her grandmother and other residents and workers of the area once known as Cemento Grande in West Dallas.

She recruited friends to write and sing a song for the film.

They said you have to work.

They said it isn’t an option.

Now, I have to leave, they sing in Spanish.

The cement plants are now gone. And many longtime residents have had to move.

But, as the song points out, those residents are leaving their hearts – and history –behind.

Ferrell-Ortiz said she wants to show her film in schools, especially those in West Dallas, to keep the history of Cemento Grande alive.

The documentary “Wela” will premiere Sunday at 2 p.m. inside The Women’s Building in Fair Park.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.