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In Dallas, A New Generation Learns The History Of Little Mexico And Pike Park

Stella M. Chávez
SMU art student Nicolas Gonzalez has been working on this mural of Little Mexico with help from students in the Pike Park summer camp.

At the Pike Park summer camp in Dallas, kids do the usual summer camp stuff -- play games, dance, draw and eat. What makes this camp different? The kids are also learning about where they're going to camp -- the once-thriving uptown neighborhood known as Little Mexico.

It’s the last week of summer camp, and the kids here show no signs of slowing down. On this morning, the music has been blaring as they strut their stuff. Then, they launch into making their own beats. And rapping about the park where the camp is located.

"I love Pike Park. It's my favorite park," raps 7-year-old Dominique Gamble.

The kids in the camp range from 5 to 12 years old, and a few of them live in the apartments next door, just off Harry Hines Boulevard. The area is now part of Uptown and it’s where thousands of Mexicans settled in the early 20th century.

Nicolas Gonzalez, an art student at SMU, is working on a mural of Little Mexico with help from the camp kids.

“Basically, I told them about this mural piece," he said. "I told them how important the park is and what it used to be and how it might disappear. You know, this is like the only thing we have left of Little Mexico.”

Gonzalez had the kids slap their paint-covered hands on the canvas leaving hand prints all over. He took a blown-up map of what used to be Little Mexico and Pike Park and replicated the outline of it on the mural. He added landmarks like the gazebo, which sits next to the park. It’s still a work in progress.

“Right now if you look at it, it’s very colorful and basic line works and there’s a lot of movement to it," Gonzalez said. "But that’s what I’m trying to capture, more of a child’s innocence to it.”

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Nicolas Gonzalez, an art student at SMU, is working on a mural of Little Mexico and has been teaching students in the camp about storytelling and painting.

He also he didn’t want the mural to contain faces or writing -- he wants it to remain somewhat mysterious.

Janis Bergman-Carton, associate professor of art history at Southern Methodist University, has been involved in shaping the summer camp and mentoring Gonzalez on the mural.

“We’ve used a lot of visuals, a lot of historical photographs, historical maps and most exciting for the kids, not surprisingly, were a series of conversations we were able to organize with elders of the Mexican-American community, who grew up in Little Mexico and who grew up playing in Pike Park,” she said.

Bergman-Carton became interested in Little Mexico when she met members of the Dallas Mexican-American Historical League in 2010. Since then, she's worked with members on various exhibits and research projects.

The idea for the mural and camp came up last fall during a Pike Park exhibit called Little Jerusalem to Little Mexico, 100 Years of Settlement. Bergman-Carton said Dallas parks and recreation director Willis Winters said the camp would be a step toward restoring and preserving the area.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Students in the Pike Park Sumer Program have been learning about the "Little Mexico" neighborhood. They've helped paint a mural, met former residents of Little Mexico and visited neighboring KERA studios.

The kids have learned about the number of first-generation families, not just Mexican but Swiss, German, Polish and Jewish. And they learned that immigrants chose this area because it was so close to railroads and affordable housing.

“And the idea is to make them feel like stakeholders, to enlist them in the aspiration to keep Pike Park not as it was, but as it could be, and as they would like it to be," Bergman-Carton said.

Twelve-year-old Cassandra Valdez said she’s learned a lot.

“It’s kind of cool and it’s pretty interesting about how the history and how this place started up,” Cassandra said.

Cassandra doesn’t live in the area. Her dad is originally from Mexico and so was her mother’s father. 

“Because, like, my dad, he came to pick me up once, and he saw the sign of little Mexico and he was actually shocked because he lived in a little town in Mexico and it was kind of like that,” Cassandra said.

Camper Isaiah Wells is 10 and lives in Cedar Hill. He said he’s enjoyed getting his hands dirty and learning how to paint a mural, but he’s also been captivated by the stories about the neighborhood.

“It’s been nice because I didn’t know that Mexicans had built this," Isaiah said. "I thought just normal builders had built this.”

Dallas park officials want to renovate the building where the campers have set up shop. It used to be the place for boxing matches, dances and other activities. They’d like to see it bustling again -- and not just when summer camp is in session.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Several murals like this one are still in the building where the summer camp is being held.

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.