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Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico: Renewed sense of community

Barelas is located along the old El Camino Real, the Royal Road from Mexico City to Santa Fe. This major trading and agricultural route connected Barelas to the larger world of travel and communication. Later, when the Transcontinental Railroad came through Albuquerque, a roundhouse in Barelas serviced locomotives at this juncture in the railroad system.

New Mexico History
On teaching history. Ideally, teachers should take a college-level course in New Mexico history. However, this is not possible because of limited funds. Each school district must develop curriculum to meet state standards; they try to make the curriculum reflect local beliefs, resources, customs, and culture. There is no one perspective on teaching New Mexico history, but there are many views about what is important for students in various regions.

Historical bias. Our national slant is to teach history from East to West—that is, from Plymouth Rock to California, without mentioning that colonists were thriving in New Mexico 22 years before settlers landed at Plymouth Rock. We need to recognize and honor the achievements of Spanish explorers in shaping the culture of the United States. New Mexico tried 12 times to achieve statehood, but was denied until 1912, in part because Spanish was the predominant language. Today, 55% of students in Albuquerque are Spanish speakers, and the minority majority want to preserve Spanish as one of the official languages of the state.

History themes
Early history. In 1598 Juan de Oñate referred to the Esteros de Mixia, the swamplands near Barelas. Later, in 1662 Governor Briceno y Berduga visited the area and recognized it as an important crossroads along El Camino Real. The first Hispanic settlement in the area was the estancia owned by Pedro Varela, from which the community derives its name. (Varelas is interchangeable with Barelas.)

The influence of water. In the 1700s the natural ford across the Rio Grande near Bridge Street was named after the Varela estancia. This ford became part of a primary route for commerce and trade between Mexico City and Nuevo Mexico. In 1830 water was diverted from an irrigation ditch to Barelas to aid in agriculture. Narrow strips of land and family fields were planted west of present day Interstate 25. Lateral ditches sloped west toward 4th Street. About this time families began building adobe homes along the historic route and the area became known as Barelas Road.

Railroad era. In 1880 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad built tracks through the mid-Rio Grande Valley and divided the agricultural fields in Barelas. Although the railroad disrupted the agricultural economy in the area, the railroad, roundhouse, and repair shops stimulated urban development.

By 1900 Barelas had grown into a neighborhood with over 1200 residents, and by 1928 records show that 3500 vehicles crossed the Barelas Bridge daily. A tourist and shopping corridor began developing. Route 66 was officially designated in 1937, and 4th Street became well known. In the mid-1950s commercial development was peaking; all these enterprises depended on tourism and shopping.

Economic decline and revitalization. Economic decline began when the Santa Fe Railroad began its conversion from steam to diesel locomotives. Locomotive repairs moved from Barelas to shops in Texas and California. Employment went from 1,500 to 100 people. In 1970 the Urban Renewal Agency relocated families in South Barelas and demolished boarding houses and homes on 4th Street (the old El Camino Real). In 1974 the construction of the Civic Plaza ended through-traffic, and Barelas became like many inner-city neighborhoods, plagued with violence and crime.

Revitalization began with plans to establish a Hispanic Culture Foundation and a Hispanic Cultural Center. In 1994 the New Mexico Legislature appropriated $12 million to construct the Hispanic Cultural Center at 4th Street and Avenida Cesar Chavez. The city of Albuquerque donated 11 acres of land and the historic Riverview School. To celebrate the Cuartrocentenario (1598–1998), dignitaries from Spain, Mexico, and the United States participated in dedication ceremonies for the Hispanic Cultural Center.

In 1999 groundbreaking ceremonies were held in Barelas for the National Hispanic Cultural Center and a headquarters for the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce. Main Street restoration projects began to incorporate old features into new buildings. A renewed sense of place, history, and community are returning as Albuquerque begins the 21st century. Both the Barelas Community Center and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, are thriving gathering places for memories and plans for the future of the Barelas neighborhood.

Content. From October 2000 to May 2001, the National Hispanic Cultural Center hosted the exhibit: Barelas a través de los anos: Barelas across the years. This exhibit featured photographs, letters, newspaper articles, documents, books, genealogies, and other items donated by residents of Barelas. Much of the information for this profile came from the NHCC exhibit catalogue and from conversations with people who met at the Barelas Community Center to discuss the teaching of history and social studies in New Mexico.

Attending the Community Profile meeting at the Barelas Community Center were Pat Concannon, Marti Little, Michael Orovis, Georgia Roybal, and Millie Santillanes.

© Copyright 2004, Regents of New Mexico State University
This file was last updated Friday September 3, 2004
Contact: RETA@nmsu.edu