Children in Dallas’s “Little Mexico” are reconnected with the neighborhood’s immigrant past, thanks to a Meadows professor, students and a constellation of Dallas civic groups.
Pike Park is surrounded by an ever-changing neighborhood. Over the past 100 years, the 10-block neighborhood on the western edge of downtown Dallas has been home to various waves of immigrant families. People from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France and Mexico have all called this area home; locals have referred to it in turns as “Little Jerusalem,” “Goose Valley,” “Frogtown” (referring to invasions of frogs following Trinity River floods), “El Barrio” and “Little Mexico,” its moniker changing as different populations ebbed and flowed.
One constant in the neighborhood is Pike Park, a relatively small green space founded by the city of Dallas in 1913. For the past century, the four-acre park has offered locals a place to gather, have fun, learn and relax. There is a recreation center on site, as well as basketball courts, a baseball field, pavilion and playground. It has been a place of respite and community for all the various populations who once lived nearby.
But while Pike Park has remained a steady presence, the surrounding neighborhood and its multi-ethnic heritage have been slowly buried as urban renewal morphs the landscape with new construction and revitalized downtown living.
Recapturing Cultural Roots In Dallas
To help preserve the area’s considerable heritage, SMU Meadows Associate Professor of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton, three SMU students and several civic groups have combined efforts to reintroduce neighborhood children to the area’s rich ethnic past.
Bergman-Carton and the SMU students worked with the Dallas Park & Recreation Department, Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL), Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico and KERA TV/FM to create a new summer camp program for the children in 2015. The “Pike Park Summer Program” included gardening, dance, storytelling, visits from elders who once lived in Little Mexico, the creation of a heritage-inspired mural, lessons in money management (taught by Cox School of Business student Lia Nanez), production of a play and more. To capture the essence of the inaugural camp, alumnus Parker Smitherson (B.F.A. Film & Media Arts ’15) shot video of the activities.
“The participation of each of these groups has been nothing short of amazing,” says Artemas McGee, community program supervisor with the Dallas Park & Recreation Dept. and overall coordinator for the new summer camp. “Their generous contributions, financial and otherwise, have been such a blessing to us. Their involvement has proven to be very instrumental in the success of the program and has contributed to the cultural growth and development of the children.”
McGee invited schoolchildren ages 6-12 living in apartments and in the nearby Little Mexico Village housing project to participate in the free activities. One might think that in an area recently known as “Little Mexico,” most of the campers would have been Mexican American. But, in keeping with the changing nature of the neighborhood, 32 of the 38 campers were African American; six were Mexican American.
Splashed Of Color, Creativity And A Chance To Mentor
Nicolas Gonzalez (B.F.A. Art and B.A. Art History ’17) worked with the camp kids and says camp days were boisterous, lively and fun. Each morning began with providing breakfast for the children. Camp leaders talked about the upcoming day’s activities such as Ballet Folklorico lessons, gardening, painting and field trips to a water park, Hall of State or the nearby KERA TV/FM station. Gonzalez says the children were eager to be at the camp, and that their favorite activity usually revolved around creativity and color.
“We worked on a garden area in front of the recreation center and spray painted tires, which were then used to plant flowers. They loved that,” says Gonzalez. He also led the children in a week of art activities, including the creation of a 12-foot-long mural based on the history of the area. To help inspire the children, elders who once lived in the neighborhood during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s came to the camp and shared stories of what it was like to grow up in Little Mexico. Gonzalez worked with the children on artistic principles of design and sketched outlines for them to paint their visions of local heritage.
Rec Centers As Community-Builders
As Gonzalez watched the camp kids enjoying a safe space to have fun and learn with their peers, his appreciation grew for what a community center such as Pike Park can do for individuals, families and the city at large.
“I came to realize that recreation centers are the golden ticket for future generations to prosper immensely in a productive way,” says Gonzalez, a first-generation Mexican American. “When I was growing up and summertime came, I was glued to the TV or got myself into trouble all the time. Children are so used to being in a structured school environment for most of the year that when they have nothing to keep them busy, it could impact them in a non-productive way.”
Gonzalez says he grew up in a home in which both parents worked hard to make ends meet. “Growing up, I found it difficult to find someone to steer me in the right direction,” he says. “I searched for local historical figures to whom I could relate. By the time I reached the age of 21, I came to realize my artistic talent might create opportunities. Now, I want to be the kind of mentor or spark of inspiration to these children that I was always looking for.”
Ongoing Community Engagement
The Pike Park Summer Program is the third community project that Meadows students have worked on with members of DMAHL. Previous to the Pike Park camp 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 that 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 data 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.
“The joy of working on a project that brings our students into collaboration with civic groups is that it provides the critical missing link between the university curriculum and everyday life,” says Bergman-Carton. “It also makes it likelier that our students will transfer theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to actual practice.”
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