Since the early 1980s, the freeway columns at El Paso’s Lincoln Park have served as a canvas for Chicano artists. The community center within the park has been around for more than a century, housing part of the region’s history.

Lincoln Center was set to be demolished on May 20, 2014, when bulldozers lined up in front of the abandoned building to tear it down and make way for a new freeway project by the Texas Department of Transportation. A human chain stopped the demolition as community activists and area neighbors faced off with work crews to halt the machinery.

“One of the most beautiful sights that I remember is we were all lined up in front of the bulldozer,” said Lily Limón, a retired educator and former El Paso City Council member, remembering the protest almost 10 years later. “When the police told (the demolition crew), ‘You have to go,’ and then the group walked (up), literally pushing them out. When they were off the grounds, there was a tremendous cheer.”

The more than 110-year-old building on Durazno Street, which once served as a school for segregated minority children and later as a community recreation center,  remains in place with plans to house the Mexican American Cultural Institute. 

The El Paso nonprofit organization, founded in 2016, wants to turn the building into a $12.5 million cultural center with a dance studio, theater, art gallery and gift shop, said Limón, who serves on the MACI board. The center, which is in the design phase, will be funded through private donations with an expected opening date of late 2024 or early 2025.

“We have raised funding to hire an architect who has presented us with tentative building designs,” Limón said. 

She didn’t disclose exactly how much money had been raised or when construction might start. MACI made a deal with TxDOT to lease the Lincoln Center in January 2022 and make it its home. The lease is for 25 years with a possible extension of 10 more.

For now, the building sits vacant behind a chain-link fence as the city park around it still houses enormous murals on the columns that hold up the freeway lanes above.

A row of murals depict Chicano/Pachuco culture and their Mexican roots at Lincoln Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“There have been a lot of tears, a lot of frustration, a lot of anger,” Limón said. “Boy, I tell you what, when the demolition was going to take place, Hector was on fire. You need that commitment. There was a paddywagon ready to take us.”

“Hector” is Hector Gonzales, a Lincoln Park Conservation Committee member who promotes the park area as a tribute to the region’s Chicano and Mexican American culture.

“You have to be committed 100%,” said Gonzales. “Halfway into it, we realized … we’ll have to just continue. Never give up. Outlasting the politicians and the administration, and that’s sometimes the only way to get things done.”

While Gonzales and local historian and activist Miguel Juárez attended a 2014 El Paso City Council meeting to hear about possible plans for the center, Lincoln Park was taken over by a demolition crew.

The group rushed to social media and mobilized about 100 people who, within an hour, took to the park to protest the demolition. Three hours later, the number grew to 250.

“They were building human chains holding hands,” Gonzales said. “We held our ground for nine days and nine nights. The community spent the night; we set up tents. Nobody left the site.”

Some relief came in the form of a temporary injunction three days into the protest procured to stop demolition at the site.

A compromise was later reached between the organization and TxDOT with a plan to spare the center from demolition. However, more than a dozen murals have been removed as the columns that housed them for many years were to be destroyed and new columns erected.

History of Lincoln Center

The history of Lincoln Center dates back to the mid-1800s as a school for military kids of Camp Concordia in a settlement by Hugh Stephenson. In the 1910s, it was renamed Lincoln Park School and served as the only school that Mexican American and African American children in the area could attend. The building was later taken over by the State of Texas, which leased it to the city of El Paso under an agreement with TXDoT.

From 1977 to 1987, Lincoln Center served as the office for the city’s parks administration and the nonprofit LULAC Project Amistad, which serves older people and persons with disabilities. 

Then, in the summer of 2006, heavy rain and thunderstorms brought destructive floods to the area. The city closed the building, citing water damage.

“But even a month later, we utilized the park, and we had thousands of people there,” Gonzales said. “So the flood never really even did damage to the park. Much less the building.”


In 2011, the city began planning a multi-million-dollar quality-of-life bond issue and proposing projects to be included. One option was the renovation of the Lincoln Center. But a microbial study by a consultant contracted by the city concluded that asbestos and mold were present in the building. 

The bond passed in 2012 and included funding for a cultural center – but didn’t specify a location. Years later, when a site was being chosen, the El Paso City Council took Lincoln Center off the table, wanting to keep the center as part of its Downtown renovation plan.

As that and other preferred sites were scrapped, a group of Mexican-American community and elected officials, including Limón, former U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes and former State Senator José Rodríguez, formed MACI.

The council later voted to build what it’s calling the Mexican American Culture Center at the Main Library branch in Downtown El Paso, using funds from the 2012 bond. The MACC is now under construction and will be overseen by the city of El Paso’s Museums and Cultural Affairs Department. It’s set to open sometime in 2024.

A version of this story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...