Born and raised in Dallas, Ruben A. Arellano moved to the city’s Oak Cliff neighborhood when he was around 13 years old. Now 45—and a professor of history at Dallas College—he’s spent most of his life there. A couple of years ago, Arellano noticed a change in the neighborhood.
“People understood Oak Cliff, at least the part where I’m from, as being a Mexican barrio,” Arellano says.
At first the change was slow but steady. The ballroom where he’d attended weddings and quinceañeras got demolished. Later, some of Oak Cliff’s Chicano murals got destroyed with new construction. As development accelerated, Oak Cliff gentrified and evolved into a trendy new neighborhood quite unlike a Mexican barrio. Arellano attributes Oak Cliff’s popularity to its location—just southwest of downtown, across the Trinity River—amid the resurgence of city living in the last decade.
“People are beginning to buy property, and a lot of these Mexicano families that were buying homes and remodeling them and sprucing up the community,” Arellano says, “those people are getting priced out of those same communities.”
In the summer of 2019, Arellano started photographing the remaining Chicano murals around Oak Cliff to create a record of the fading neighborhood before its erasure. His project, Dallas Chicano Murals, is available as an online database. The work inspired Arellano to get more involved with historical preservation through the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL), a nonprofit documenting the experiences of Mexican Americans in Dallas since the early 1900s.
Arellano was one of many people who helped organize DMAHL’s Nuestro Oak Cliff exhibit, a community-minded project including virtual talks about the neighborhood’s history, a documentary, and dozens of photographs from people who have lived or still live in the neighborhood. The project has been on display at Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center since mid-September and will continue through October 16.
“Nuestro Oak Cliff is really devoted to showing the evolution of Oak Cliff,” says Jennifer Rangel, a member of DMAHL’s board of directors. “From an area that was predominately white to then seeing the transition to communities of color—and some communities of color that have been in Oak Cliff since its inception.”
Born and raised in Oak Cliff, Rangel is an urban planner who recently started the nonprofit RAYO Planning to help advocate for, among other things, community planning and fair housing. Rangel credits her Oak Cliff upbringing with sparking her interest in her profession. She worked with Arellano to solicit dozens of family photographs for the exhibit.
“We were looking for everything portraying family life in Oak Cliff,” Rangel says of the photographs, some of which were collected from people who answered flyers asking for them, others through word-of-mouth. “We honestly did not have boundaries other than making sure the photo was taken in Oak Cliff,” Rangel says. “You’ll see a little bit of everything from family life to people going to church. It’s really an assortment.”
Next to each photo are captions in English and Spanish. “We highlight a lot of different members of the community, not just Latinx,” Rangel says. “We highlight places in Oak Cliff, like the Tenth Street Historic District, which is a freedman’s town here in Dallas. It’s not just Hispanic and Latinx folks, but the diverse population here in Oak Cliff.”
It’s all part of ensuring that if Oak Cliff is changing, it’s history won’t be forgotten. And in remembering that history, those who don’t know can learn that Mexicans have been a part of Dallas for a long time.
“We have been here since the very beginning,” Arellano says. “But people don’t realize that because there’s no one who’s telling our stories. And the mission of DMAHL is to tell these stories, to remind people that we’re here. But not only are we here now, we’ve always been here, and here’s our history. Look at it.”