500 S. Oregon Street
500 S. Oregon Street represents a crossroads of diverse cultures, people, and history of this borderland during the late 19th-century and 20th-century. To illustrate, if you look South, towards South Oregon, this is where the Mexican immigrants lived, if you look East, along 3rd avenue, this is where the African American community was concentrated, and if you look North, towards North Oregon, this is where the Asian community was centered. All of these cultures, and many more, played a pivotal role in the early history of El Paso, and more specifically, 500 S. Oregon Street.
When the building was constructed is unknown; however, in 1883 500 S. Oregon served as the location for the first United States Custom House in El Paso. Headed by El Paso’s first mayor, Ben Dowell, the primary function of the Customs House was to track goods coming in and out of El Paso, due to the city’s increasing size and population.
Soon thereafter, in 1895, the Mexican Preparatory School was moved to 500 S. Oregon Street, which had been founded by Olivas Aoy in 1887. Olivas Aoy was born in Valencia, Spain in 1833 and followed the teachings of Franciscan priests, entering a Franciscan Monastery in 1850. In 1854 he was moved to Havana, Cuba for Church work; however, due to conflicting beliefs he “forsook the Church” (Schaer 2) and worked as a stevedore on the Havana docks. Aoy then traveled to the Yucatan to live with the Mayas, and eventually joined the Utah Mormons in 1873, even translating the Book of Mormon into Spanish, which created suspicion since many thought he was revealing disclosed Mormom religious beliefs and practices through the translation. He finally moved to El Paso, Texas in 1887 where he founded the Mexican Preparatory School at the Hague Building on San Francisco Street. The main goal of his school was to prepare poor Mexican children for schools within the El Paso public school district, since children in El Paso schools were only prohibited to speak English. In Aoy’s own words though, “As long as a Mexican can only speak Spanish, he continues to be a Mexican. Teach him English and at once he begins to be American. He takes interest in American ideas and customs. The English language is the great civilizer” (Long 8). Aoy passed in 1895 and new principal W.H.T. Lopez took over the school that same year. The school remained at 500 S. Oregon up to 1899, and was then moved to Kansas and E. 7th Street (where AOY Elementary is located today) due to increasing enrollment. Lopez remained the principal of the school until 1902, eventually leaving to become a translator in the Philippines for the U.S. government.
During the time that the Mexican Preparatory School was located at 500 S. Oregon, the building also served as the residence of famous healer, revolutionary, and mystic, Teresita Urrea. Born in Sonora, Mexico, Teresita Urrea was exiled from Mexico by Porfirio Diaz in 1896, and dubbed “the most dangerous girl in Mexico” (Leyva-Chavez 6:39). Urrea migrated to the United States in June of 1896 and was heralded as the second coming of Christ. Her arrival at the Union Depot train station in downtown El Paso welcomed hundreds of people from all over town just to catch a glimpse of her. Thousands of people from all over the Southwest and Northern Mexico traveled to her home at 500 S. Oregon to watch her carry out her healing powers and miracles. Teresita’s reputation grew and newspapers all throughout the country wrote about her (New York, San Francisco, Austin, etc,.). She lived at 500 S. Oregon for a little over a year, eventually moving in December of 1897 due to assisination attempts. Nevertheless, Teresita played an influential role in the rich history of Segundo Barrio, specifically 500 S. Oregon Street.
Another famous resident that lived at 500 S. Oregon Street was Henry O. Flipper, who was the first African American graduate from West Point Academy. In June of 1882, Flipper was kicked out of the army due to “conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman” (Library of Congress), and moved to El Paso where he began working as an engineer under ex-Confederates. He only stayed in El Paso for one year, eventually moving to Nogales, Arizona where he opened a civil and mining engineering office. However, Flipper came back to El Paso in 1919, this time living at 500 S. Oregon Street. He stayed in El Paso until 1921, and during his time he worked as an engineer and legal assistant in Northern Mexico, in time becoming the “assistant to the Secretary of the Interior as a translator and interpreter” (Library of Congress).
A couple blocks down the street, on the 200 block of South Oregon, was the home of Wong Kim Ark, who was a monumental character for the Chinese population in El Paso and the United States. Ark lived on the 200 block of South Oregon Street, which was a Chinese boarding house in the late 1800’s. He was born in San Francisco, California and was the child of Chinese immigrants. According to Ancestry.com and U.S. census records, Ark went to visit family in China, yet he was not allowed back into the United States upon his return since he was coming from China, and immigration services stated that children of immigrants were not lawful citizens. Hence, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that children of immigrants were indeed U.S. citizens, as long as they were born in the United States. He eventually helped solidify the 14th amendment that claims anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen. To read more about Wong Kim Ark and his impact on the 14th amendment read this El Paso Matters article: https://elpasomatters.org/2022/07/04/wong-kim-ark-vs-united-states-history-immigration-supreme-court/.
500 S. Oregon was the headquarters for a number of different companies throughout its history as well. Throughout the 1910’s, 500 S. Oregon was home to a saloon, what is speculated to be a brothel, an Asian laundromat, and also served as an apartment complex. The location exemplifies the different cultures, people, and ethnicities that made up El Paso back in the day and their historical significance.