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What barrio are you from?
by Sofia Larkin

“¡Qué milagro!" we say when we haven’t seen each other in a while because here, we don’t take people for granted. 

I was born on a cold and snowy El Paso day in 1969 to a Chilean mother who came here on a Fulbright to get a Master’s Degree and an American father, a UTEP professor who wrote my name on the chalkboard when he taught his class that morning. I would spend much of my childhood on the University campus, watching generations of feral cats from my father’s office window or climbing out of dumpsters as I walked up the ramp to the Fox Fine Arts building and into the ballet studio that was my second home. I practically lived at Magoffin Auditorium, doing homework and eating dinner at the theater while we rehearsed “The Nutcracker," “Sleeping Beauty," “The Firebird," “The Unicorn, the Gorgon & the Manticore," “Pineapple Poll," “Scheherazade," “Cinderella," and so many more. Those were great days for Ballet El Paso and in all my years at the San Francisco Ballet School I never saw a dancer so breathtaking or exquisite as our very own Renee Segapeli, and I had seen some of the very best in the world.

Growing up behind Chelmont Shopping Center I was one of many kids in the neighborhood who spent their summers at the Chelsea Pool or their evenings talking and laughing at Chico’s Tacos. Going to Juárez for groceries or a nice dinner was just another Saturday. It was a childhood full of reading, classical music, recycling in the desert, enjoying menudo with my Mexican friends, and learning how to properly “saludar," eat an artichoke, and set a table, from my Chilean mother.

My dream from childhood had been to dance and I lived and breathed ballet but the funny thing is that after all those years of hard work and dedication I found my calling when I was working for a temp service on the East and West sides in the ’90s. People would come in to our offices looking for work because they had been transplanted here for one reason or another. I couldn’t help but tell every single one of them about the many treasures in El Paso, especially the people. Have you been here? Have you eaten there? Have you seen that? I would write things down, make reservations for them, I would do anything to make sure they remembered El Paso the way it should be remembered: as the warmest, friendliest, richest place on earth.

In 2006 I got the job as the executive director of Community Scholars and I happily moved in to my office upstairs from Cinco Puntos Press where I purchase kids’ birthday gifts mostly so I can stop by and chat, look at those colorful books, and smell Cactus Mary soaps. A stroll Downtown to grab some coffee or a sandwhich, taking a different route each time so I can study every single building or run into an old friend, is one of the highlights of my Downtown life. I get to work closely with smart, engaged young men and women and I meet people from our community, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Steve Yellen is one of those people.

I received an email from him inviting me to preview “Basketball in the Barrio" at the Plaza Theater and I gladly accepted because you can’t resist Steve’s positive attitude or his passion for giving back to this community. I sat watching the documentary with tears of joy streaming down my face because I was inspired by the many faces and voices on the screen in front of me. The next day I recounted the story of Basketball in the Barrio as if I had witnessed a birth because this wonder truly is one more precious facet of this jewel I call home. “¡Qué milagro!" we say when we haven’t seen each other in a while because here, we don’t take people for granted. 

What barrio are you from?


Don’t miss

“Basketball in the Barrio 2017"

Sponsored by Price’s 

June 16-18, 2017 

The Armijo Community Center

Text or call  Steve Yellen 915-300-5970 to help, volunteer, donate, participate or just be a part.

Annual Basketball in the Barrio Camp Combines Arts and Sport in Tribute to Barrio Legend

There’s a great poem I read recently about the narrator sneaking up on his unlearned neighbor and shooting him in the heart with a poem.

I taught English one fall to freshman at NMSU, which I looked forward to like a jail term, until the writer Don Kurtz told me a story:  Don was at a friend’s house recently for a cookout, and noticed his collection of books. There were fewer than a dozen, but they were all classics. Great books that spoke volumes about his friend’s good taste and refined intelligence. Turns out that those were the books assigned in his two college English classes. He read them all. Loved them, in fact. He hadn’t gotten around to reading anything since, though. Don Kurtz said he realized then how important it was to be a great English teacher. It may be some kid’s only exposure literary beauty and excellence.

We may only get one chance to shoot someone with a poem.

I couldn’t have articulated that when we started “Basketball in the Barrio” ten years ago at El Paso’s Armijo Center. Basketball was the lure, the bait really, to hook young kids. Most of the camp is spent exposing South El Paso kids to the unique arts and culture of the border.  There’s an abundance of culture in El Paso (ignore the growing sprawl and hundred-yard-high billboards) if you’ll poke around. When the folks at Price’s Creameries began donating those great Milk Chugs and some pretty generous funding it made it possible to pay local artists to appear at our camp.

Most of the artists are El Paso natives, or have lived in El Paso for a long time.

Nationally known bi-lingual storyteller Joe Hayes is often our opening attraction. Viva El Paso ballet folklorico leaves the kids with their mouths hanging open. Muralist Luis Villega completed his mural that is a tribute to the camp’s inspiration, the legendary Rocky Galarza. Tex-Mex accordion wiz Steve Stacey’s corridos bounce the kids through their lunch breaks. Writer Ben Saenz reads from one of his enormously popular children’s books. World-renown fighter Juan “Ernie” Lazcano returns home each year to speak, and makes each child feel like a champ. Former NBA star Greg Foster’s 7’1” frame stuns the campers every summer. Each child is presented with a bilingual children’s book from the purveyors of literary soul, Cinco Puntos Press. One year’s book-presenter at the awards ceremony was an avid reader, then-Mayor Ray Caballero. And the Mariachis and Norteno trios that will leave the campers with goose-bumps and the janitors weeping. (The youth Mariachi used to let me sing with them until they found out they would get paid even if they didn’t.) Finally, every camper will receive a “Peace Poster,” with a quote from various historical figures like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi.

Coaches at the Basketball in the Barrio camp come from weirdly diverse backgrounds. We have university students and profs. An Air Force cadet, a poet, two high school players, a YWCA administrator, and a stockbroker. A political activist from Chicago, the head of the NFL Players Association, the president of Athletes United for Peace, a nutritionist, another poet (limit two), an orthopedic surgeon that learned the same dribbling drills starring for UTEP, a European women’s pro player, a labor lawyer, an editor, the NMSU Athletics Director, a TV sportscaster, a couple high school coaches, the UTEP head coach, a painter, an Australian tourist. And me. We work for free; the money goes to the artists and musicians. How about this for diverse? Shoshonna Johnson and Toni Smith (Manhattanville College) will both be at camp.

Ben Saenz says that kids on the border are bombarded by constant media images that show them what it means to be an American.  It never includes anything from la frontera. At Basketball in the Barrio, we tattoo the children with a single message:  It’s cool to be exactly who you are—a kid from the border.

By exposing the children to El Paso artists, working folks and weekend coaches, we try and open their eyes to possibilities that simply couldn’t fit on the confining space of a basketball court.

I wish that I could say this was all my idea, that I had an artistic vision, and I “Just Did It.” That wouldn’t be true. It grew from the ideas of a group of people. Sometimes a Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez comes along and changes the world. More often an idea gets passed around between folks over a period of time, and… surprise! You have the world’s most unique basketball camp.

The truth is that we began having this camp in South El Paso because Rocky Galarza said it would be a good idea. Rocky grew up in the same barrio and dedicated his adult life to teaching El Paso teens discipline and self-confidence through his art—the art of boxing.

He was a coach in the purist sense of the word. He did it for free, six days a week, for the span of three decades. He was the most democratic coach in the world, which of course is why he never became famous or wealthy. Ability and potential meant nothing to him, an opportunity was everything. Kids were somebody special to Rocky just because they walked in the door. They immediately received personal instruction (from the man called “the best boxing coach in El Paso history” at his Hall of Fame induction) in his backyard “gym”.

Take it from me— I used to be a former ex-coach:  Great coaches are not teaching kids on a come-as-you-are basis, free of charge. But Rocky Galarza was.

We still have Rocky’s name on the camp shirts, and always will.

Shortly before Rocky died in 1997, we decided to make the world’s most unique camp the world’s most inexpensive camp. That was the way Rocky wanted it. The kids pay a dollar, if they have it.  That’s why I continue doing the camp: It’s my way of remembering Rocky Galarza and all he taught me. And maybe I’ll get to sing with the Mariachi.

Rus Bradburd coached at UTEP for eight seasons and at NMSU for six, where he completed a writing degree. He was named Coach of the Year in Ireland in 2004 after his Tralee Tigers won the Irish National Super League title. He now teaches  writing classes at NMSU.