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An interstate erased the 'Lost Barrio of Indianapolis,' but its legacy lives on

Residents who became lifelong friends remember neighborhood
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-11 07:00:09-04

This is the second installment in an occasional series looking at the history and effects of the Indianapolis interstate system as the state rebuilds the North Split. Read part one here.

INDIANAPOLIS — Feliciano and Maria Espinoza loved their community and wanted to remain in their home, but the state declared eminent domain. They couldn’t stay — the bulldozers and wrecking balls were ready.

What happened to the Espinozas’ multi-story house at 810 E. North St. was a scenario that repeated in cities across the country in the era when the nation's highways were built, demolishing and dividing neighborhoods.

Their home was one of 8,000 buildings torn down in Indianapolis a half-century ago to make way for the city’s interstate system.

Feliciano, Maria and their eight children lived in a tight-knit barrio — a neighborhood of people from Spanish-speaking families — on the near east side. They were among the 17,000 Indianapolis residents displaced by highway construction.

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The Espinoza family posed for a photo inside the El Nopal Market, one of the city's first Mexican grocery stores, which was located on the first floor of their home at 810 E. North St.

Former residents described the barrio as a place where they felt welcomed and accepted in an era of segregation in Indianapolis. The neighborhood was home not just to Latino families, but also Black, Jewish, German and Italian ones as well. Many of those who lived there as children remain lifelong friends.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Espinoza home served as an epicenter for the small community of Mexican-American residents who lived in an area near North, Davidson, Pine and Market streets.

Neighborhood cookouts were held in the yard, and the husband and wife operated one of the city’s first Mexican grocery stores, El Nopal Market, out of the home’s first floor. The store fed and served not just the surrounding Mexican community, but Latino residents from around Indianapolis.

“We would also get people coming from other places around the city because they knew they could get those Mexican products, and it wasn’t just Mexican products,” said Connie Hamm, Feliciano and Maria Espinoza’s daughter. “We sold Cuban coffee and other foods from Latin countries, so because of that my parents got to know Colombians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, the other Latin communities as well.”

But, “It was lost,” Hamm said. “Unfortunately, the government claimed eminent domain, which basically forced us to move, so then they tore the buildings down, which was a shame.”

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Feliciano Espinoza serves a customer at El Nopal Market in Indianapolis.

Moving to the Midwest

While people of Mexican descent have lived in Indiana since the 19th century, significant population growth occurred after the U.S. government tapped Mexico for labor relief in 1918, according to Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, who researches Indiana's Latino and Asian communities as the Indiana Historical Society's multicultural collections coordinator. In 2020, she published an article on the east-side barrio titled “The Lost Barrio of Indianapolis.”

In the 1920s, labor agents in Texas brought Mexican-Americans to the Midwest for contract work in such large numbers that Texas officials passed laws limiting their activities and levied fines against them for being in the state and recruiting for non-Texas jobs, Martinez-LeGrand said.

“The Midwest almost didn’t exist. It was almost like another country, I feel like, in terms of Mexicans understanding the United States because they primarily stayed in Texas and out west and the coast,” she said.

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Marilyn Maxwell (left) and Conseuelo Espinoza posed for a photo in 1965.

Railroad work eventually brought many to Indianapolis from northern Indiana, including Feliciano Espinoza and Jesus Quintana Sr., another of the barrio’s community leaders.

The exact number of Mexican-American residents in Indianapolis during the early-to-mid 20th century is impossible to tally because they were statistically invisible until the 1980 U.S. Census, according to Martinez-LeGrand. In that year’s survey, for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau asked the entire population a question about Hispanic or Spanish origin or descent.

The city’s new residents faced discrimination. Hamm remembered that when her father first lived in the Ben Davis area on the west side, in the 1950s, he saw signs on restaurant doors that read, “No Blacks. No dogs. No Mexicans.”

A sense of community

In the little east-side barrio, though, residents found community and support. Many worshiped together at St. Mary's Catholic Church, while children rode bikes and played at a city park on Spring Street. Families bonded during gatherings at each other’s homes.

“There is so much more to tell about growing up in that area, and it was only 7-8 years, and although the neighborhood is gone, we are all still friends,” Rey Riojas said. “How many people can say they have known each other all of their lives?

“And here is a community that because of where we lived and the camaraderie of our parents, how we were raised, we have all become lifelong friends to this day and, for me, it's 60-plus years with this core group of Latinos from the old barrio or, as we refer to it, the ‘old neighborhood.’”

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Many of the children who grew up in the barrio on the near east side of Indianapolis became lifelong friends.

Maria Quintana, a former executive with JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Indianapolis, grew up in a home at 709 N. Davidson St. and described front-yard parties hosted by her father, Jesus Sr., a Mariachi singer who played the guitar for guests.

“It was always party central at our house,” Quintana said. "You know, the guys out in the front yard, singing and drinking and playing. It was always interesting to me because they’d dress their Sunday best. ... It was a very musical family, if you will. The brothers playing guitars and singing, and so that passed down through the generations.”

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Jesus Quintana Sr. was a Mariachi singer and played the guitar at gatherings hosted at his family's home.

The contributions and impact of people in the barrio extended outward throughout Indianapolis and the state. When he wasn't working behind the counter at El Nopal Market, Feliciano Espinoza, who died in 2007, traveled to migrant worker communities in Elwood and Marion to deliver tortillas, produce, musical records and other goods.

“He’d listen. I think that was the biggest thing. He would listen to people, and he saw the needs and he filled them,” Hamm said.

‘The Lost Barrio’

Mounds of dirt and pits in the ground where homes and businesses previously stood are what Hamm remembers most about her family’s final days in the barrio.

“We would play in those areas because it was more of a playground,” she said.

Her family was among the last to leave the neighborhood. Hamm said she does not know if her father attempted to hold out for more money or if he just did not like the situation.

“There were eight kids and we had to find a house that would suit everybody,” said Hamm, who served in the Marine Corps and later worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs as an employee network information security officer. “We moved only a couple blocks away, but the house was much, much smaller and all of us girls had to end up sharing a room and there were six of us girls.”

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Maria Espinoza posed with a photo with her family's dog, Duke.

Indianapolis residents in the path of interstate construction often lived in neighborhoods impacted by redlining, a discriminatory practice in place from 1933-1968, following the formation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Redlining prevented people living in neighborhoods shaded in red on a map indicating “hazardous” from being eligible for government-backed home mortgage loans.

As in other redlined areas of Indianapolis where highways divided neighborhoods, such as Ransom Place on the near west side and the community around Babe Denny Park to the south, residents of the barrio lacked the political clout to fight construction plans or even get a fair price for their homes after officials declared eminent domain.

Riojas, an Indianapolis-based photographer, described the experience of driving over his former neighborhood located just south of the North Split, which is undergoing an 18-month reconstruction.

“We would drive by every so often and see some of the progress that was being made and we always made a comment as we got older that we lived under the interstate before it was there,” Riojas said.

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An Indianapolis redlining map with the interstate system overlaid.

Quintana lamented the challenges people faced in the time following their displacement.

Her parents moved their eight children to a home near East 10th Street and North Hamilton Avenue where neighbors petitioned to keep them from moving in. She said it was the first time she felt the effects of discrimination.

“For me,” Quintana said, “the most compelling message is what happens when you go through a neighborhood that is as eclectic as our was and as diversified as ours was and you blow it up to build an interstate and how that sense of belonging, that sense of diversity is challenged on, especially, the young, and how difficult you make it on the lives of the more senior folks.”

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The Quintana family posed for a photo in the 1960s in front of their home at 709 N. Davidson St.

‘Those things aren’t being forgotten’

In 1971, Feliciano Espinoza and a friend, Tulio Guldner, established the Hispano-American Multiservice Center to provide support and resources for the city's Latino community. The center, at 617 E. North St., received the support of then-Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar.

The organization, also known as El Centro and The Hispanic Center, merged in 2004 with the Hispanic Education Center and FIESTA Indianapolis to form La Plaza Inc., the city’s largest nonprofit serving Latino residents.

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The area of the barrio is under construction again as the Indiana Department of Transportation reconstructs the North Split and the roads and bridges leading to it.

The barrio, and later the community center, made it easier for other Latino residents and organizations to come into Indianapolis and make an impact, Hamm noted. There are now multiple Mexican grocery stores throughout the city and finding bilingual resources is no longer a rarity.

“Those things weren’t around before and somebody had to start those things, and I believe they were an important part,” Hamm said. “The community center with Mr. Gulder and my dad, they were an important part in getting those things started and they blazed the path for those types of acceptance.

“It was just a reminder that we were there and we existed, and those type of things aren’t as much of an issue now because there’s so many Hispanics in the community. You don’t get total acceptance, but you do get, for the majority, a lot of acceptance. And, so, I’m just glad that those things aren’t being forgotten. History will live on.”

READ | ‘Under the highway’: How interstates divided Indianapolis neighborhoods and displaced 17,000 people | Indianapolis woman shares story of how south side neighborhood was impacted by I-70 | Southside neighbors reunite for annual picnic