Escajeda, Elvira Villa Lacarra (1920–2022)


By: Alana de Hinojosa

Type: Biography

Published: June 15, 2022

Updated: June 20, 2022


Elvira Villa Lacarra Escajeda, community organizer, businesswoman, and seamstress, was the founder of the Chamizal Civic Association, which successfully mobilized the South El Paso barrios condemned by the 1964 Chamizal Treaty. The Chamizal Treaty settled the century-long Chamizal Dispute, which was an international land and boundary conflict over an area known as “El Chamizal” between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.

Escajeda was born Elvira Villa on January 14, 1920, in the El Chamizal area of El Paso, Texas. She was the daughter of Jose Torres Villa and Manuela Parra Casavante Villa—both of whom were immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico. They arrived in El Paso in 1919. Jose Villa was a skilled carpenter and Manuela a homemaker. They had seven children together; Elvira was the first child to be born in the United States. In 1930 the family rented a home on South Florence Street in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio and were active members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. As a girl, Elvira attended Alamo Elementary and Bowie High School. She received an eighth-grade education—of which she was very proud. At an early age she became a skilled seamstress. Known as “Vila,” a nickname given to her by her father, she credited her skill and love for making clothes to her father who taught her how to sew.

By 1940 the Villa family was renting a home on East Third Street in Segundo Barrio. By this time, Elvira Villa was working as a seamstress. The 1940 census listed her place of work as “overall factory.” This may have been referring to the Farah Manufacturing Company where she worked for a short time. During World War II her older brother, Jose Jr., served in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Later, her younger brother, Gilberto, served in the U. S. Marines during the Korean War. Their veteran status would deeply influence Elvira’s politics and organizing during the Chamizal Relocation Project, which oversaw the displacement and relocation proceedings of Chamizal residents in the aftermath of the 1964 Chamizal Treaty.

During the 1940s, as a woman in her twenties, Elvira left El Paso for Los Angeles and had plans to work, save money, and return to El Paso to support her family. In Los Angeles she continued to work as a seamstress and was employed in a coat factory on Hollywood Boulevard. She lived in Los Angeles for six years and made good money. She recalled her time in this city fondly and said she loved making beautiful clothes for Hollywood actors and actresses.

In 1951, after returning to Texas, Elvira and her youngest brother, Gilberto, purchased land for their parents in South El Paso on the corner of Algodon Place in the then-newly-established Cotton Mill Addition to the city of El Paso. On this lot the family built a home. Elvira was especially proud to have helped her father build the house and often fondly recalled assembling the roof herself. At some point, Elvira Villa married Guillermo Lacarra, a World War II veteran. In 1956 she purchased another property in Cotton Mill where she and her husband would live. In 1959 she purchased with her own funds and for her own separate estate a third property across the train tracks in a newly-established subdivision called Rio Linda. Her brother, Jose, also owned property in Rio Linda. In 1961 Elvira Lacarra sold her Rio Linda home and purchased another home in Cotton Mill.

By 1963 these properties—along with the rest of Cotton Mill, Rio Linda, and two residential subdivisions in South El Paso to the east known as Cordova Gardens and El Jardin—were condemned as part of the Chamizal Treaty. Soon the neighborhoods were flagged for demolition as part of settlement preparation to return 437 acres of formerly U.S. territory to Ciudad Juárez. Official government reports estimate a total of 5,600 residents were displaced, but historical records suggest it was likely a larger number. Like Elvira’s brothers and husband, many of those displaced were World War II or Korean War veterans and first-time property owners who had used VA loans to purchase their property. Some families had sons fighting abroad in Vietnam at the time of condemnation proceedings and returned to El Paso only to find their homes and neighborhoods demolished.

In 1963 Elvira Lacarra, who worked at that time as a line supervisor at the Hicks-Ponder Manufacturing Company, founded the Chamizal Civic Association as an advocacy group for Chamizal residents and their rights during displacement proceedings. While newspaper coverage from that time often credited the association to the leadership of men, Elvira served multiple roles in the organization. As both vice president and corresponding secretary, she sent official association letters outlining their positions and proposals to President John F. Kennedy, Senator John Tower, and others. She organized regular meetings with residents in her home, a schoolroom at Sacred Heart School, and at Liberty Hall, where she publicly demanded inclusion in the negotiations of the proposed settlement.  

As a Chamizal Civic Association representative, Elvira Lacarra traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the Chamizal Treaty with elected officials. During this time, she and the association called for transparency and brought to light the failures on the part of local, state, and federal authorities to engage the residents living in the condemned neighborhoods. Back in El Paso, when rumors circulated that condemned properties would be evaluated at their tax value and not at fair-market value, she confronted chief negotiator Thomas C. Mann, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, who was holding meetings at the Hotel Paso del Norte. When Mann refused to see her, she contacted the El Paso Herald-Post and subsequently succeeded at getting Mann to agree to meet with her.

Thereafter, Mann and other politicians met regularly with Elvira and the Chamizal Civic Association. Despite her own leadership role, news coverage on the association often reduced Elvira to the role of secretary. Other El Paso women who were active members and organizers with the association included Agustina Hernandez, Ernestine Busch, and Soledad Loys. The association initially rejected the terms of the Chamizal Treaty and argued that El Chamizal should be protected as a memorial to the many Chamizal residents who were veterans. In an early campaign, the association asked residents to fly the U.S. flag outside their homes until the settlement was ratified to emphasize residents’ civic participation and their role as “good Americans.” Later, the association revised its demands when it became apparent that relocation would move forward and called for treaty negotiation transparency, inclusion in treaty decisions, and information about the details of the redrawn boundary and its impact on residents. The association also continued to emphasize El Chamizal as a military community and the national sacrifice of its veterans. Once ratification of the treaty took place, association members demanded fair-market value, that residents be given replacement of their property in an acceptable area, assurances that no one end up with more debt, and coverage of moving costs. As a result of this activism spearheaded and led by Elvira, the federal government eventually agreed to the association’s terms, though some residents took their cases to court and others refused to leave their homes and were removed through eminent domain. For those who did agree to leave their homes, on moving day G.I. soldiers from the local Fort Bliss arrived in military trucks to help residents move—a gesture of goodwill that was Elvira’s idea and which she had suggested to the authorities of the Chamizal Relocation Project.

Elvira Lacarra attended the bi-national ceremony commemorating the Chamizal Treaty in El Paso on September 25, 1964. She was a special guest of Mexican president Adolfo Lopez-Mateos. Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent her a silver medal in thanks for her role in assisting the U.S. government with the Chamizal Dispute.

After selling their homes in 1965, Elvira and her husband purchased properties on East River Avenue and East Rio Grande Avenue in El Paso. She continued to look after her mother and father who lived with her on East River Avenue until their deaths. After she and her husband divorced, Elvira Villa Lacarra married Leopoldo Escajeda, also a veteran of World War II, on October 28, 1977.

Elvira Escajeda remained active in her community. She was a member of Bienvivir, a senior health facility in El Paso, where she served as a member representative and took meetings with management. A businesswoman, during her lifetime she owned multiple rental properties in El Paso and grocery stores in Segundo Barrio. In her advanced years, Escajeda was the subject of historians of South El Paso and Segundo Barrio. Known for describing herself as a “proud American,” she was featured in the short film Vila in 2006.

Escajeda died on January 16, 2022, just two days after her 102nd birthday, in El Paso. She was buried with her husband, Leopoldo Escajeda, at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.

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El Paso County Deed of Records, El Paso County Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas. El Paso Herald-Post, February 21, 1963. “Elvira ‘Vila’ Escajeda,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/236129108/elvira-escajeda), accessed June 8, 2022. Alana de Hinojosa, “El Río Grande as Pedagogy: The Unruly, Unresolved Terrains of the Chamizal Land Dispute,” American Quarterly 73 (December 2021). Jeffrey M. Schulze, “The Chamizal Blues: El Paso, the Wayward River, and the Peoples in Between,” The Western Historical Quarterly 43 (Autumn 2012).

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • Southwest Texas
  • El Paso

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alana de Hinojosa, “Escajeda, Elvira Villa Lacarra,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/escajeda-elvira-villa-lacarra.

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June 15, 2022
June 20, 2022

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