The sun bleached the pavement as Manuel (Manny) Montoya pointed to structures that once stood on what is now St. Francis Drive. We were squinting in the light, cars whipping by with nary a sense of hesitation. It is unlikely that most drivers know of the neighborhood that once occupied that swath of land. Montoya looked on, pointing to the median that sits on the stretch of St. Francis between Dunlap and Alto Street, recalling in his slightly gravelly voice the home that once stood there. "That used to be where the Valdez family lived."
He pointed out others, too—homes that had been torn down for the construction of what the Montoya family ironically refers to as "the highway." They're mostly serious when they say that and, in comparison to what was there before, it is indeed a highway, traffic and all. The traffic, though, is only one symptom of a longer history of displacement the Montoya family spoke about, the era when their barrio was sliced apart.
Beginning June 1, 1963, agents working on behalf of the St. Francis Drive Project began contacting homeowners whose houses were located on its proposed path. With a budget of $700,000, those agents were in the process of establishing right-of-way for a road that was meant to relieve traffic congestion in the downtown area. The construction itself, including a bridge crossing the Santa Fe River, would cost another estimated $750,000. St. Francis Drive's northern section was set to run from the National Cemetery to Sierra Vista, a stretch of land comprised of approximately 120 homes, each needing to be cleared away.
Montoya could name at least five families in the vicinity of the home where he grew up, located at 205 St. Francis Drive. They "were bought out," he says, having to move elsewhere as the road rolled in. In the process, streets like Dunlap were interrupted from their east-west contiguity, picking up on either side of the main drag. Montoya recalls he "was in awe of the earth movers" that readied the space for a two-lane highway that would be flanked by two extra lanes for parking. The building that Stone Garden now occupies, located just south of where he grew up, was only partly in the way of the construction project. As a result, it was sliced in half, one part demoed for St. Francis, the other left intact.
Montoya's mother, Eva Montoya, turned 99 on June 18. Sitting in a kitchen that was added far after the original building was erected in 1927, she mentioned that construction of the road came with a change of address. "We used to be 234 ½ Ambrosio," she says. All the homes crowded behind hers maintained their Ambrosio identification; hers was a kind of buffer between the road and everyone else, the front yard quite literally becoming an asphalt slab. Now it's a kind of scar bearing evidence of displacement long covered over. That family home was built by her in-laws: Emilio Montoya and Vicentita (Barela) Montoya, a renowned seamstress who worked on San Francisco Street. Eva spent the better part of her long life under its roof even as its floorplan morphed over time.
Eva, who proudly drove a teal 1966 Impala until she no longer could, sits with one foot up on a chair as she recollects how the area looked before St. Francis changed everything. There used to be a dairy where cows roamed, cordoned off by a barbed-wire fence. Elsewhere, open fields were interspersed on the land between neighbor's houses. There was even a long brick wall just across the way made with brick produced at the state penitentiary, located where Cordova Road and St. Francis Drive now intersect. She had eight children who made their own kites out of papier-maché. Attached to big balls of twine, the kites caught the wind, taking off far into the sky between the fields and houses.
In addition to Eva and Manny Montoya, Sam Montoya and granddaughter Jessica Eva Montoya Trujillo all sit around the kitchen table, each recalling a different memory, each recalling a different former neighbor. The banter and recollections all felt very Norteño, even if the stories they weave are tinged with a sense of loss. One neighbor, Manny Montoya pointed out, had a sign on his house that read "No Vendan"—"Don't Sell."
The family chuckles as they speak of one neighborhood character who carried on just as he had before the road moved in. Affectionately known as Don Papsi, José Lucero pulled his cart with two burros down St. Francis Drive amidst traffic. Known for wearing coveralls every day of his life, Don Papsi drove his cart to the intersection of St. Francis and Alameda before making his way westward toward the feedstore. He did that as far back as any of the Montoyas could remember.