Do we need a “Senior Lives Matter Movement” for full reopening of El Paso’s Senior Citizen Centers?

At the El Paso City Council meeting on June 22, 2021 Mayor Oscar Leeser asked city staff to come up with a plan on the reopening of the senior centers.

Instead of coming up with a plan, two city representatives submitted an Opinion Editorial which was published in the El Paso Times on June 27th titled “City to open the senior centers in phases.” In the article, city representatives presented a limited plan concerning the reopening of the senior centers.

The city’s fiscal year ends on August 31, 2021.  If the current budget remains tight, what is the city’s plan for full reopening on September 1, 2021 within the new fiscal year?

Perhaps the city representatives felt that their opinion editorial would circumvent the creation of a real plan with specific dates and deliverables?  If the reopening of the seniors centers would have impacted the two city representatives would they have opted for the opinion editorial?

The opinion editorial highlights what has plagued the City of El Paso since the closing of the senior centers in March 2020—lack of transparency and communication for a senior population facing various other issues, among them, the digital divide.  The city could have easily communicated with seniors, over the course of the year, but they failed to do so.

Rosemary Neil, who like many other El Pasoans, is following the issue of the reopening of the senior centers, asked “If the current budget remains tight, what is the city’s plan for full reopening on September 1, 2021 with a new fiscal year?” That’s a very good question and hopefully, that question can be answered soon and hopefully not as part of another opinion editorial.

Part of the problem regarding the reopening of the senior centers is that there has been under-reporting on the issues surrounding them, thus, do we need to ask if we need a “Senior Citizen Lives Matter” movement for the reopening of the senior citizen centers in El Paso and for senior needs to be addressed?

Seniors Speak Out on the Issues at the Senior Centers

There may also be issues of race and class in who city officials and other politicians pay attention to? We have to ask if seniors were predominantly white and affluent would there be a different re-opening strategy?

Some of the members of the Pavo Real Senior Center spoke to us about why the centers needed to be opened.

Anselmo Moreno, “We deserve a definite answer to when the centers will be opened; we are not children.”

Anselmo Moreno, currently serves as President of the Pavo Real Senior Center concilio (council).  He has been a member of the senior center for four years and has served as president of the concilio for three years.  Moreno said in previous years there weren’t senior centers like in the United States but there was governmental old age aid (auxicilio de ancianos).  He said he wasn’t sure if today there were centers like the senior centers in the United States.  Seniors in Mexico were taken care of by their children and their families.  Mr. Moreno said that before March 2020, the Pavo Real Senior Center, had over 300 members.

Moreno said he felt proud about the meeting with the City Council when Pavo Real senior center members asked Mayor Leeser and city representatives to open their center. Moreno said he felt proud of seniors spoke about the need to reopen their senior.  He said that one of their members, Mr. Julio Aleman has visited other centers in other cities in Texas and has found that, for the most part, they were open.

Moreno said they are talking about attending all meetings because he feels that no one listens to them. “It is a vicious cycle of them not listening to us, of them taking our needs into consideration,” he said.  “They throw the hot potato around, someone grabs it and then throws it to someone else—that is not right,” he said. He said he suggested to members in a previous meeting that Pavo Real has “veterans who fought for this country; there are people who have paid their taxes their whole lives for others to be playing games with them.”

Erosion of the food quality: “The food was so bad that seniors would bring in their own food rather than eat what was being served.”  

Moreno also said that he feels quality of the food seniors are given has eroded.  “The food is bad, very bad,” he said.  He said three years ago the food they served them at the senior centers was good, but then they changed vendors or their budgets were reduced and the food quality suffered, he said.  He said the food was so bad that seniors would bring in their own food rather than eat what was being served.  He said seniors have complained and made suggestions about the food but senior center staff have not paid attention to them.

El Paso Seniors have discovered that they can speak with a unified voice. 

Moreno said that not having the senior centers opened as in other Texas cities and not having politicians listen to them has necessitated them organizing themselves so they can start speaking with one voice.  He feels their collective voice can only grow and having spoken at the June 22nd meeting has helped them move in that direction.

Seniors stated that in past years, past senators, state representatives, city council members, and commissioners used to bring cakes and goodies to them when they wanted their vote. Seniors said going forward they will remember who helped them reopen their centers and who didn’t.

Julio Aleman, retired city employee used his background as a city worker and called other Texas cities to see if their senior centers had been opened?

Julio Aleman was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico but came to El Paso when he was 21-years-old when his father passed away. He has lived in El Paso since 1971.  He previously worked with the City of El Paso in the Parks and Recreation Department and in the Community Development Department and in the SAVE 2000 Program.

Aleman said he went to visit his daughter in Florida.  She and her husband took Aleman to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and when he visited those states, he decided to call the senior centers along the way to see if they had reopened.  He called four places, Fayetteville, Charlottesville, Savannah and Jacksonville; the senior centers told him that they were already open.

That they had opened the senior centers since March 2021.  When he returned to El Paso, the senior centers in the town his daughter lived in had also opened.  Aleman wondered why the centers in El Paso had not been reopened?

Aleman said he visited San Antonio and called one of the senior centers there and he was told that they had been open since May 2021 and that they had been having regular activities. He also called the senior centers in Ft. Worth, Austin, Houston and Dallas and he found out they too were opened, but with limits.  Centers had been open and they factored in precautions they were taking. When he returned to El Paso Aleman wondered why the centers were not open.  He said that he noted El Paso’s swimming pools, the water parks, and the senior centers seem to have been clustered into one group run under one director.  He feels that is not right.

If Julio Aleman, a retired city employee could call other Texas cities and see if their senior centers were opened, couldn’t the city leadership have done the same, instead of writing opinion editorials?

He also said that in other parts of the state the city monitors senior centers while in El Paso, the centers are not monitored by the directors.  He stated the directors don’t come out of their offices. He feels only about 20 percent of the senior citizen directors do a thorough job of running their centers and the rest of them are just there to get a paycheck.  Aleman said that during the pandemic he often visited seniors over the age of 85 to help them with their smartphones which became vital for them to communicate with their families.

Aleman questioned whether Parks and Recreation and water parks directors and workers could also work with seniors at the same time?  He didn’t think they could.  We do wonder why the City of El Paso sought to merge all distinct departments under one person who doesn’t have the experience?  Was it to save money?

Carlos Villamar said seniors need people at the centers who care about them and who are not just there to receive a paycheck.

Carlos Villamar is in charge of the loteria and the bingo at Pavo Real.  He has been at the center for four years.  He said his intent is to have people get involved in playing bingo so they can maintain their mental alertness.  He said la loteria and bingo aids seniors in mental dexterity.  He feels the games he manages helps seniors be more active and have a better quality of life.  He would often see people come to the center in the morning to talk with others, while some just came to the center to converse with others.

He feels the lack of socializing has resulted in many people leaving them because they have lacked people to speak with or have lacked the ability to get regular exercise or have lacked activities and have entered into depression.  He states the lack of all activities have gravely affected the seniors. As an example, Villamar stated that there is a great person who works at Pavo Real and if more people like him worked at senior centers, more people would be happier.  He stated if centers had more funding, they could do a better job of maintaining the buildings and obtaining things that they needed, more activities, more dances since many seniors like to dance.

He said seniors host dances every month and also celebrate birthdays in large ways.  They celebrate everyone who has a birthdate on specific months together.  He said the senior center directors took away the directors and sent them to the pools and to other centers because people left or were fired and since there is a lack of personnel, the center directors were removed and he feels that is why they have been unable to open, although they are given numerous excuses.

Villamar states that money has been allocated for the senior centers but doesn’t know what has happened to the funds?  Also given the American Rescue Plan and other governmental stimulus funds, we wonder why senior centers are struggling to hire workers?  Villamar said directors offer seniors appeasements to silence them.

Seniors who have often stated that they are living on borrowed time say that they are paying the price for ill-planned decisions to reopen the senior centers.  Next to the pandemic, then to issues getting vaccinated, for the past year, the lack of communication has been the major obstacle.

Seniors want their centers to be opened the entire day and not only for three hours.  Many seniors lack the means to stay cool in the hot summer months; their coolers may not work as well; they need to be inside their centers which have air conditioned areas; they need regular and good meals; they may need physical therapy and exercise; and they need to see their friends who can help them maintain their minds and their animo (their spirits).

Just like the City of El Paso has various city committees, perhaps there could be a City-wide Senior Citizen Advisory Committee to support seniors and their needs?

El Paso’s seniors are independent and deserve to be treated well.  They followed the rules and have been diligent in taking the vaccines but are being treated unfairly in the opening of their centers.  If Julio Aleman, a retired city employee could call other Texas cities and see if their senior centers were opened, couldn’t the city leadership have done the same instead of writing opinion editorials?

Nellie Fierro, the 2012 Queen of Pavo Real, has been asking for a ramp for seniors for the last five years so seniors can use it when the fire alarm rings. 

Nellie Fierro said she first came to the center to take dance classes.  She is a member of the concilío and has been a member of Pavo Real Senior Center for the past eleven years. In 2012, she was the Queen of Pavo Real.  In 2012 and 2013 she served as a treasurer for the center.  In the former concílio she served as Vice President and she has been a member of the current concílio for the last three years.  She is in charge of a group who decorates the hall every month for the dances.  She organizes the annual queen event.  She also organizes the exercise program.

For the last year, the seniors who can still exercise had been calling her to see when the center was going to be open so they could begin exercising.  She decided to start exercising outside of the center.  The city asked her if she could begin doing exercises outside and she said she needed to wait until everyone was vaccinated. She chalked the floor so participants could social distance and they began exercising with marks.  They no longer use masks.  The problem she has exercising outside is that although they start early in the morning, it is beginning to get hotter.

On April 16th when they closed the center, Fierro said that they had a director who refused to open the door so people could go to the bathroom.  The last two weeks she disconnected the extension cord which ran outside that they used to connect to.  Fierro said the seniors have access to two portable bathrooms but they are seemingly always dirty.  She also said that right now they need to be inside, as opposed to being outside.  For the last five years she has been asking for a ramp for seniors which they use when the fire alarm sounds.

Mayor Leeser and El Paso City Council, senior lives’ matter, please reopen El Paso’s senior centers.

Author: Miguel Juárez

Juárez is a multi-disciplinary scholar, artist and Paseño (El Pasoan) and the Editor-in-Chief of El Paso News. He has an MLS from SUNY Buffalo and a BA, MA and PhD from UTEP, as well as graduate Arts Administration and Museum Studies coursework from CSU Dominguez Hills and CSU Long Beach. 


The El Paso Herald-Post welcomes guest columns, open letters, letters to the Editor and analysis pieces for publication, to submit a piece or for questions regarding guidelines, please email us at [email protected]

Check out our opinion page by clicking here.