Many Barrio Hollywood residents remember a time when they had dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Because there were no municipal swimming pools, kids would swim in irrigation ditches.
Meanwhile, preserving Mexican-American culture was not on the city government agenda, as officials bulldozed blindly through nearby neighborhoods, hungering for a bustling downtown.
But residents' pride in their community kept the barrio as a place with a beautiful story. That story will be told Sunday, when Cine Plaza at the Fox presents Daniel Buckley's documentary on the neighborhood.
Buckley, a filmmaker and journalist, began telling the stories of historic Mexican-American neighborhoods when his friend Julie Gallego came to him with the idea of re-creating the old Cine Plaza for a few nights. The Cine Plaza, a Spanish-language theater downtown, was a casualty of urban renewal.
"In the 1960s, it was torn down, along with a lot of Mexican neighborhoods, so that (the city) could build court buildings, the convention center, all of that," Buckley said.
Many members of the community have wonderful memories of meeting friends at the theater in its heyday. So Buckley, Gallego and her father, Ralph Gonzalez, began interviewing people about the history of the Cine Plaza. Originally, they recorded the footage as a gift for the Arizona Historical Society.
"We never had any intention of making a documentary," Buckley said.
But the footage grew into not just one 15-minute documentary, but several, including one on Barrio Anita, and one on urban renewal. The documentaries were screened at the Fox Tucson Theatre as part of a new Cine Plaza series—with each documentary preceding a Spanish-language film with English subtitles—and the response was tremendous.
"The crowds just kind of grew from week to week," Buckley said. "It went very, very well."
The documentaries evoked strong emotions from many of the people who attended, Buckley said.
"Last year, we would see people crying," he said.
Other moments brought back pleasant memories. One film showed a 70-year-old photograph of children on the steps of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Barrio Anita. A man in the audience, surprised, said, "That's me holding the flag!"
Buckley says the story of the barrios is a classic American tale of human generosity and love for one's community.
"For all of the poverty that there was in these communities, and hardship ... when you walk into these houses, it's a family like any other family," Buckley said.
He said the neighborhoods are often pigeonholed as places where gangs run rampant, and crime is high.
"So many times, the barrios get such a bad rap," he said. "Nobody tells the stories of the real people who live there."
Buckley is constantly surprised by the people he interviews, and how willing they are to invite him into their homes to share personal stories.
"The generosity of most of these people moves me deeply," he said.
He said many of the people featured in the film spoke lovingly of the Chinese market owners who would let them buy groceries on credit when times were rough. A few recalled that when they went to pay their debt, the market owners gave them bags of candy and toys for their children.
Barrio Hollywood residents were proud of their status as Americans, Buckley said. Families who had sons at war would place stars on the front of their houses—one color for a son in active duty, another for a son wounded, another for one killed.
"While they don't say it like this, what I've come to conclude is the experience in the service made them feel like whole and important people, that they had something to contribute," Buckley said.
Buckley's new Barrio Hollywood documentary will also show some elements of what life in the neighborhood is like today, including footage of this year's Fiesta Grande street fair.
The documentary series will probably continue for another three or four years, Buckley said. He has several ideas for topics already: the El Casino Ballroom, the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, the amateur hour that used to be held at the Cine Plaza, and the Mexican civil rights movement.
Buckley said it's important to make these films now, while there are still people to speak about the rich history of the barrios.
"Unless you talk to these older people who remember these stories, they all go away," he said.
This Sunday, the documentary will precede a showing of El Rapto, a classic Mexican romantic comedy featuring Maria Felix and Jorge Negrete.