Some people you never forget. They stay with you long after the interview is over and your notebook is closed. Petra Guillen is one of those people. This is a story I wrote about the impact of gentrification on her family, and an essay I wrote later about her.
Change crept across North Saint Charles Street like a slow tide, rolling inexorably toward Petra Guillen’s shotgun-style home.
Longtime neighbors moved away. Houses began to sag in disrepair or fall to a bulldozer’s blade. Weed-choked lots spread over the landscape like a shroud.
Guillen remained steadfast.
This was her street, her neighborhood, her own small corner of the world. And she had long vowed never to leave.
Nearly all of her 95 years had been spent on the block tucked between Canal and Commerce, in the heart of Second Ward. Guillen moved there as a toddler, settled into No. 31 as a newlywed, and stayed on as the matriarch of an ever-expanding clan.
In the 1,200-square-foot white home, she had raised 13 children, celebrated weddings and baptisms and birthdays, mourned the passing of a mother, a husband, a son and a daughter.
Then, early last January, Guillen heard from Perry Homes.
The developer, one of many steadily buying up space in the East End, had purchased the empty tracts adjacent to her property. Now, the home builder wanted to know if Guillen might be interested in selling.
She considered the tug of countless memories: the rooms crammed with beds in every nook and niche, the wedding photo hanging for decades on the living room wall, the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe nestled among the rose bushes in her front garden.
Then she remembered how lonely and strange her once-intimate street often felt these days, how clusters of rectangular townhomes, with iron gates and unfamiliar people, crowded closer and closer.
Perhaps it was time to let go.
Yet, her heart and soul were planted here, in the bedrock of Houston’s earliest Mexican community.
As she wrestled with the decision, Guillen, a devout Catholic and faithful parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, did what she has always done. She looked to heaven for guidance.
Please, she prayed, what should I do?
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This is the essay I wrote about Petra Guillen.
A Houston life, framed by faith and family
Her journey from immigrant childhood to community icon mirrored the city’s from nascent oil-town to mighty metropolis.
Petra Guillen came here as a 2-year-old. Her family, driven out of their country by a revolution, became part of the first wave of Mexicans drawn to Houston by the promise of jobs.
She lived the rest of her life in the East End, a traditional Latino stronghold, where she raised 13 children and became the matriarch of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Most of those years were spent on the same street in Second Ward, in the same 1,200-square-foot white house: 31 North St. Charles.
Guillen and her home remained steadfast as long-time neighbors were replaced by younger, more affluent newcomers, as old homes sagged and splintered and gated townhomes sprung up.
Until last year, when she sold her property to a developer and moved in with a daughter.
Click here to read the rest of the essay.