When I was driving down the Albuquerque alignments of Route 66 last week, I was struck by how familiar everything was. These were roads that my family would drive whenever we’d take my sister to kickboxing, the area where I spent my lunches during a summer program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, old paths that my mom would point out as the place where she grew up. This is, perhaps, one of my favorite parts about this internship: rediscovering old places that I’ve forgotten and viewing them with new context and significance.

The Red Ball Cafe (best known as Wimpy’s) was an iconic Route 66 restaurant. It also was where my mom used to eat as a teen and where, thirty years later, I would go to for lunch during my summer program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The Red Ball Cafe, for example, has been known by residents as a great place to get a good burger without spending too much money. My mom ate there as a teen, and a generation later I did too. It is more popularly known as “Wimpy’s,” after the hamburger-loving Popeye character, but the restaurant took on its own mythos as a contributor to Albuquerque history, Hispanic heritage, and Route 66.

The Red Ball Cafe, up until it closed, was a Hispanic-owned business in the old Barelas neighborhood of New Mexico. This is an historic district that quickly adjusted and transformed to accommodate Route 66 traffic and take advantage of the new form of commerce. It takes its name from the Valera/Balera family who owned an estancia in the area as early as 1662. According to the National Register of Historic Places for the area, “At its peak from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, the Barelas-South Fourth Street Historic District was a thriving automobile commercial strip. It not only served highway traffic and was the primary shopping district for the Barelas neighborhood, but also offered South Valley farmers on their way to downtown a full line of businesses with congenial, bilingual proprietors.” (Sec. 7, pg. 7)

Meanwhile, the Red Ball Cafe served both as a private residence for the owners, the Padilla family, and was also a place where “people came from all over the area to buy hamburgers with red chil[e], six for a dollar.” (Sec. 7, pg. 15)  For my mom and me, though, “Wimpy’s” was just a reliable place to eat some great food that transcended generations.

This area is filled with places like Wimpy’s: personally significant for me and my family, but also considered historically and nationally significant. Hispanic business owners and consumers influenced these roads and chose to operate and frequent businesses that impacted the lives of travelers and residents alike. This is what this project is all about, to highlight the history of these areas and show not just their historical significance but their connection to Hispanic heritage that features transformation and navigation of new forms of transportation, technology, and commerce.

It’s a shame that Wimpy’s closed down. I keep hoping that it will reopen and I can eat one of their burgers again. But until then, there are plenty of other places I can visit along Route 66 in the Fourth Street and Barelas neighborhood, most of which are Hispanic-owned. There’s El Modelos, which has the best stuffed sopapillas known to man; the Dog House, which, while relocated to a different area, still has amazing chile dogs; B. Ruppee’s Drug Store, which is a great location to get herbal remedies based in curanderismo; the house my mother grew up in that is just off of this road and the Catholic Church that we would sometimes go to on Sundays; even the South Valley Animal Clinic, where I take my cat for her shots every year…all on pre-alignment Route 66. Everything has a history, and this area, which maintains a strong connection to Hispanic culture and heritage, is steeped in it.

“South Valley Animal Clinic,” Donatella Davanzo, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

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Written by Gianna May Sanchez
Gianna is a recent master's graduate from the University of New Mexico History Department. She is interested in museum interpretation and public engagement, video games as a medium for education, and the history of reproduction and women's health in the American West. She is an intern for the Hispanic Heritage Along Route 66 project with the National Trails. This fall, she will also begin her Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan. You can follow Gianna on Twitter @MayPlaysGames.