ON THE EASTERNMOST EDGE OF EL PASO, where the city gives way to the barren flats of the Chihuahuan Desert, the place once known as El Barrio de los Indios shimmers along the border after dusk, its casino resplendent in gaudy electric signs and antler chandeliers, reverberating with the sound of money. One can hear it any time of day, drifting out toward the Tigua Indian reservation: the relentless bells of slot machines and the shuffling of cards, the staccato patter of the number caller in the bingo hall, the coins rattling against metal. To see the casino at full tilt is to marvel at the resiliency of a tribe that has persisted, despite all odds, for the past three centuries—and to marvel at the blind faith of its neighbors, who are drawn there, night after night, on the strength of possibility. They jangle the change in their pockets in jittery anticipation as they walk up Old Pueblo Road: sunburned tourists in string ties and Juárez businessmen in guayaberas, retirees and office girls and Mexican day laborers, grandmothers clutching bingo markers and good-luck charms, young men wearing ironed Wranglers and cocksure grins beneath their black cowboy hats. They file past the seventeenth-century mission church—whose small bronze plaque reads, “For the civilizing and Christianizing of the Tigua Indians”—and into the casino next door, where they reach for their wallets and head for the card tables, invariably leaving behind hundreds of thousands of dollars a night.
The parade of gamblers and fortune seekers has transformed the long-beleaguered Tigua tribe into a West Texas empire, one whose casino generates, by the most conservative of estimates, a $60 million tax-free windfall each year. It is a staggering reversal of fortune, an upset in power unprecedented in this corner of the state, where even the most destitute of Mexican Americans have long regarded the Indians in their midst with contempt. Only a generation ago, the Tigua were living in mud huts that they lit with kerosene lamps, scavenging food from the city dump, and walking the streets of El Paso barefoot. Now flush with casino cash, they have become the most dynamic political force in West Texas, contributing lavishly to political campaigns and filing a slew of lawsuits aimed at increasing the tribe’s wealth and sphere of influence. Their ambitions have resulted in a fight with the federal government over the title to the better part of six West Texas counties, as well as a $4 billion lawsuit against the State of Texas seeking back rent on land within the city of El Paso, land which the Tigua believe they rightfully own. “People used to look at us and say, ‘ los indios,’” explains the tribe’s governor, Vince Muñoz, trying to convey the revulsion with which those words were usually delivered. “But now,” he says, smiling broadly and gesturing around his office—an executive suite outfitted with marble floors—“everyone wants to be a Tigua.”
Such power and prosperity should be a source of celebration for the tribe, but when I first visited the reservation, on a mild winter evening this past February, it was clear that the Tigua’s good fortune had brought upon them a new kind of despair. I arrived just as a longstanding intertribal feud had reached its breaking point: Three blocks from the casino, tribal police officers armed with shotguns were pulling dozens of tribe members from their homes, leading them in handcuffs to the reservation’s edge, and ordering them never to return. This was officially a fight over Indian blood—who had it and who didn’t—but it was, at its heart, a fight for the soul of the tribe, which some believe has been corrupted by sudden, wild wealth. “Our traditional way of life has disappeared,” laments Marty Silvas, the tribe’s banished war captain, the keeper of traditions, who hid the Tigua’s sacred drum in protest, instigating what has become, literally, a blood feud. “The elders can’t speak their mind, there is no respect for traditions, people are paid to dance. There was once a connection between all of us because we were fighting for a just cause. Now we are being ruined by greed.”
IT WAS GOLD, OR RATHER CORONADO’S VAIN SEARCH FOR IT, that first brought the Tigua in contact with the world of their conquerors. Lured by travelers’ stories of the Seven Cities of Cíbola—a mythic empire paved with gold, where sapphires and rubies were so plentiful that they served as children’s playthings—Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his caravan of soldiers traveled in 1540 from Mexico to the province of Tiguex, in what is now northern New Mexico. There he discovered the Tigua, who a subsequent sixteenth-century explorer described as “handsome and fair-skinned” people who were “willing to serve.”