A thousand years ago, I was half of a young couple, attractive if I may be allowed, the happy parents of two handsome children, the big one still willing to hold the hand of his beautiful mom, the baby still in a four-wheel collapsible that was more a rolling hammock. We didn’t have much. A lousy “good” car, income to pay the monthly rent eleven months a year, a home with barely enough furnishings to look lived in. I knew a few who weren’t better off, but also a few who were, who made car payments, found steady employment that could turn out to be career choices, had newer clothes and cooler shoes. Did we have “ideals” that locked us down, explained why we were staying too poor and not running from poor El Paso? That’s not what I said then or would now. No ideals in my simple mind. True, I didn’t want my wife to work, because we had two small children who needed to be with their mom while they were so young. But aside from less favorable alternatives, that seemed naturally connected to the pregnancies themselves. False, that we had lots of better options. We’d recently moved back to El Paso from years in Los Angeles, unto, finally, we were happy.
One very fine day in the eighties, we were either coming from or going to the McDonald Observatory, or the fort in Fort Davis, or Marfa’s lights, or Big Bend—our purpose then vague after these thousand years. What remains is a stuttered, super 8–like memory of us standing at a highway pullover, staring at El Capitan and the Guadalupe Mountains. Like most, I loved a blue sky that was from the feet up, from this end and corner to that. But it was better still with the howling, hard blow of the West Texas wind, bending the creosote and sage. Higher than any in Texas, the mountains are not all that big to anyone who’s seen the many bigger. But they’re not in the Chihuahuan Desert, and El Capitan is, a limestone tomb carved craggy like an old Mescalero’s face.
We were not alone. There was a young blond woman who, with distant years and evidence aside, I assumed was accompanied. She was wide-eyed, cheery, curious. My wife and I liked her for this, hard to not. Traveling across the American West, she was from Holland or Denmark or Sweden or Germany. In other words, she spoke English precisely, as though each syllable came from a distinct thought. There were many back-and-forths between us, none of which I remember whatsoever, except: And us, where were we from? Standing in the ancient desert, the history of the Southwest as visible as an agave’s thorn, my wife answered that she was Mexican and I was Mexican and German, but where we lived was El Paso.
The woman responded quickly. “El Paso? Isn’t that the armpit of Texas?” She enunciated each syllable innocently, not building toward sarcasm or contempt but into a sincere question mark, as though simply recalling a geographic phrase she’d read in a paperback travel guide. It was as if she’d learned that New Mexico’s slogan was “Land of Enchantment,” while this armpit one was what went on El Paso’s license plates.
I have no memory after that moment. As happy as we were out in the wind, in the sun, under blue sky, we were as happy in our quarry-rock home, every night black and starry gorgeous outside it, nothing but quiet. We were happy inside together, all together, all better. We loved El Paso. How did bright people like us—both of us educated exceptions to our family histories—find this place so beautiful to live? Why do people not from El Paso find it so ugly?
With John Wesley Hardin buried on Boot Hill, and Pancho Villa its most legendary resident, an untamed West is El Paso’s lure for visiting outsiders who see history not as the past alone. They’re pulled all in by the mythic (which is to say, not visible) charms of the winding Rio Grande and dangerous border. Hot red-chile enchiladas still digesting, they’re remembering a horse they once rode, or dreaming of the one they could’ve or should’ve—and done that and not just this. They’re at a spacious, sparkly downtown bar, a double whiskey no ice, or a shot of tequila. And if there were a shake of love? Yes, it’s a song coming!
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s cantina Music would play and Felina would whirl.
The lyrics of the 1959 hit “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins, have fixed a romanticized country-western fantasy onto the city for over fifty years. It is not one that nests inside native residents—the local population of around 665,000 is more than 80 percent Mexican American—only an awareness of the other culture that views theirs as exotic. Consider, if you will, the possibility of a hit song about a hot, wicked, evil, blue-eyed “dancer” named Jane in an all-Anglo club on the dimly lit perimeter of a city. Two Mexicans fight over her attentions (she was sharing a drink with the more handsome, younger new guy). One kills the other and flees through the back door, peeling out for the safe badlands. But the vato can’t bear to exist without Jane’s love. So he goes back where he’s not too welcome. They’re waiting for him. Ignoring a windstorm of bullets, he doesn’t quit moving forward until a blast hits his chest. Now Jane rushes out of the club and, as he is dying, kneels by him, kissing his cheek, cradling him. He kisses sweet Jane goodbye.
Though more what you’d imagine seeing on an episode of Cops, the “El Paso” tale is recounted as a nostalgic romance—of the bad, dark woman, the manly cowboy, crossing borders, living fearlessly—for those whose Jane is Felina. It’s hard