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 to deny that it’s not the best image for El Paso’s women to start out from. Compare that to a woman from Paris or L.A. Doubtful, too, it’s the model El Paso itself would choose. Though not everybody, for example, thinks of the JFK assassination as Dallas, it lingers steadily, a second if not first thought. Chicago hasn’t seen Al Capone since the thirties, yet there he is when people go mentally, or even actually. These images are what draw tourists in, and El Paso takes what it’s given, as any city would. Everyone, everywhere, wants to fall in love with the outlaw, or the sexiest, or to be free of civilized restrictions other than those defined by Freud and guns, living life as an adventure. El Paso as the last outpost of the Old West isn’t a bad business.
It’s the border town in this adventure fantasy that’s the problem. Because the border is “foreign,” El Paso is treated as though it were too. Not Romania, or Laos, or Uruguay, or Canada, but full of unique stereotypes that reach back a century and more. Ask Texans, even, what they think of when they think of El Paso, and there’s no doubt that if it’s not specifically Juárez (more so now, way wrongly, than ever because of the narco violence), it’s generally Mexico. That’s not to say that there aren’t positives about having an association with our culturally rich, beautiful friend with a shared past. There’s the tradition of fine art and architecture, the historical missions and trails. There are the ornately staged and costumed folklórico dances, the mariachis with brass and strings, the famed boleros and corridos, the música ranchera and American tejano. Above all, there are the plates of tacos and enchiladas, the flour tortilla, fajitas: all of this is extraordinarily popular within and across ethnic lines. And it’s now all become a source of pride in Texas, but even more as Texas.
Unfortunately, the city that has benefited here is San Antonio, not El Paso. That’s because San Antonio is not a border town. Far from Mexico, it’s a safe American city with a huge tourist center that especially highlights all of the above, lucratively, on its River Walk.
El Paso shares the border with Juárez. To those driving by, it’s subliminal Mexico or a real one, cheap-motels scary. Is it only coincidence that the ugliest things that outsiders say about the city and its residents are the same things said about Mexicans in neighborhoods everywhere? We have all heard them in their formal disguises and convoluted euphemisms. It really comes down to poverty. In this country’s history, maybe dislike of Mexican poverty only looks a lot like racism. A couple of the dumbest canards are that these are people who don’t care about speaking English (and, oddly, don’t speak Spanish properly either), and that the girls get pregnant so young because it’s Mexican in nature. Or that the same nature keeps them in jobs that are menial and low-paying, just as their heritage doesn’t value educating children. And . . . look at the dirty streets.
How can it be that so many are so naive as to confuse issues of poverty, a socioeconomic condition, with the essence of a people? Or a city? But I ask you right now to recall that European visitor outside the city limits, who simply acquired her information impersonally.
This lowly projection is not just offensive; it’s factually untrue, false about El Paso, where a population of strong, good families reaches back to the Mexican and American eras. Texas is not Arizona, where a list like the above would be longer, and more public and overtly racist. In Texas even the worst bigots are polite and believe that it’s better to say nothing if you don’t got nothing decent to say. El Paso doesn’t have the economies of Houston or Dallas or Austin. It is poor. And poor doesn’t look as bright-lights, fashion-glamorous, haute-cuisine, big-stadium, or high-tech as rich.
If not outright dismissed, El Paso more often feels ignored. And so it is, in the silence, six hundred miles from the state capitol. How I’ve heard it explained is thus: she is the dark child of a crazy night on the border, and married Austin pays his legally obliged child support. The rest of Texas ought to have sympathy for El Paso’s larger, unseemly reputation. Much of the country still reports that it’s what all the state, end to end, looks like for hours and hours of highway—and as unexplainably wild as the West Texas wind, even as most days are as wide blue and bright sunny as . . . most days really.
Those dirty streets of El Paso. It’s absolutely true that, like on a worn horse trail, the dry dirt that dusts up in the wind is not held down by well-groomed, watered green meadows. In the desert, brown is the dominant earth tone. Just like in an old western. Like the Old West in a popular country-western song even.
There is good reason why so many love the West—the historical fable of it, its natural beauty, the opportunity to start over it has always symbolized. Only one city is still so landlocked in both an American past and a Mexican one, a combination that will be the foundation of our New West. The raw forces of desert are still a daily part of El Paso life, from vinegaroons and scorpions, tumbleweed and ocotillo to the throbbing of the sun and the horizontal speed of the wind, resources of metaphor and energy. The beauty that reaches up into the Franklin Mountains and over to Hueco Tanks. A legacy of Spanish conquistadores, from canals to routes, an Indian nation transplanted after a loss in a world war–like, seventeenth-century battle of cultures, a settlement that has been the midpoint as a south-to-north national power shifted to an east-to-west one.
We all know that one about the thin line between love and hate. Or the other one that has ignorance as bliss. I still don’t remember where my wife and sons and I had been that particular day way back when, staring up at El Capitan. Let’s just say it was Fort Davis, a cavalry garrison erected to protect white settlers from hostile Indians. What I still recall understanding well, right then and there, was how doomed those hated Apache were. Sure, there were the modern artillery and well-equipped manpower of the fort, but what I mean here is the tide of inevitability, of history. Neither side could know, least of all imagine, that a continental tsunami was on its way, and a few years here or there . . .
The next tsunami is a blink away. There is now even more reason to love the West, and intimacy with Mexico will be the plus it should be once we rid ourselves of the ignorant, crude xenophobia of a national Arizona. Time to stare. To be curious. To get smart. At the most western corner of Texas, an old pass tracks the route of our future.