The Real Inconvenient Truth About El Paso: A message to borderland descendants everywhere.
Three out of four of my grandparents were born in El Paso, TX.
The fourth ended up in Segundo Barrio as a toddler, where her father worked as a panadero. For all intents and purposes, I am a fourth-generation El Pasoan and my family has been in this area for well over 100 years. Despite my melanin levels and Perez surname, my birth certificate declares I am a “White” American. I believed it for the first half of my life, because I lived in a bubble where practically everyone I knew was like me. But once I was old enough to leave this community, I realized how inaccurate that description is. To a few real white Americans, I was brown and other. I was fortunate enough to never experience violent racism, just the casual kind. The type that asks where I’m really from, or the backhanded compliments of being surprised by how well I speak.
Over the past decade, since returning to this community, I’ve dedicated myself to uplifting it and properly articulating what makes it special. In doing so I realized the “White” on my birth-certificate was just the first of many identities thrust upon me that are not accurate.
My grandmother and I have debated this at length as it all started when I told her “I don’t think I’m Mexican.” I’m able to identify and internalize my cultural overlap with Mexican people, but I feel that’s not what’s being referenced in the term. In my mind, I hear “Mexican-American” and think of a relationship to the sovereign government of Mexico. Besides my proximity to the border and the passive ingestion of media (as some family members watched Primer Impacto, or listen to Mexico-based radio stations) I had no ties or understanding relative to the country of Mexico. I didn’t have any knowledge about it’s formation, history, government, or even geography. I don’t think before 2017 I could’ve pointed out cities and states on a blank map of Mexico. It was out of respect for legitimate Mexican citizens and immigrants, I felt I hadn’t earned the right to claim any level of their identity.
When my family and I visited New York city for the first time in the late 90’s, I remember the cab driver getting somewhat excited at the idea we were from Texas. “Do you guys ride horses?” he asked in a seriously interested way. I was probably only 12 at the time, but I was old enough to see the disappointment waft over his face as we broke it to him that we’re pretty much a normal suburban community. “But do you guys have movie theaters? Are the roads paved?” he asked.
I know Texas, and specifically west Texas, has a mystique around the six-shooter outlaws and the “Wild West” narratives portrayed in countless Spaghetti Westerns. While it is true that El Paso is arguably still the “Western Boot Capital of the World,” we’re not all walking around like Yosemite Sam. As a multigenerational Texan, I seriously do not know what a Texan looks like. There are pockets of farming communities in the area and Tejano cultures [which is too long of a tangent to get into] but from experience–and I could be wrong–I feel a lot of the archetypal Texan identity might be more synonymous (or at least visible) in east Texas. Maybe it’s because we’re the only major city in a different timezone, or because we didn’t have much to do with the revolution, but I don’t think I would be able to satisfy anyone’s idea of a true Texan. At the very least, I definitely don’t sound the way Hollywood portrays us.
For a brief period in high school, somehow my dad (who can sometimes be a little codo or “frugal”) was sold on a cable TV service. Of course it was a bare-bones basic package with only a handful of stations beyond what we could get over the air. But one of those channels we received was a new, fairly low budget network called Mun2 (pronounced “Mundos”). The network targeted young Latin communities and featured a hybrid of music and subculture commentary.
This was before the ubiquity of the internet — when exposure to other cultures was only accessible through a finite spigot attached to a price tag — and why it was my first introduction to reggaeton. As an avid hip hop fan, I couldn’t help but love the urban/tropical/dancehall blend––even though my Pocho Spanish could only understand every third word. If that is where the extent of my exposure to “Latin” identity stopped, I might’ve been okay claiming a commonality between the people on screen and myself. But, that also changed when I left my hometown.
In college I befriended a pair of foreign students, one from Honduras and one from Venezuela. The two of them got along well and I naively attributed it to them being from “neighboring Latin countries” as I assumed they had similar backgrounds. Luckily they educated me on their homes, the distance between them, and the contrasts of their governments, histories, and cultures. In the 15 years since, I’ve been fortunate to meet more Latinx people from all walks of life. Some are directly from other places like Argentina, Peru, and Cuba, some are first-generation, second-generation US citizens. Some have parents or grandparents from Colombia, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico; some are “whiter” than I am and some can easily pass as my members of my family, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. It’s because of my respect for the idiosyncrasies beneath the superficial that I personally don’t think of myself and all Latin people as interchangeable. However, I don’t place any expectation or judgement on anyone else who uses or identifies as Latinx.
Almost two years ago my grandfather passed away. Despite having a good relationship with him and being able to spend hours talking to him before he died, it wasn’t until literally the day of his funeral that I discovered members of his immediate family were still alive. For reasons I’m still not entirely sure about, our extended family (in our own hometown, no less) was larger than we (his grandchildren) were led to believe. Armed with that new information and the realization my grandmother was now the last living family member of that generation, I’ve spent the last year and half determined on compiling the most in-depth family origin story.
After a few months I was able to trace 100% of my family tree to the 18th century in Mexico. When my cousin shared the results of my grandmother’s DNA kit she gifted her, it was obvious our matriarch is a textbook “Mestizo” — it described nearly 40% Iberian Peninsula, 40% Native American and the rest was minor indications of everything else. Despite being confused with “Iberian Peninsula” at first, a Google search brought up a location-pin mapped right next to Madrid. I quickly understood why we’re considered “Hispanic.”
However, because I was determined to make this the most “in-depth family origin story” — and possibly because I studied Art History and Cultural Anthropology for parts of my life — I needed to do more contextual research. Well, diving further into my family’s history has forever changed the way I see everyone in this bubble with me. Essentially, there’s a good chance I can trace my grandmother’s linage all the way back to Charlemagne, the foundation of areas in Portugal, and even the Reconquista Crusades. Yes, in 1492, Columbus did sail the ocean blue, and some of my ancestors were right behind him. Needless to say, last Thanksgiving [which doesn’t even celebrate the real first Thanksgiving] was a little awkward for me.
The truth is…
The United States wants to base its formation on the trip made by an Italian explorer without referencing it was Iberian people who funded it and on the boats. In school we’re taught that this voyage is the beginning of US history, but then teachers usually fast forward to the 1600’s and Jamestown. I can’t help but feel it’s because those Iberian people are now too brown to validate or justify their influence — despite the massive overlap of their respective territory. I say Iberian people because the “Kingdom of Spain” did not officially become Spain until the 1830’s, centuries after all of my ancestors were already in North America. Some of my grandmother’s ancestors were specifically from the Kingdoms of Castile and León, but the other half have always been here. Simply labeling me Hispanic does nothing to differentiate my family or ancestors from a majority of the western hemisphere, parts of Africa, or the Philippines — which have all at some time been colonized by Spanish monarchs. If you think this is simply semantics, I’m splitting hairs, or this is irrelevant today — there are people in Catalonia right now trying to free themselves from this umbrella definition that has categorized massive groups of people into the easiest one-word descriptor.
But before this gets spun into some kind of new pronoun debate, I have to make it abundantly clear that I am not advocating for new terms to differentiate micro-populations. I acknowledge these are just my relationships to these words and don’t apply to everyone. I am not saying it’s inappropriate, or I will take offense, when being referred to as a Latino, Mexican-American, Hispanic, Texan, or even White American. If anything, I can probably walk across the street and find a dozen people who proudly wear any of these labels interchangeably. I’m only explaining why I don’t feel comfortable using any of these adjectives to describe myself.
However, there has always been one identifier which I wear proudly, without question, and that’s El Pasoan. Because in El Paso, none of this shit really matters. We’re all shades of brown and even if some people might not like it, there is nothing that will ever change that. I mean don’t get me wrong, they’re trying — by erasing our history, gentrifying neighborhoods, and not allowing us proper representation — but they’ve been doing that stuff for a long time, and we’re still here.
In every direction, El Paso is practically 500 miles away from any other major city. So before the internet, we were essentially occupying an island which people had either just driven through, never heard of, or flat out didn’t care for. It’s that disregard for us which made our community resilient and humble. We have been marginalized and disenfranchised for literally hundreds of years. We’ve dealt with generations of people being forced to leave this area, in order to seek better opportunities around the globe. This place really was ground zero for the “Spanish occupation” (in what eventually became the United States), but that was 400 years ago!
Today, decedents of this area can be found in every corner of the world. And no matter where those people are, there’s a good chance plenty of them still think of El Paso as home. Because home is not where you lay your head, but where you lift it up. Where you’re comfortable to just be, without ostentation or influence beyond your own “island.” Where terms of endearment are not reserved strictly for relatives, but strangers may very well refer to you and treat you [for both the good and bad] like family. That is an identity I can get behind, that is an adjective I am quick to claim.
As we all know, this past weekend someone naively tried to redefine what being from El Paso means. I say “naively” not only because of the ignorance in saying a Spanish-named state is being infiltrated by Hispanics — or despite the area being occupied by Spanish monarchs longer than it’s been under the jurisdiction of the United States. But naive in thinking an attack on our home court would do anything but embolden the El Paso identity around the world. So while I will admit I have shed tears and momentarily felt fear knowing I could’ve easily been at that Walmart — as my girlfriend and I have done on other Saturday mornings — I know the pride and tears of joy will far outweigh the negative.
That’s why I’m asking all El Pasoans, in all parts of the world, from those who made the conscious decision to leave, or those with distant family ties, to let your presence be felt. Share your story, our compassion, and our humility with those around you, no matter where you are. Embrace that El Paso part of your soul regardless of how minor or dormant, and spread it forward.
Those of you on the receiving end, please take a moment to internalize our existence. Understand how integral we are to the fabric of society. We might not have adequate depictions in popular culture or politics, but we are everywhere. Our area predates any kingdom or nation that has planted a flag on this land. We might not have the correct terms in the American lexicon, but we have just as much of a right to be protected, celebrated, and represented. Notice the diversity, realize the spectrum of shades that have called this place home and understand this isn’t about politics or policy, it’s about humanity. Some of us may have crossed a stream of water within the past year, some of our ancestors might have hundreds of years ago, and there are some of us who never crossed at all. But at a glance most people would not be able to tell us apart. So let’s not conflate things and call this anything other than what it was: racism.
To all the Anglo El Pasoans, new residents, service men and women of Fort Bliss, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico locals: I know our city might be a little one-dimensional. Our pride for “El Chuco,” which is practically globally synonymous with the Chicano identity, is not meant to isolate or exclude you. In fact, I think most real El Pasoans would agree that being El Pasoan is not a birthright, but a choice. And when you decide to make that choice, just be aware there is some baggage that comes with it. We are by the border — you might have presuppositions, you might not speak the language, you might not feel comfortable, but it isn’t Us vs You. This is not a zero-sum game despite the way other parts of the country might want you to believe it is. But even if it was, which side of the fence would you be on? We are here, we are you. You don’t need to master our language, customs, or recite our history, but as long as you’re receptive and not hardened to us, it’ll inevitably become a part of you. And who knows, if there ever comes a time when you might be able to use your vantage point or influence to vouch for us, lift us up, or at least extinguish hate, I hope you would. But even if you don’t, you’re still welcome here.
To all of the white Americans in this area who might be uncomfortable that I am a White American: please understand that this small piece of Earth has dealt with countless encroachments by outsiders for centuries. From the white conquistadors waving swords––who could’ve been my ancestors — to the white cowboys waving guns — who could’ve been your ancestors. But can we both acknowledge that it’s a little fucked up the Tiguas are still having trouble with Texas law, despite being here before both of us? Can you take a minute to internalize that there are still 25 million indigenous Native Americans living in Mexico to this day. Can we all recognize that any encroachment which demeans or penalizes people for simply existing is out-of-bounds? Can we agree that historically so many companies and special interests armed with anything from a smokestack, to land titles, or marketing surveys, have expelled our resources or operated with no regard to how it impacts us? If we can see eye-to-eye on these things, there is no limit to what we can achieve when we start working together to elevate everyone who calls this place home.
Y para todo mi gente que todavía está aquí en El Paso y Juárez: I know we must mourn, we must heal, and we must move past this. But please don’t let your ability to feel at this frequency fade. Understand all threats and attempts to redefine us, even when they don’t travel 600 miles to do it. Educate yourselves about our home — we have been through this before. My ancestors were fortunate enough to avoid forced kerosene baths and delousing at the border, but many others were not as lucky. My family was here long before the Bracero workers arrived (to help the United States), but that didn’t shield them from the same racism or discrimination plenty of brown people have faced in this predominately “Hispanic” town. Because if push came to shove and we were being honest, we know we’re not always operating as a singular unit. But we are right now, and if any good can come from this, it is going to be our unity.
We need to realize that we are all in this together and it’s the imaginary labels between us that give us the illusion of being insignificant. We have more people than the City of Houston in roughly the same sized area of the City of Los Angeles. Realize the world we’ve been a part of, since the beginning of humanity, is gone thanks to the internet. We are now connected and living in real-time alongside mainstream culture, rather than the ten-year delay of my childhood. And I don’t say that as an insult, but as an acknowledgement on how far we have come.
We’ve been able to do so much with so little for so long, that we can now practically do anything with no outside support. Think about how San Antonio and Santa Fe have been able to capitalize on their remnants of a Spanish past because of a presidio or mission, respectively. We have four! Think about how California celebrates its “Royal Road,” when we just call ours Doniphan or “the Loop.” My point is, the only difference between us and them is the fact that we’re still here occupying it, using these things as descendants of the people who made them. Which I guess makes them less valuable to outsiders. But shouldn’t they be valuable to us? I know it’s in our culture to be humble and not boast, but it might be time for our culture to evolve with a heightened sense of confidence and self-respect. Why must we wait for our culture to be appropriated, commoditized, and sold back to us before we can appreciate it? Why do our people have to have their back against a wall before we offer support?
Just know: no individual, no act of violence, no politician, no Tweet, no level of blatant disrespect for our community will ever be able to erase or replace us. We need to realize we will not progress by trying to correct every indiscretion in narratives written by other people, but we can finally thrive by starting to author our own. This too shall pass. We will survive this. And we owe it to the victims to begin celebrating who we are.