Unfortunately and to the chagrin of some of my friends, it looks like I was right that although the cultural center should have been a simple case of community inclusion and pride it has turned out to be a divisive debacle, El Paso style. The community discussion of the 2012 Quality of Life Cultural Center is now being subjected to egos, political whims and more importantly, it is demonstrating that El Paso is not the inclusive mixed-race utopia it purports to be. As a citizen of Mexico, I was continuously subjected to comments of “FrontChihs” go home to outright hostility for daring to speak Spanish. Keep in mind that El Paso is predominantly Hispanic and as such, the unwelcoming attitudes towards me was proportionally reflective of this fact.
The undercurrent discrimination in El Paso is not skin color-based but rather it is a class-based discrimination based on economic status, language ability, citizenship and more importantly one of not being a home-grown El Pasoan. To be clear, I have many friends in El Paso so this is not about a universal overt discrimination but rather an undercurrent that exists in the city’s psyche. As a fluent English speaker there were many individuals I interacted with regularly for many years that had no clue that I was a citizen of Mexico. Some of them were even shocked to hear me speak Spanish because in their eyes I was too white and too well spoken to be Mexican.
As an example, I once took a lady on a dinner date to Cd. Juárez. We had gone out on a few dates for a period of about two months before I took her to Juárez. To this day, I will never forget the look on her face when I flipped out my passport as we returned to El Paso. I don’t believe she was racist. Instead, she was shocked that I was not, like her, a person that didn’t need papers to cross the border.
I share this experience with you in order to illustrate why it is that I was privy to the comments about “FrontChihs” and Mexicans from “el otro lado” that dominate the conversations among El Pasoans.
Do I believe El Pasoans are racist? No but I do believe that there is an undercurrent in the dynamics of the city where class economics plays a part on who belongs where in the city. There are cliques in the city divided across several economic segments. Add to this the dynamic that everyone knows everyone and thus outsiders are easily identifiable in the business and cultural circles of the city. Coming from one of the largest cities in the world it always struck me as strange where everyone seemed to know everyone in most public settings.
As a matter of fact, since I have been in Orlando I have yet to hear a conversation where someone doesn’t comment that they knew so and so in high school. That was something I always heard in El Paso. Any introduction included what high school everyone attended in El Paso. Outsiders always stood out in those conversations.
As an outsider, I have witnessed first-hand the mentality of compartmentalizing individuals based on economics. Asking what high school someone attended, in my opinion, was not about an interest in the individual but rather it is a built-in economic class assessment that El Pasoans make about the economic status of people based on where they live.
It is no secret that there is a rivalry between the Eastside of town versus the Westside with both looking down on the Segundo Barrio and Northeast of El Paso. Demarcation lines are determined by zip codes. This is the underlining psyche that is the nexus to the developing debate about the cultural center. It may not be racist but it is divisive in that each one wants a piece of the pie under their own notion of what it should be.
Take for instance the letter by Donald Williams circulating on social media.
I do not personally know Williams. About the only thing I know about him is that he is an attorney, from his letterhead, and is active in the Democratic Party of El Paso. Of course, that includes politics. Although I have heard his name once or twice, I have never heard anyone talk or write about him. Therefore, my knowledge of him comes directly from his letter.
That he his black was only made apparent to me by his photograph that was included in one of the copies of the letter that was forwarded to me. However, his letter left no doubt that his perspective comes from a black individual by what he writes in the first paragraph of his letter.
We wrote that he wanted to chime in on the conversation about the cultural center after having observed “Black History Week or Month” and “Bloody Sunday.” The dichotomy that Williams demonstrates by first choosing to point out that he observes Black-centric events and then jumps directly to opining that El Paso Hispanics should not be advocating for an Hispanic cultural center because they are the majority betray this undercurrent that El Paso suffers from.
From my point of view, Williams argues that as the majority, Mexican-Americans in El Paso are divisive because they want to create a center centered on their cultural identity. Yet, Donald Williams celebrates his cultural identity every opportunity he gets. Choosing to opine that Latinos should not have a cultural center centered on the Latino culture is not about inclusiveness but rather it is an opportunity for Williams to express his anger towards the majority that have made him feel inferior because of the color of his skin, or the part of town he hails from. Williams may not realize this as the driving force to his rejection of an Hispanic cultural center and would likely disagree with me but, nonetheless, I believe his letter is a result of the divisiveness he has personally experienced.
Likewise, the rest of the debate, arguments and rhetoric of the cultural center is mostly driven with that same undercurrent that is simmering underneath the city’s politics.
Williams goes on to express that El Paso is predominantly Mexican or of Mexican descent. He wrote about how Spanish surnames are dominant in politics in the city. He then argues, “culture centers are usually reserved for minorities…who have been oppressed by a dominant or powerful majority.”
Clearly, he has betrayed the underlining-driving factor for his opposition to a Latino center. He himself agrees, in his writing, that he has been oppressed by the majority in El Paso. He then tries to make the leap that building an Hispanic cultural center in El Paso is “akin” to creating a “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” culture center in a predominantly white city in the United States.
Williams either does not watch television or go to the movies very often. He may not go to marketing-driven events like professional sporting events because clearly he does not see the “whiteness” of all of those things. Because a beer brand may sponsor a Cinco de Mayo party or because there is some Folklorico dancers at the airport greeting college players to town does not represent the cultural identity of Hispanics in the US.
As a matter of fact, the fact the he apparently does not understand this should be the only reason the city needs an Hispanic Cultural Center to celebrate by teaching the different and diverse identities that make up the Hispanic identity of the city.
As a citizen of Mexico, I have a completely different perspective of the cultural identity of Mexican-Americans in El Paso. From a historical perspective, many El Paso Hispanics were instrumental in the violence, on both sides, of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican Revolution is a significant cornerstone of the Mexican psyche and therefore it dominates my understanding of various public policies.
To my Mexican-American brethren in El Paso, their cultural identity is defined by many factors ranging from simple access to economic opportunities on up to the results of federal government decisions that displaced many from their homes because the river changed direction and the international border moved. Interspersed into all of that are educational barriers, linguistic impediments and basic cultural resistance to things alien to people.
I haven’t even touched on the cultural identities of first generation US citizens versus second and third generations. I haven’t even included the Spanish, the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans and all of the other Latinos that have shared their Hispanic heritage with El Pasoans through the years. As you can see, there are many influences on the Latino culture and the fact that those arguing that the cultural center should not be about Latinos is precisely why it should be about Hispanics.
What better way to educate about the different Hispanic cultures that have melded into the cultural identity in El Paso that has brought you Chico’s Tacos, Taco Tote, L&J’s and all of the other influences that make El Paso’s identity culturally unique. I have always advocated that the key to El Paso’s future is its uniqueness not its quest to be like other cities.
I have lived in many different parts of the world. I can tell you that although there are many things about the El Paso political class the drives me crazy the one thing that I have always said is that El Paso has a cultural identity you will not find anywhere else in the world. El Paso food many not be Mexican, in the sense of Mexican food purity, but it is a culinary experience that has no equal in the world. El Paso is a secret food paradise because too many of its citizens are too ashamed of their city to celebrate its roots.
Unfortunately, too many in El Paso overtly and quietly spend too much time trying to distance themselves from the Mexican roots and thus El Paso’s true identity is masked under the notion that to succeed it must erase Mexico from the cityscape.
Contrary to the political rhetoric, an Hispanic Cultural Center for El Paso would not be divisive; as a matter of fact, it would be inclusive because it would allow for highlighting and educating everyone about what makes El Paso unique, especially since it would celebrate the contributions from the 80% plus of the population.