It didn’t take long after I first arrived in El Paso that I realized something was different about the city. It was very Mexican but not Mexican at all. I know, it doesn’t make sense and it didn’t make sense at first. Cd. Juárez dominates El Paso in population and in its economy but most don’t realize it because the El Paso leadership has a love-hate relationship with its sister city, Juárez. It’s a love-hate relationship because the El Paso leadership, whether they wish to admit it or not, understand that without Cd. Juárez, El Paso would be nothing more than a village and likely be in New Mexico and not in Texas.
I knew and felt a difference, but I couldn’t understand why. For many years, El Paso’s psyche remained an enigma to me. Latinos make up 80%, or more, of the population yet it didn’t feel like a Latino community. Sure, Mexican food is abundant in El Paso and much of it is good. All of it, uniquely El Pasoan. Mexicanisms abounds in El Paso, but then again they don’t.
It’s a façade.
Although I could sense it I couldn’t figure out why El Paso just didn’t seem right to me. I’ve lived in many different cities and in different countries and although there are differences, some even uncomfortable I could always trace the discomfort to something cultural, food, language or any combination of these and more.
Yet, El Paso kept making me uncomfortable but I didn’t know why.
It was Mexican but then it wasn’t.
In time I came to realize that my discomfort about El Paso had to do with the undercurrent of eradicating the Mexicanisms out of El Paso. Many assume that the Glass Beach Study was the beginning of the eraser of El Paso’s Mexicanisms but it was nothing more than an articulation of how the minority sees El Paso, its failures in their eyes.
The Glass Beach Study has existed in many forms for years. It just hasn’t been pointed out.
“’The trouble with El Paso,’ said the newly arrived housewife from Cincinnati, ‘Everything is so different. Why, I hardly ever see any Americans downtown,’” wrote Frank J Mangan in his book; Bordertown, The Life and Times of El Paso del Norte. [emphasis in original]
“I hardly see any Americans downtown” is the key to understanding the Duranguito and Segundo Barrio issues and gain a better understanding of why El Paso feels so different.
Mangan goes on to write that “about eight out of every ten” people in downtown El Paso are “Mexican faces”. Mangan published his book in 1964, and the demographics of El Paso were then, what they are today.
Mangan goes on to write that the home builders of El Paso abandoned the adobe preferred by the “desert dwellers” for centuries to build homes and started building homes with other materials because “for years most new arrivals wanted to bring a little bit of the Midwest or east Texas to the desert when they built a new house.”
According to the book’s biography on the back page, Frank Mangan was the advertising manager of the El Paso Natural Gas Company. Mangan paints a nostalgic look of El Paso and showcases the Mexican culture dominating El Paso going so far as to argue that it is what makes El Paso unique. Although Mangan also argues that the desert also makes El Paso unique.
Although Mangan, himself admits that his book isn’t a history of El Paso, but rather, it is a book about the “people and their Bordertown.” It is this, his perception of what the people of El Paso are that exposes the underlining whitewashing of El Paso.
What struck me about the book was not the author’s interpretation of life in El Paso because in many ways it sums up El Paso well, but, rather his interpretation is that of White Protestant eyes.
Lost is the nostalgia is the reality that the El Paso narrative is about the Anglo experience.
Was Frank Mangan’s book an attempt to erase the Mexican experience from El Paso? Was Mangan being malicious? Not likely, however what Mangan does is to deliver a viewpoint of El Paso based on his life experiences and on his surroundings, the 10-20% that make up the El Paso experience.
Frank Mangan acknowledges 72 people he interviewed to weave the narrative about the people of El Paso. In his book, Mangan accurately states that El Paso is 80% Mexican, yet the 72 people he interviewed for his book about the people of El Paso are predominantly Anglo. Intertwined with last names like Ashley, Bailey, Carter, Davis, Gilbert, Little, McNeely, Mounce, Plant, Timberlake, Wilson the reader will find names like Calleros, Casillas, Lama and Valencia.
Five of the 72 individuals interviewed by Mangan have Hispanic surnames.
Herein lies the reason why eradicating the Mexican culture seemed normal to those at city hall pushing the Glass Beach Study. It is also why El Pasosans need to understand that the El Paso narrative is missing an important part, the voice of 80% of its population.
This is the reality of the El Paso narrative. Anglos weave the acceptable narrative with Latinos but a token footnote to the narrative of what it is to be an El Pasoan.
This is the reason that the City of El Paso paid for study, the infamous Glass Beach Study to tell El Pasoans that the success of the city depends on erasing Mexicans from the city.
Footnote: Frank J Mangan, Bordertown, The Life and Times of El Paso del Norte (El Paso, Texas: Guynes Printing Company, 1964)