By Cheryl Howard, Ph.D.
There is a city that doesn’t love itself. To be clear, there are many ardent residents who do love the city, and many who are homesick from afar. It is a city full of potential, but many talented people have left it because they see no opportunity for themselves here, or their talents have been rebuffed. It has so much promise that never seems to materialize. It is a city that lacks confidence in itself. Newcomers are often astounded at what some have called a collective inferiority complex.
This city doesn’t seem to trust the talent that is here, instead importing from elsewhere people to fill the highest paying jobs in education, health, government, etc. Their turnover is high and often costly. The people who elect to stay in the city usually pay an opportunity cost to remain close to family. And it is a city that values family. It is a large bi-national metropolis that feels like a small town; there are fewer than six degrees of separation.
The city keeps trying make its name through branding, but the branders and many of its residents want it to be something it is not. It hires expensive outside consultants to help it figure this branding business out. It isn’t “all good,” as one of the recent branding slogans suggests. But one outsider brought a new tag to the city in 2019, one that may indeed have staying power, one born of tragedy.
A gun man (sic) from east Texas drove over 600 miles to this “All America”* city to kill “Mexicans.” He succeeded in his murder spree, killing 23 (the last victim died in April 2020) people of both nationalities at a Walmart store on August 3, 2019.
I am of course speaking of El Paso and the slogan of strength and unity that followed in the wake of this tragedy, #ElPasoStrong. We cling to each other in the face of adversity, but our strengths have not brought us very far recently. We care for each other, but we don’t seem to care for our city. Young people call it “Hell Paso.” And adversity magnified by apathy defines us. El Pasoans complain, but they still don’t vote.
The gun man struck a nerve that woke us up, maybe just momentarily; there was a widespread public display of solidarity and activism in response to this event, maybe for the first time ever. Though we have always had activists, but they’ve often been treated with some suspicion. In fact, it seems as if any El Pasoan active in the public realm, especially on a national stage (except musicians like Khalid) is either too conservative or too extreme, too Anglo or too Mexican, and it may help that Khalid is neither.
For the last 50 years at least, the city has been in decline relative to its regional counterparts. Compare census data from 1950 for Tucson, Albuquerque, San Antonio. One of my students did this for a research project and was stunned. But why? One reason is that we have intentionally billed ourselves as a low wage economy. Another may be that we are not certain we deserve better or that we entrust our future to folks who don’t really have our best interests at heart, who capitalize on our assets (labor) and walk away with the profit.
El Paso was once the jeans capitol of the world as a result of low labor costs but those jobs were exported to even lower wage localities; now it is maquiladoras on one side of the river and call centers on the other. And the river that delineates us into two countries has been appropriated, not for tourism or recreational activities as other cities use their rivers, but as a militarized site that increasingly enforces a nationalist agenda of ethnocentric paranoia.
And the city acquiesces. No, it more than acquiesces. In El Paso’s low wage economy, ICE and Border Patrol are good government jobs; young people aspire to work for them. It has lamentably become so burdensome to cross and re-cross the border that a city that is upwards of 80% Hispanic has lost touch with its sister city. The vergüenza of the American ethnonationalist rhetoric toward Mexico has also infected El Paso even before the Wall-Mart Massacre, probably at least since the Border Patrol’s operation “Hold the Line” In 1993. Now it is exponentially worse. Seemingly, the only way out of that shame is to proclaim its truth and to put as much distance between ourselves and Mexico as possible—hard to do when the border is right next door, and when our lives (and deaths) are inevitably entwined.
This sets the stage for a cycle that invariably turns out to be deleterious for the community and its well-being. I leave it to historians, political scientists, and psychologists to debate the beginnings and intricacies of this repeating cycle that has led to our aggrieved apathy. But it is clear that outside interests have high-jacked this community and we are stuck with investments we can neither afford nor enjoy. Meanwhile the wealthy shamelessly pursue their corporate, colonial, gentrifying vision of both El Paso and Cd. Juárez.
In 2004, under Mayor Wardy, El Paso shifted from a strong mayoral system of government to a city manager system of government. Council members went from two-year terms to four-year terms on a staggered basis. The rationale was to prevent wide swings in a vision for the city or to relieve mayors of the inevitable backlash resulting from unpopular decisions. The partly gerrymandered map of city council districts combines rich neighborhoods with poorer ones, ensuring that the interests of the poorer residents will be diluted in favor of the wealthy who vote more often, fund campaigns, and who have different priorities. It is clear that these changes have not worked out terribly well for the city. The salary of the city manager easily tops $300,000 and neither of the city’s managers have come from local applicants. And, whether Anglo or Hispanic, this means that the person in charge of the city is not really invested in nor accountable to it.
A small percentage of the population did vote for a quality of life bond in 2012** which has not come to fruition and has instead been mired in litigation. Meanwhile, other peccadillos in city government decisions multiply, such as the trolley fiasco that was the pet project of one council member. This project cost the city $200,000 to scammers in addition to its other costs, and endangered local businesses all along Stanton as a result of the street being torn up. Now finished, there are few riders though the continuing operations further obligates the city budget.
Within this framework of massive budget shortfalls and a huge hole in the retirement system, enter a pandemic. The Coronavirus, COVID-19, provides our inept city leaders a convenient yet reasonable excuse for precipitating a furlough and layoff of hundreds of city employees. Despite this however, a majority of council members recently voted to keep pressing for two items from the 2012 bond bill, but really only one: a basketball arena disguised as a multipurpose performing arts center in an historic Mexican American neighborhood. The second, a Cultural Heritage Center, they decided could just be jammed, along with a children’s museum into the main public library downtown. Just move the books to the basement and the sub-basement. Eighty plus per cent of the library staff and many museum staff have now been furloughed or laid off, and libraries, zoos and museums are slated to be closed for the summer. Furthermore, we have just lost Juan Sandoval’s extensive art collection, valued several years ago at 1.5 million, to Austin, as a result of the city’s neglect of its own cultural heritage.
City leaders are trying to get away with only lip service paid to the Hispanic culture and history, while foisting blame for malfeasance and long-standing negligence has been thrust upon the current health and economic crisis. The councilors could not vote to table the Cultural Heritage Center for fear of offending the Hispanic public and losing the next election, despite the fact that most Chicano activists are against the envisioned, watered-down plan. Neither could the councilors vote to table the arena project because of the negative impact it might have on the interests of their wealthy private donors, and because they could be seen as backing down on pending litigation. Never mind that large gatherings may be a thing of the past.
El Paso used to be on a par with Albuquerque, San Antonio and Tucson. The city used to have a City Hall. It used to have a science museum geared toward children, but both of those buildings had to be demolished to make way for a second baseball stadium, one located downtown instead of in the northeast. The city has lost money on the stadium and can never recoup it.
And somehow, this is why we need a basketball arena despite the ample evidence that the cost is not worth it and that the benefits are based on spurious economic understanding, from institutions as varied as the Brookings Institute and Berkley Economic Review Surely, we are jumping the shark as now another historic neighborhood, Sunset Heights, is on the chopping block, and City Council is not listening to residents. Let’s rethink what it could mean to be #ElPasoStrong. The Community First Coalition has a book out that everyone who cares about El Paso should read.
What would a strong El Paso look like? First, we need to do some introspection. Let’s start with the extremes: what are the things we cannot live without and what are things we can’t live with? Second, we need a conversation.
Here is my personal take on what I wouldn’t want to live without. Even if El Paso is a gem uncut, unpolished, it is still a gem. The people are its greatest asset despite the government; they are genuinely welcoming and friendly, kind and generous; they may not always agree, but they care for one another. I once told someone who said El Paso was scary that it was a city where, if your car broke down on the freeway, someone would stop to help within five minutes. I believe that to still be true. Bi-cultural is a term often applied to the city, but El Paso is host to several cultures; we should do more celebration of that, and we should stop buying into the nationalist rhetoric, and we can be better friends with our sister city, since our fates have always been and will always be intertwined. The border is and always has been an asset, damaged as it is now. I wouldn’t want to live without the rich history of the region, the art, the food, the music, the sky (better if not polluted), the mountains and desert, as well as the diversity and talent that UTEP and Ft. Bliss bring and grow.
I have already outlined what I don’t want to live with. So, let’s have a conversation.
*El Paso was named an All-America City in 1969, 2010 and 2018. It is an award “presented to the top 10 communities that demonstrated efforts that tackle local issues through civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation.” It was named a finalist (top 20) in the 2019.
Dr. Cheryl Howard came to UTEP in 1989 from the University of New Mexico and taught Sociology at UTEP for 21 years. She retired in 2010 as Associate Professor Emerita.
Next steps: Cheryl and El Paso News want to continue this important dialogue. We invite you to post your ideas and comments below. We want to schedule a “Freddy’s Forum” virtual meeting to discuss these issues (maybe Alfredo Corchado can moderate?). We all want El Paso to flourish and prosper. We are, after all, an All-American City.