Tuesday, June 22, 2010

El Paso, Texas: A City on the Edge and in the Center

In a few days I will be back in El Paso. Below is a geography minded piece I wrote about the history and development of El Paso...

If you walk ten blocks north from the flat center of downtown El Paso, you begin to ascend the Franklin Mountains. These mountains are the most southerly tendrils of the Rocky Mountains, horizontally spanning the US from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Part way up your ascent you come across Rim Road which, decorated with a plethora of multi-million dollar homes, snakes around the mountain ridge

If you walk ten blocks south from downtown, you find yourself in Segundo Barrio, in one of the nation’s poorest zip codes. Segundo Barrio is a pattern of crumbling brick churches, homes, schools spotted with brown parks, busy tienditas, and tortilla shops. If you continue walking south through Segundo Barrio you will be intersected by two large walls and the Rio Grande, otherwise known as the US-Mexico border.

Instead of south, if you walk, bike, or drive 50 blocks east from downtown El Paso, you encounter a warning sign to inform you that you are entering the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. To call this reservation vast is an understatement, as it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

And lastly, if you venture 20 blocks west and a few North from downtown El Paso, you arrive at the Rio Grande flowing southerly away to your left. New Mexico is just on the other side. Depending on where you are in El Paso the Rio Grande could represent one of two borders; between Texas and New Mexico or between the Texas and Mexico. Part way through the city the river bends north and becomes a state border, and the international border formerly on the Rio continues west on a land route to the Pacific Ocean.

If you meander aimlessly through the streets, you will notice the cactuses that speckle the landscape. You will see the sandy earth that indicates a desert climate. You will hear Spanish. You might not hear English. You might not believe that you are in the United States, as the city is incredibly reminiscent of cities in Latin America, and shares little in common with most conceptions of a typical US city.


El Paso sits at the most western tip of Texas and as its name suggests (meaning the pass) its geographical location was no coincidence in its origin. Its location on the border, and in historically disputed land, has shaped its cultural dynamics and highlighted it as a point of international interest and concern. Also, its proximity to Mexico and its central location has influenced economic growth in ranching, the smelter industry, and in illegal industries. El Paso sits in the center of mountains, borders, military bases, and international conflict, and yet it is still very much at the edge, culturally and geographically speaking.


The Anglo origin of El Paso dates back to 1598 when Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande with 400 soldiers and 270 women and children to settle in the mountain pass, which quickly became El Paso del Norte or The Pass to the North (Sandra Sanchez, 25 November, 1991: 8a). The location was ideal because it was at a pass in the mountains, making it easier for Spanish expeditions en route to Santa Fe, and because it was located at a rare water source in the desert, the Rio Grande.

El Paso del Norte was Spanish territory until Mexican independence in 1822. The area was only Mexico’s for a short period when, in 1848, the city once again changed hands. This time to the US as they won the Mexican-American War and set their southern border at the Rio Grande with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This made El Paso del Norte the border town that it is today. The new international boundary, the Rio Grande, cut the pre-existing city in half, leaving two dissected pieces legally separated. The city to the south of the river took on the name Ciudad Juárez and the city to the north took the name El Paso.
Although internationally separated since 1848, the cities of Juárez and El Paso have remained intricately connected in changing ways. Originally, the border really was nothing more than the water that flowed easterly in the Rio Grande. Crossing into the United States meant nothing more than a short wade or swim. Even one hundred years after the Mexican-American War it appeared there was still no animosity or synthetic separations. In 1955 an El Paso native wrote, “There is no iron-curtain here. The only occasional curtain between our cities is an occasional curtain of dust, not man-made. Cooperative, friendly relations exist between us and our esteemed Mexican neighbors.” (J. Harold Tillman, 1955: Pg. 1219)

If you jump fifty years forward in time to 2005, there is a physical iron curtain, more than just the desert dust dancing in the wind. In those fifty years El Paso became a major point of geographical interest to the United States relative to so called national security. With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and rampant fear of future terrorism, government organizations saw the border as a weakness in national security. El Paso is the United State’s largest border town, with 613,190 people in 2008, (2008 US Census) and therefore received ample resources to build fences and hire more border patrol. Now, a mesh fence runs across the city’s southern limits, permeable to sight but not to (legal) travel. Despite the fence, the cities still feel connected in some diminished manner as their populations and cultures relentlessly travel back and forth, legally and illegally, across the border.

The ephemeral and volatile history of El Paso begs the question of whether or not land is something that can even be justly owned. The multiple changes of the city’s ownership taunt the perceived permanence of a border. The unnatural dichotomy of two cities once one illuminates the strength of divisiveness, and the emergence of a literal iron curtain represents a problem-causing solution to a problem dating back to the days when maps were first made and land was first claimed. The historical inequalities that El Paso represents belittle the border to seem like nothing more than an imaginary line of imposed power.


El Paso’s unique geographical situation has defined its economic development in both the legal and illegal sectors. Connected to both the US and Mexican railroad systems, El Paso became a center for shipping cattle in its early years as a US city. Ranchers from all around the South West and Mexico shipped cattle through El Paso. Also, due to its central and connected location from a transportation standpoint, El Paso was an ideal location to receive ore at a smelter. By the First World War the El Paso smelter employed 3,000 workers. (Mario T. Garcia, 1981: Pg. 3) However, in the late twentieth century, the smelter was shut down following numerous accounts of health issues caused by the smelter. El Paso is also a major point of immigration for Mexicans into the US, and for this reason it has been known for cheap labor. Contractors from the all over the region can count on picking up cheap, undocumented workers in El Paso willing to do the dirty and dangerous jobs. El Paso also became an important location in the US’s realization of manifest destiny. El Paso was a gateway to the west for easterners, and a gateway to the north for southerners.

El Paso’s proximity to Mexico has also influenced much illegal economic activity. Currently, the El Paso border could be seen as a swap shop for guns and drugs. Guns, which are far more difficult to purchase in Mexico, make their way from the US to south of the border. And drugs, which travel from the interior of Mexico as well as from other Latin American nations, make their way north across the border. The dynamics of this swap shop have lead to tumult, and currently, El Paso’s other half, Ciudad Juárez, is the world’s most dangerous city based on homicides per capita.

The city of El Paso has forever changed and flexed in unique ways with different peoples, names, economies, and ways of life. But recently it has become more defined by the borders that surround it and further separated from its other half in Mexico. It has also become a tense environment in US national security efforts. One of the most consistent characteristics though, is its sense of eccentricity, and transcendence of cultural norms in the US. Yet the city remains nobly authentic to itself and to its own undulating identity. El Paso is geographically a city defined by perimeters, but culturally, a city defiant of perimeters.

Works Cited

Charles H. Harris, III and Louis R. Sadler. “The "Underside" of the Mexican Revolution: El Paso, 1912.” The Americas Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jul., 1982), pp. 69-83

Gabbert, Ann. “Prostitution and Moral Reform in the Borderlands: El Paso, 1890-1920.” Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 575-604
Garcia, Mario. “Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920” Yale University: 1981.

Kuhla, Shan. “Special Report: Drivers Edge, Road Trip.” National Post 17 June 2005: DT 9

Sanchez, Sandra. “Final edition, News.” USA Today, 25 November 1991: Pg. 8a

Tillman, Harold. “El Paso-Juarez Area.” Public Health Reports (1896-1930), Vol. 70 No. 12 (Dec. 1955) pg. 1218-1220

U.S. Geoleogical Survey, 1997. “El Paso, TX,” Scale 1:24,000.

U.S. Geological Survery, 1996. “Smeltertown, TX-NM-CHH” Scale 1:24,000.