El Paso, Texas
November 15-16, 2001
Ive always hated El Paso. Now I know why. Id never
bothered to get out of the car and talk to anyone. William Least
Heat-Moon says traveling alone makes you mighty sociable. Hes
right. A man can only bear so much talk radio, play through his
entire collection of CDs so many times, and hear the sound
of wheels whirring on pavement for so long before the craving for
some human contact chokes him.
I had no intention of staying in El Paso. Gas up, buy some smokes,
pick up some caffeine to go and Id be off. Then I met Karlos.
He works at the 7-11 where I stopped. All I had to do was plop my
stuff on the counter, give him the money, and split. But I was feeling
sociable so I started grilling him about the place. I asked him
where I should go to get the feel of the city. He suggested I go
downtown to the Plaza or across the border to Jaurez. I told him
I was interested in El Paso.
Mister, you pretend that El Paso and Jaurez arent the
same city and you arent ever going to get El Paso.
Provocative. The 7-11 was up on a hill north of I-10. I was his
only customer during a brief lull in the fairly steady stream of
people purchasing disposable everything. Nothing in a 7-11 has a
useful lifespan of more than twenty minutes. Bad burgers to go,
Skippy Peanut Butter in that special convenience store shot-glass
size, headache relief snake oil that was designed for people with
really small headaches. When I have a headache on the road I go
buy one of those Advil bottles that is large enough to hold a hundred
pills but actually has in it a pound of cotton and four tablets,
one of which is broken. I pretend theyre Skittles gone wrong
and eat em all at once. Karlos pointed out at the field of
lights that run all the way to the horizon across the valley floor.
He asks me if I can tell where the border is.
Ive looked down from on high at other border cities. Ive
always seen the bright lights of a city slowly dwindle to a broad
black band and then watched them slowly fade up on the other side
of that band. As if a river ran through it. That river is the border.
In El Paso there is no band of darkness only a single, continuous
carpet of lights.
El Paso has 750,000 people. Juarez has four times that number.
Everyone I spoke with goes back and forth across the border to work,
live, play. Post-Attacks crossing over is more arduous and time
consuming than before. What used to be a twenty-minute wait on a
bad day is now two hours on a good one. This has inflicted severe
hardship on those that work in El Paso but live in Juarez and vice
versa. Karlos has a sister who works at a plant in Juarez. It makes
her crazy that she lives less than two miles from work and now has
to leave at 6am to make it on time for her 8am shift. Everyone seems
to understand that it has to be tighter after the Attacks. That
knowledge doesnt make it any easier.
We talked a bit more. He told me about a trip to Utah and Colorado
that he took with three friends this past summer. He likes to fish
and hike. Hed never been out of the El Paso-Juarez region
in his life.
It freaked me out, man. I thought every place was like here.
It was weird.
I commented that its awfully white in those parts.
No, he said, its not that. I saw plenty
of white and plenty of brown. But all the whites lived together
and all the brown lived together and me and my friends were freaked
out that the white and the brown never seemed to live together.
I asked if he saw that a lot in El Paso.
Every time I go home. His father immigrated from Poland
in the late 60s. His mother did the same from Jaurez. They
met waiting in line at their naturalization ceremony.
You cant be a racist in El Paso. The City is such a joyous
confusion of bloodlines that any racial hang-ups you have will just
cause you to be pissed off at yourself. It seems like no one is
a pure anything. The people defy categorization on racial lines.
I met two cops outside the county courthouse. Reboulet and Alvarez.
Alvarez looked Scotch-Irish. Reboulet looked Latino. What are you
If you would like to meet a police officer in El Paso, hang out
in front of the courthouse taking pictures. It seems to be a good
conversation starter. As a safety tip to anyone who would rather
not meet police while taking photographs of people, pay attention
to the front of the building. If there are plastic shells injected
with concrete lined up in front of the building in such a manner
that pedestrian traffic can pass through but vehicles could not,
its a safe bet that theyre being extra vigilant.
I met a college kid on the Plaza who told me he got to choose which
ethnicity he was going to be on any given day. His mother is mulatto.
His father is Latino. El Paso has a rapidly growing Korean community.
He figures if he marries his Korean girlfriend, his kids will be
able to check off any box they want to on questionnaires that ask
them what race they are.
Looking around downtown you will think that one particular ethnicity
is a majority. Go another block. It will change. Then youll
find out you were wrong about the ethnicity of the people you were
seeing. I was speaking with a stunning black woman in her forties.
Her name is Carmen. I commented on the Hispanic sound of the name
with some surprise in my voice. She laughed. You think Im
African-American. I said yes I did. She laughed again. Im
black so I guess that means I have African roots. But, honey, I
was born in Honduras and my mother is mestizo so I guess that makes
I asked her what she considered herself to be.
There were two people in El Paso who were not fluently bilingual.
I was one of them. The other one was the security guard at the bus
transfer station on the Plaza. I asked him where the Historic District
was. Id seen signs pointing towards it but nothing that told
me I was in it. I later read in a brochure that I had walked all
the way through and around it. Twice. He didnt know we were
in the Historic District. No one I asked in El Paso knew where the
Historic District was. Not even the cops.
Though I speak only enough Spanish to order fried shoes with extra
jalapeno in a Mexican restaurant (while trying to order two enchiladas
with rice) and he speaks only enough English to sound profound and
confusing at the same time, we had a great conversation. At least,
I think we did. We laughed a lot. We smiled a lot. We brought the
sunshine of laughter into the lives of all who witnessed the wildly
flailing dance of hand gestures that tends to break out between
two people who arent conversant in each others languages
but are determined to converse anyway.
He had a great leathery face, a sweet gap-toothed smile, and bright
eyes only slightly obscured by thick lenses of prescription sunglasses.
In response to my inquiry on how to get to the border he fished
a picture out of his wallet. In it were a young Latino man, a young
white woman, and two small children. They were posed in front of
a cloudy blue background that screamed Sears Photo Studio. The adults
wore the uncomfortable wooden smiles of people who had been trying
to maintain a smile for ten seconds longer than they naturally could
while a photographer geeked out on his F-Stop. The kids were too
small to care.
He pointed to the man in the picture.
He pointed to the young woman, Daughter in law. He
said it slowly and very clear. Like he had practiced it.
Good girl, good wife, he said tapping her picture.
I pointed to the kids. Grandchildren, I asked.
He beamed and shook his head in the affirmative and looked at them
again in the picture.
First, he said, I worry they not enough Mexican.
Her people first worry they too much Mexican.
What about now?
He broke into that broad missing tooth smile and looked at his
grandchildren in the picture.
Now they all of our Grandchildren. Everything good.
Like any city of close to four million, El Paso-Jaurez has its
share of problems. Like any city that size its batting average
on knocking those problems down is hovering right around the Mendoza
line. But if I was the mayor of El Paso and I wanted to tell people
about my city, I would put up posters showing that security guard
and the other set of grandparents beaming at those two little kids
and put a simple caption underneath the photo.