Ode to El Paso

I’m from El Paso. It’s my hometown. Yes, I’ve lived in other parts of Texas, including Austin, and Dallas. I have family in San Antonio, and in Oregon, in Louisiana and other places, I’m sure, but we all came from El Paso.

My mother’s dad exited the military while he was stationed at Fort Bliss and they just stayed. It’s where my mother grew up, where she went to high school (the same one I would later attend), met my father and got married before they eventually moved to Dallas. It’s where she brought us (briefly) after my parents divorced a few years later while she figured out what to do next.

My grandparents lived in a makeshift double-wide trailer (they put two trailers together to make their own) at the end of a dusty farm road in a place called Socorro, Texas for years and years and years. Technically, Socorro is called “a city in El Paso,” but that’s quite the stretch. The population in 2010 was 32,013 and I guarantee it was a third of that back when I lived there in the late 1980s. There were like, no neighbors. There was literally an alfalfa field next door. The road wasn’t even paved until years later and that “road” dead-ended into a field of cotton. Socorro is a speck of spit on a cracked, dusty dune. And that’s where I spent my high school years.

This is literally a current photo for a property listing on the exact road in Socorro where I grew up.

It has taken me a very long time to claim El Paso as my hometown. I used to always say “My hometown is Austin,” or ““I was raised in El Paso, but my hometown is Austin,” mainly because Austin was where I lived before my final move to Washington D.C. and, well, everybody knows Austin, but (at least at the time) very few people knew anything about El Paso.

The other reason I never used to claim El Paso as my hometown is because I actually hated it growing up. Absolutely despised it. Couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I moved there under duress right around sixth grade, I think. We moved around all the time for the first 12 years of my life and I had a really hard time making friends. But right before El Paso, we had been living in Huntsville and I had finally made a group of friends. These girls, who were somehow related to each other and were probably a little bit older than me, were a little wild. They were already hanging out with older boys and drinking and smoking, which just made them even cooler in my eyes, so I really wanted them to like me.

But, for various reasons involving lousy men and even worse life choices, my mom up and decided that we were moving to El Paso.

I hated El Paso from the get go. In my pre-teen eyes, El Paso was big and sprawling and yet there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I was crowded in by the Franklin Mountains on one side and the vast, scrubby desert on the other. I didn’t like the desert landscape, which was the opposite of the lush, piney greenery in Huntsville.

Everything was new and foreign, I didn’t understand the food or the culture. Everybody was laid back and not at all in a hurry. El Paso is where I learned the concept of “manana syndrome.” El Paso people spoke a different language that was a mix of English and Spanish and border slang and I could not keep up with it at all. Plus, everyone was way too Catholic for my anti-religious self.

Socorro Mission

Worse yet, people seemed to want to stay there or return to El Paso after college. They just didn’t leave. They wanted to stay close to their families, which was a totally foreign concept for me. I could not wait to leave. I wanted to get as far away from my family and El Paso as I could, as quickly as I could.

We first settled in a trailer park near Fort Bliss and I did not make friends. Nobody looked like me, nobody talked like me. I felt like an outcast. My new school (Basset Middle School) was especially tough….there were fights there on the daily, usually breaking out in between classes between the main school building and the portables. A lot of times those fights involved lengths of large metal chains the students had brought to school. Random locker searches were the norm. I got in a few fights myself and soon found out the hard way that my scrappy style was no match for these military and Mexican kids.

I retreated even further into myself and my hatred of El Paso–this horrible place my mother had dragged me to—grew. I spent all my time reading books as a form of escape and hiding in the library so I wouldn’t say something that would get me into another fight.

For whatever reason (again, involving a no-good boyfriend), we soon were on the move again, this time, down I-10 to Socorro. Things got moderately better by the time we moved to my grandparents’ abandoned trailer, but by then, my hatred had hardened and coupled with just general pre-teen/teenager surliness, I continued to hold out to the charms of El Paso.

In fact, it wasn’t until much, much later—like, when I was in my late 30s—that I could finally admit that El Paso was, in fact, a unique and wonderful place.

Dancers at Chamizal

I can now admit that the Franklin Mountains are a nice place to go for an evening drive and the giant lighted star is really something special. I slowly embraced the fact that the desert landscape that I had so detested, was actually incredibly beautiful and calming. I appreciate (in hindsight) that in the desert, you can smell the rain before it comes and when the sky finally does split open, it’s a miraculous, powerful thing. I’ve come around to (even if I don’t always practice) “manana syndrome,” because, really, can’t most things wait?

And, I am now oh-so-grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up in a border town, crossing easily back and forth over the bridge to enjoy all the best of both cultures—everything from late night rolled tacos at Chico’s Tacos in El Paso to dancing the night away and drinking 25 cent Colorado Bulldogs at the Kentucky Club in Juarez.

But most of all, I am now proud to call myself an El Pasoan because of the wonderful people that live there. El Pasoans are generally – with the exception of a few classmates early on — very welcoming and friendly. Those traits and that openness was wasted on my surly teenaged self, but slowly my walls have melted. I now appreciate El Pasoans’ focus on family and friends, the willingness to help out a neighbor or your daughter’s best friend, without expecting or asking for anything in return.

So, of course, the news that someone from outside the El Paso community would come in and kill innocent families out shopping for back-to-school supplies is just devastating. It would be—and is—devastating that such senseless violence happens in any community. But for it to happen in the El Paso community—which is so diverse and so warm and so open and so welcoming—it is especially galling and just egregious. It’s the last place you would expect something like this to happen. But we all know, it won’t be the last place that something like this happens.

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