– From the desk of Dr. Cheryl Howard –
When I came to El Paso to live, I interviewed for a job at UTEP and bought a house in Sunset Heights. From both my office and my house I could see two countries; I felt like I had moved to a very special place. I loved the idea of living next to Mexico more than I loved the idea of living in Texas. Calling El Paso “Baja New Mexico” helped.
There were so many possible research projects, so many interesting questions to ask, so many interesting people living here in this binational space rich with history. Layers and layers of complexity. My previous experience with this area may have helped me to acclimate better than other new UTEP faculty, but most of us shared this enthusiasm about being on the border. What was shocking was that our students didn’t share this excitement. When faculty chatted about this phenomenon, we decided that the best way to understand it was that los Paseños suffered from a collective inferiority complex.
So then that became the first question. I asked my students how many wanted to stay in El Paso/Juárez after they graduated? Very few. Why did they want to leave? El Paso is boring. Where did they want to go? Anywhere: big exciting cities, cities with water, green cities. They really had very little information. Oddly, they didn’t know much about this area, its history, current size or composition, or what kinds of things one could actually do here. Furthermore, they didn’t know much about other places, never having been there. When I asked where people had been, here were the most common answers: Disneyland, Sea World, Disney World, Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Chihuahua.
By the time I was in college I had been in at least 40 states, Canada and Mexico. I had gone to seven different schools in four different states. Our family vacations were usually camping trips and when we visited family or moved, we criss-crossed the country several times. No wonder our students wanted to leave. They wanted a chance to see the world too.
Both El Paso and Cd. Juárez are isolated from their respective state and federal centers of power. One of the phrases I heard often when I first came was that Austin (or maybe it was Houston) was farther away from El Paso than LA. West Texas is not El Paso, but Amarillo or Lubbock. Cd. Juárez is not so far from Chihuahua but Mexico City is a different story. We both live on the edge of our own countries. Recently, a New York Times Magazine article headline declared that we were “at the end of America.” Geography notwithstanding (Mexico is also in North America and Chile is still in “America” as well.) the headline lets us know that we are orphans or step children, not real “Americans.”
My first question led to several other questions. Why didn’t students know very much about this region? Why hadn’t they traveled very much? Did they really hate El Paso or were they just bored? What was it about living on either side the border that relegated us to second class citizens? Where to start?
Let’s start with why students are so ignorant about the area. I have two theories. One is connected to our marginalization. Since the larger society doesn’t think we are important, why should we? The second theory is more personal. I began asking students what they did on the weekends when they were kids, and what they do now. When they were kids, it was all about family. There were abuelitos to visit and some cousin or uncle had a birthday every month to celebrate. There were after church ritual meals or movies. There were sports teams to follow. It sounds wonderful, idyllic family solidarity. But here was what was missing: museums, art galleries, symphonies, trips to the library, lectures, hikes in the Franklins, walking tours of downtown, family discussions about articles in the newspaper. By the time they reached college age, our students often lived with their parents, worked part time or even full time and took classes. On the weekends they were still expected to fulfill most family obligations, and their primary activity away from home was going out to bars with friends to unwind after a week of obligations. The Chico’s Tacos of their childhood is now a destination after partying.
And why haven’t our students travelled? Well, it’s almost the same story. Disneyland, Disney World and Sea World advertise and appeal to families with young children, offer package deals and give the kids something to brag about to their friends. Can you imagine how excited a child would be to know that their family is going to Portland, Oregon to see art galleries and Powell’s bookstore, to the aquarium in Monterrey, or to New Orleans to spend a week working for Habitat for Humanity? Moreover, El Paso families are not generally wealthy and don’t have jobs that allow for generous paid vacation time. Is the family car in shape for a long road trip? What is the price of gasoline? How much is airfare for a family of five? In the end, it’s about relatives that you can stay with or package deals.
I don’t believe that most kids who grow up here really hate El Paso. There are a few who want to get as far away as possible as soon as possible and never come back. But the majority is just bored. When you have lived in a place all your life, the landscape and the people become predictable and invisible. Other cities, especially ones that have been featured in TV shows or movies or ones that friends have moved to and gotten good jobs, especially ones with water and green grass exert a romantic pull. It wouldn’t be hard for the grass to be greener.
Other communities survive this twenty-something wanderlust without many ill effects, because young people from other communities exchange places with them. But El Paso does not attract young people. Most of UTEP’s enrollment comes from people right here in El Paso County; athletes are recruited from elsewhere, and some of them come to love it here. After college there are a few teaching and governmental positions filled by outsiders, but the majority of our population is home-grown or affiliated with the military. When we lose a sizeable number of educated young people, we lose a lot. As a community, we have invested in their well-being and schooling, and now some other community is reaping those rewards.
Three types of people leave El Paso and come back. One type comes back unwillingly, but because their families need them. A second group comes back because they are disillusioned with the places they chose. It may be that they experienced racism for the first time, or the extra money in their paychecks wasn’t worth it, or the pace of life was too hectic, or they missed real Mexican food or even Chico’s Tacos. But it is a third group whom we desperately need to come back: ones who see the potential of the region, who love it passionately, and who are excited to come back and work to develop that potential. There will be several UTEP professors and some in the community eager to work with them to stir the beans.
Special to the Bean Juice Dispatches (and for you!),
From the desk of Dr. Cheryl Howard
a.k.a. La Chief – Honorary Mexican.