-From the desk of Cheryl Howard-
When most people think of El Paso, they think of people who have lived here all their lives or people who “had” to come here for work, most visibly military folks.
It is almost inconceivable that people would come here from other countries, by choice, and make El Paso their home. This is a story of two women who did exactly that. They both fell in love here, with the climate, the people in general, and more specifically the people they married. I interviewed them separately on the same day (September 9, 2011). I met Julia for lunch at Geogeske’s and met Anne Laure at Madeline Park in Kern Place.
Julia Kokina came here as a high school exchange student with Rotary International. She lived with a host family and graduated from Andress High School. She continued to live with her host family after deciding to attend UTEP. Her decision to stay in El Paso was partly adventure and partly because the opportunities for higher education were limited in her own country. Julia grew up in Latvia (find an atlas!). Her mother is Russian and her father is Latvian, so she grew up, like many of our UTEP students, with a sense of mixed identity and two languages. Well, actually three. She speaks English very well, and after ten years here on the border, she also speaks some Spanish. I met her when she was a freshman in my seminar on the U.S.-Mexico border, and we have stayed in contact.
Nowadays, Julia is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Accounting and teaches classes in Individual Taxes and Principles of Accounting. Last year Julia married a Yemeni man she met when he was a student at NMSU. After graduation, she hopes to find an academic job at a University on the east coast of the U.S. Between receiving her CPA (Certified Public Accounting) credentials and entering the Ph.D. program, Julia worked for two different accounting firms in El Paso. While lucrative and educational, she missed the excitement of academia, the climate of learning and inquiry with faculty and fellow students.
It was also in this work environment that she first experienced what we might call “reverse discrimination.” There were times when she was made to feel uncomfortable for being Anglo or maybe for not being Hispanic. She emphasized that this never occurred at UTEP, even though the student body there resembles the population of the entire city. Her best friend is a woman who grew up in the borderlands and is currently a National Public Radio reporter who also does freelance work. There are times when Julia wishes she could explore her interests in the liberal arts, but her practical, career-oriented side win out. She will, however, be researching human behavior and ethics in accounting for her dissertation topic.
Anne Laure Gremillet grew up in the suburbs of Paris and excelled in track. She was a hammer thrower, to be precise. Her mother is French and her father grew up in Morroco, but was also of French descent (a “blackfoot”). That gave Anne Laure her sense of mixed identity. After graduating from high school, Anne Laure really wanted to come to the United States, and UTEP offered her a scholarship. She found the UTEP community to be very welcoming and, upon graduation, stayed to enroll in a Master’s program in Communications. She also taught French at Loretto, Irvin and Cathedral. Anne Laure, like Julia, took classes with me and kept in touch.
She took Spanish in High School, but really learned Spanish because she didn’t have a car! “Well, I took the bus for four years, so I better learn.” Additionally, people spoke Spanish to her because she was “not the blondie type.” She does think that “if you don’t speak Spanish and English, you are not really part of this community.” However well she speaks English or Spanish, she does have a noticeable French accent, which people find to be delightful in contrast to a Mexican accent, but Anne Laure says it also has its down side. “People don’t take you seriously because of the accent and they also think you don’t really know English.”
Currently, Anne Laure Gremillet is Anne Laure Martinez, married to another former student, and the mother of two daughters. Anne Laure met her husband through friends just like Julia did. Robert is a U.S. citizen, but has deep roots in Cd. Juárez, where his parents still live. They no longer cross the border, but Robert’s parents come to El Paso once a week.
I asked each of them what they thought were the best and worst things about El Paso. Julia immediately said “the people; they are both the best and the worst. They are open and friendly, but they are also narrow-minded and look down on themselves.” Anne Laure echoed some of this sentiment. She said: “If you think of El Paso, it’s a small town mentality, conservative and family-oriented. If you stay in El Paso with no family and no kids, you are screwed. That’s the dark side of El Paso.”
Anne Laure thinks the best thing about El Paso is UTEP. She thinks the professors, the foreign students and the athletes, virtually all of whom grew up elsewhere, bring an international flair and fresh ideas to El Paso. The worst thing about the city would be the 1970s style architecture of the strip malls and some stand-alone buildings that decorate all the major commercial streets (Mesa, Montana, Dyer, Alameda, etc.) On a more positive note, Anne Laure thinks the “downtown redevelopment is a good thing that needed to be done.” She also thinks that El Paso has much more character than Dallas or Houston and other more modern cities that she thinks are impersonal and not unique.
Anne-Laure believes the people in El Paso “will accept you whatever path you want to take.” This reminds me of my own observation many years ago when I first came to UTEP; I felt that I could be all of me and that would be just fine. Lately though, I have begun to see a more judgmental and divisive El Paso, one not as comfortable with difference and diversity.
Julia had an interesting story about the star on the mountain. She recounts how her sister thought it was so exceptional and kept trying to get a picture of it, but was never satisfied. Julia thinks this story is a metaphor for El Paso. It has a “kind of beauty that doesn’t translate into any other media. You have to see it with your eyes. From far away the star (and El Paso) it doesn’t look like much; you have to be here to really appreciate it. You can’t rely on media—books, articles, movies—you have to come here and discover it for yourself.”
Anne Laure’s take on the star was that it represented a friendly competition with Mexico’s large flag planted at the Chamizal. She laughed as if it were some sort of silly, but essentially harmless, game that two countries were playing with each other. I wish I could be as sure as Anne Laure.
Both women got their sense of adventure from their fathers. Their mothers are traditional homebodies who don’t relish travel. Julia’s father and sister have visited her here, but not her mother. Both travel home regularly to visit. Julia thinks that people who grew up here “should leave and maybe come back.” Staying here just gives people “the right not to do too much.” Anne Laure does worry that her parents are getting older and she might want to move back to France someday to care for them and to offer her daughters the other half of their cultural heritage. I don’t believe there is any possibility that Julia would ever choose to return to Latvia.
I learned something from each woman, not just about their lives, but about the borderlands, about “us.” First, borders are not the only place in the world where kids grow up with a sense of mixed identity, even language. Not the only place where mothers resist change, but ultimately have to let their daughters leave the nest. Second, people from faraway places, people who are well-traveled, could go other places, do choose to come here. They appreciate and love it here, maybe even more than we do, or at least more than we think we do. Third, a couple of cautionary tales emerge from the interviews. Julia would like to see a less complacent El Paso. She thinks we grow lazy and passive when we stay within the comfort of our safety zones. Anne Laure expresses the same sentiment in a more subtle way, by referencing the vitality that professors, foreign students, and athletes—all outsiders—bring to the community. Anne Laure also warns us against trying too hard to be like other places, to eschew the “cookie cutter” mentality and champion, rather than look down on, our own uniqueness. Both warn against narrow-mindedness and stereotyping. It might be a good idea if we listened.
And just in case it hadn’t occurred to you, there is a ukulele-playing co-founder of the Bean Juice Dispatches who was born and raised in Saipan! (I hope you haven’t put the atlas away just yet.) He might have something to say about this topic.
Special to the Bean Juice Dispatches (and for you!),
From the desk of Dr. Cheryl Howard
a.k.a. La Chief