Author’s note: this article was updated to clarify that the author of the telegram and mayor of El Paso was Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. and the artist is Thomas C. Lea III. The artist is the son of the mayor.
Who is speaking for El Paso? That is the important question that El Pasoans should be having but are not. By most measures, El Paso is over 80% Hispanic. Hispanics out number the Anglos in the community. But as one looks around El Paso it soon becomes apparent that the representation of Latinos in El Paso does not correlate with the demographics of the city.
Who are the Latino captains of industry of El Paso? Who represents El Paso at UTEP, a predominantly Hispanic school? What ethnicity governs El Paso? Who runs the police department and sheriff’s office?
Look at the leadership makeup of El Paso and ask yourself the simple question, do they represent the community I live in?
Clearly, the majority Hispanic community in El Paso is underrepresented.
Is it because Hispanics are marginalized? Is it because Latinos do not aspire to be leaders of industry or is because we do not want to serve in government? Or, is it just simply the different wants and needs of people?
Monday’s piece about the namesake of Bowie High School elicited several comments from erasing history to the shock of realizing that the pride of the demarginalized Mexican-American community is named after a slave trader who broke the law of the time selling slaves he had no right to sell.
The comments were not segregated by ethnicity as both sides chimed in on both sides of the debate.
The fact that not many readers realized that Bowie was named after a slave trader is the reason why El Pasoans should be discussing the history they think they know.
Mention the name Tom Lea to most El Pasoans and the response is that he was an artist. Some may even remember him as a former mayor of El Paso. The father was the mayor and the son was the artist.
But few, if any, El Pasoans know about what Lea, the father, really thought about the Mexican Americans in El Paso.
“HUNDREDS OF DIRTY LOUSEY DESTITUTE MEXICANS ARRIVING AT EL PASO DAILY/WILL UNDOUBTEDLY BRING AND SPREAD TYPHUS UNLESS A QUARANTINE IS PLACED AT ONCE”. Signed Tom Lea, 1917
No, it is not today’s headlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the fear that typhoid would come to El Paso among the Mexicans who worked in El Paso homes and businesses. To placate the fear of typhoid, El Paso leaders started the toxic fumigation of Mexicans crossing the border.
The Mexicans, both men and women, were made to strip naked and be sprayed with toxic chemicals such as gasoline, DDT, Zyklon B, among other chemicals.
If Zyklon B sounds familiar it is because it was the chemical used by the Nazis as the “preferred killing tool” in the extermination camps during World War II. As a matter of fact, in 1938, Dr. Gerhard Peters, who was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg, advocated for Zyklon B by using two pictures of the El Paso disinfecting stations.
The disinfecting treatment led to the 1917 Bath Riots at the Santa Fe bridge.
There is no question that Tom Lea’s (father) xenophobia of Mexicans helped to create the narrative about El Paso that poignantly manifested itself in the form of the infamous Glass Beach Study.
Lea’s (artist, son) El Paso is not representative of the El Paso majority Hispanic community. His paintings are nostalgic representations of Anglo cowboys riding out of a western movie. The real history of El Paso is one of the vaquero Tejano that has been quietly relegated to the background of the history of El Paso.
The reason that Tom Lea (artist, son) graces the name of an elementary school or El Paso celebrates Tom Lea Month is because the true history of El Paso has been hijacked by a minority ethnic community that speaks for the city of over 80% Hispanics.
It is this reason why the jewel of Segundo Barrio is named after an Anglo slave trader and why the El Paso narrative is spoken by people who are not Hispanic.