El Paso has a cultural identity crisis. It is Mexican and then it is not. Why this exists can be traced back to two realities. The first is that El Paso, unlike many other binational communities along the U.S.-México border, is a metroplex that is visible to each other. The international border that divides the community does not obstruct the visibility each city has to the other. The other reality is the often-misused term, “Mexican”.
Many El Pasoans, like other Mexican Americans, use the term to define their ethnicity and their culture while at the same time using the term to separate themselves from the Mexicans across the border. The proximity to each other has created a duality among Mexican-Americans that is exploited by the Anglos governing El Paso.
To many El Pasoans, Mexicans from across the border represents crime and poverty. Many El Pasoans anchor their identity around being Mexican being clear to differentiate the word Mexican as representing two different things – the Mexican nationals living in México and the Mexicans who are American citizens due to birth or immigration.
Even newly minted immigrant Hispanics tend to differentiate themselves from their Mexican citizen brethren. This is unique to the border. As newly minted Americans, many immigrants reconstruct their identity to better “assimilate” into their new reality.
Border cities like El Paso, and more so El Paso because it is literally a stones-throw away from México, create a vastly different Mexican immigrant then those across the nation. As an example, an Orlando-based Mexican-heritage Latino is different to the one in El Paso. Juárez is literally there as reminder to El Paso of how México is different, whereas in Orlando, México is a far off and sometimes exotic place.
Mexican Americans often use the word Mexican as an ethnic identity and as a modifier to separate themselves from Mexican nationals. “I’m Mexican” in one conversation and “I’m not Mexican” (national) in another. The Mexican label is both a uniter and a separator depending on the circumstances.
Stigmatizing labelling about Mexicans has transcended throughout El Paso to become engrained as part of the community’s identity.
The Segundo Barrio battle has pitted well-funded, mostly Anglo, community leaders against a community of Mexican-Americans who fear the erasure of their heritage. On the surface it looks like a simple case of cultural erasure or gentrification, but it is more than that.
It is a cultural mêlée for control of the city’s identity. Not all sides see the cultural component the same way.
Behind the Segundo Barrio battle lines is a well-hidden identity duality that insidiously marginalizes communities like Segundo Barrio. This is because the defenders of Segundo Barrio do not understand how they got to the point of having to defend their identity. There is third component to the battle lines that see Duranguito and Segundo Barrio purely on a historical viewpoint with culture just a marginal issue.
But for many the Duranguito and Segundo Barrio is a battle for cultural identity.
Language – who uses it and how it is used to explain the issue is at the center of the problem.
The Example of Colonias
The use of the word colonia to describe a neighborhood along the U.S.-México border, instead of slums in the rest of the nation, explains how language is used for cultural erasure. In México, the word colonia is simply a neighborhood.
However in America, the word has been adopted to describe an unincorporated settlement “as of Mexican-Americans or Mexicans” near the border “that typically has poor services and squalid conditions,” according to the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (accessed on May 4, 2021)
The use of colonia is used in America to stigmatize the Mexican heredity of a neighborhood. That it is focused on communities along the border reinforces this. For Spanish speakers and neighbors looking at the word through nostalgic prisms, the word does not convey the negativity that has been ascribed to it by the Anglos that use it to define a blighted community that needs to be erased for the good of the city.
In communities like El Paso, there are two Mexicans. The “good” Mexican is the food, the culture and the people that have assimilated into the ideal that everything south of the border is corrupt or poor. The “bad” Mexican are the Mexican nationals that take goods and services, leave things dirty and make things more expensive for the American taxpayers. Although not based on fact, it is the generalized understanding about those from south of the border.
The Segundo Barrio is really the Second Ward, but in El Paso, it has come to symbolize a vibrant historical community worth saving because Segundo Barrio sounds better than the Second Ward.
Therein lies the disconnect.
Unlike Houston’s acknowledgment of its Segundo Barrio being the Second Ward, El Paso has erased the Second Ward reality over the years.
In one context, Segundo Barrio defines culture and identity but for others it defines poverty or “gritty, dirty, lazy” as the controversial Glass Beach Study tried to define the poor but vibrant community of Segundo Barrio.
The insidiousness of the word choices encouraged by Anglos and used by Mexican-Americans is lost in El Paso’s Hispanics because they are trying but failing to assimilate into America’s cultural ideal. While defining themselves as Mexican, yet distancing themselves from Mexicans within the same narrative, Hispanics in El Paso empower the very people that encourage the use of words such as colonias to stigmatize the very Hispanics that distance themselves from the Mexican nationals.
The El Paso Narrative Excludes Mexicans
In the 1964 book, Bordertown, The Life and Times of El Paso del Norte Frank Mangan says it clearly: “the trouble with El Paso” is that he “hardly ever see[s] any Americans downtown.”
Mangan, like many other El Paso writers, then and now, are champions of El Paso’s Mexicanisms so long as the American ideal is present and colonias and “gritty, dirty, lazy” Mexicans are not.
Who Writes El Paso’s Narrative?
Who is writing the El Paso narrative is the important question. It is no coincidence that most of the well-known historians and purveyors of El Paso’s history are named Bobby and Lee Byrd, Adair Margo, Hal Marcus, Leon Metz, and Bernie & Melissa Sargent. It is also no coincidence that their last names are Anglo.
One need not look farther than El Paso’s print house – Cinco Puntos – to understand the Anglo slant to El Paso’s identity. Of the 147 authors listed on their website on May 3, 2021, only about 29, or about 20% have Latino surnames. This in a city of over 80% Hispanics.
Where is the Latino representation in the construction of El Paso’s identity? Understanding the lack of Mexican representation in El Paso’s identity record it then becomes clear why Segundo Barrio represents pride and identity for some while at the same time the mostly Anglo minority encourages the use of certain words to erase the Mexican identity of the city. They do this by perpetuating the viewpoint that there are two Mexicans. One type of Mexican is the American version, or assimilated kind, and the other is the Mexicans living on the other side of the border.
A classic divide-and-conquer strategy.
This why many El Pasoans do not understand the disconnect of the word Segundo Barrio and the community it defines. On one hand many of El Paso’s Hispanics separate themselves from their fellow Mexicans living across the border while celebrating their Mexican heritage by eating tacos all the while blaming poverty and crime on Mexicans – those from other side of the international border.
The Anglos Have Gamed The System Perfectly
The Anglo’s of the city keep the city’s identity controlled by championing families like Tom Lea and allowing Cinco Puntos to be representative of El Paso’s identity although their writers do not represent most of El Paso.
The elder Tom Lea’s notoriety of delousing Mexicans on the border which taught the Nazi’s how to better kill the Jews in World War II has been lost in the illustrations of the son who also distorts the El Paso identity record by making it Anglo-centric.
The insidiousness of transforming El Paso’s identity as Anglo-centric is best explained with El Paso’s Hispanics embracing the slave trader James Bowie as the namesake of the El Paso Latinos’ showcase school: Bowie Highschool.
Bowie represents the evilness of slavery while also representing the school for the marginalized El Paso Mexicans. Bowie proves that if it is Anglo, it is palatable for both Hispanics and Anglos in El Paso as it has nothing to do with the Mexicans from the other side of the border.
It also explains why many El Pasoans see nothing wrong with The Equestrian at the El Paso International Airport.
El Pasoans have allowed themselves to be whitewashed by who they allow to represent them.
Few in El Paso realize that the most corrupt of El Paso’s infamous leaders are the Anglos and not the Mexicans. Most names brought up in conversations about corruption in El Paso include Anthony Cobos, David Escobar, Larry Medina and Raymond Telles. The Anglo names like Chris Balsinger, Bob Jones and Marc Schwartz are but footnotes in the corruption scandals. Except for Balsiger, the previous individuals were part of the 2007 Poisoned Pawns scandal where about 41 El Paso businessmen and politicians were prosecuted on public corruption charges.
Most El Pasoans do not know that Marc Schwartz, who went to prison as part of the Bob Jones scandal, was instrumental in defrauding the Tigua Indians by the Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon criminal enterprise.
Bob Jones was sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence in 2011 for corruption. The city’s local newspaper, the El Paso Times – whose editor at the time was Bob Moore – for years ignored the questions raised about Bob Jones’ business practices until it became evident that the FBI was investigating him.
About two years into Jones imprisonment, Bob Moore provided space in the El Paso Times for Bob Jones to write mea culpas and to complain about his prison experiences. Bob Moore provided the felon, who had been championed as an El Paso success story, an opportunity to explain himself to El Paso readers.
Tom Balsiger, who was also sentenced to ten years in federal prison, used México and Mexicans to perpetuate the coupon fraud that made him wealthy.
Like the El Paso Times, the local business weekly, the El Paso Inc. spent considerable ink on propping up Balsiger’s business acumen including his many court hearing delays, framed by Balsiger as a corrupt attempt against him to damage him.
Before sentencing Balsiger, the court received many letters of support from El Paso leaders including Beto O’Rourke, who wrote how “generous” Balsinger had been “mentoring” O’Rourke and Dee Margo who argued that Balsiger’s “philanthropy” should minimize his crimes.
Mexicans, on the other hand are treated differently by both news outlets. Anthony Cobos was framed as corrupt from the moment he was elected. Shortly after Cobos’ election as county judge, the FBI raided his public offices. That the FBI was investigating Bob Jones’ NCED looking for connections between Jones and government officials prior to Cobos was not a fact that the El Paso Times tried to clarify, instead framing the debacle as Cobos being corrupt.
As can be observed, the master narrative is pervasive in the local news media. McLean and Syed define master narratives as “culturally shared stories that tell us about a given culture, and provide guidance for how to be a ‘good’ member of a culture; they are a part of the structure of society.” [see note below] Likewise, social media in recent years has become part of the reframing of El Paso’ narrative. There are Facebook groups that censor diverse viewpoints to ensure that the Anglo narrative is not challenged. Our current publications: Border Politics, El Paso News and El Paso Politics, including our social media channels; El Paso Digest and El Paso Watch are vehicles that are beginning to address the master narrative, while publications like Bob Moore’s El Paso Matters continues to keep the preferred narrative.
“The master narrative relies on cynicism and apathy. It takes advantage of the powerless and promulgates a point of view in its favor. It allures with simplicity and empty promises about the American Dream. The master fiction is not written by one group or party, it is written, recorded, and repeated by all, especially those who are quiet and complicit.”Kathy K. Im, Director of Journalism & Media at the MacArthur Foundation
It is this Anglo control of information that encourages El Paso’s Mexicans to delineate themselves away from the Mexicans across the border.
The Segundo Barrio and the Duranguito battles have been battles that have been hampered because El Paso’s purveyors of what the city needs to be, have successfully divided those who would benefit from vibrant communities representing Mexicans, all Mexicans.
Miguel Juárez contributed to this article.
McLean, K. C., & Syed, M. (2016). Personal, master, and alternative narratives: An integrative framework for understanding identity development in context. Human Development, 58(6), 318–349.