El Paso

Unite El Paso – The 1990’s Plan To Erase The Border That Launched Free Internet And A Political Career At The Expense Of A “Dream”

This is the story of how a group of more than one thousand El Pasoans got together in 1992 under the dream of uniting the community to make El Paso and Cd. Juárez an international city where the border did not exist and educating the children on both sides of the border was the priority. It is the story of how uniting El Pasoans around the goal of making El Paso a better place to live launched a political career, gave rise to the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG) and has one notable accomplishment under its belt – bringing free Internet to El Paso. This is the story of Unite El Paso.

El Paso was on the verge of significant changes in 1993, so much so that the El Paso Times ran a series on January 11, 1993 about them. According to the newspaper, significant changes in “ethnic barriers” and the “fading, some say…the lines of division: the Rio Grande dividing citizens of two countries, the Franklins dividing Westsider from Eastsider, I-10 dividing north from south, Fort Bliss dividing military from civilian” were underway in El Paso. [44] In short, El Paso was on verge of becoming united. The “dividing citizens of two countries” was an interesting goal, one seldom heard in El Paso. But uniting El Paso and Cd. Juárez as one international community faced a significant hurdle that few articulated or understood but nonetheless killed the dream. Two things were also happening in the background. The first was that the Border Patrol had assigned its first Hispanic chief and some, including the outgoing Border Patrol Chief, Dale Musgrave, believed “might give the impression of more openness” in the Border Patrol. The incoming chief was Silvestre Reyes, and instead of being “more sensitive to undocumented immigrants,” Reyes set in motion a border security strategy that killed undocumented immigrants and is today’s underlining strategy that has led to caged migrant children and asylum seekers denied access to relief. [45]

While publicly the community was discussing “unity” in El Paso, the Border Patrol was dividing the sister cities of El Paso and Cd. Juárez. As if that wasn’t enough, Hispanics appeared to making inroads into the city’s political establishment but, unbeknownst to most, were losing political clout due to infighting and an entrenched political system that did not want to yield political power. As if that was not enough, further turmoil to the messages of “unity” was the incoming North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that fundamentally changed the economy of El Paso.

In January 1993, El Paso “as described by many of its citizens, has spent decades divided – an insecure schizophrenic, a political victim,” but the solution was within the city’s grasp, some believe, including the El Paso Times. An “inclusive community group, Unite El Paso” stood ready to make El Paso great. [44] Unite El Paso had the support of over a thousand El Pasoans and the backing of the El Paso Times.

The El Paso Times

The El Paso Times and its then-editorial page editor, David Crowder were proponents of Unite El Paso and helped launched it. According to Crowder, a Unite El Paso member, the reason for the newspaper’s involvement came about because the newspaper had organized Community 92. Community 92 identified that El Paso had a “self-image problem” and that a “much larger organization” needed to be created to address El Paso’s image that many “perceived” to be caused by El Pasoans unable “to work cooperatively”. [49]

Crowder wrote several editorials starting in 1992 in support of the project. The El Paso Times regularly published several Unite El Paso member’s editorials in its paper and carried several advertisements and announcements for Unite El Paso.

Between 1993 and in 1994, the newspaper carried several advertisements titled Why El Paso? where several El Pasoans, from different ethnicities, wrote about why they chose El Paso. For example, on June 13, 1993, Dr. Sang Lee, from the Korean Chamber of Commerce wrote that “our family chose El Paso because of the friendly people, the beautiful weather and the business opportunities” available in El Paso. Another example was by Don Furth who on May 30, 1993 wrote in a Unite El Paso newspaper advertisement that El Paso is “a wonderful place to live” and a “great place to raise a family.” Each of the advertisements showcased different El Paso ethnicities united behind El Paso and carried the Unite El Paso brand on them.

Unite El Paso Sets Three Goals

Unite El Paso began in September 1992 when Diana Natalicio “invited 30 community leaders to hear an IBM consultant, Bob Gholson, talk about vision building in communities.” Soon after, five independent groups working on El Paso issues joined with Natalicio’s group. Three of the five were Project Change, a Levi Strauss Foundation project trying to “combat racism in El Paso,” the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the El Paso Times’ Community 92. There were members of the Hispanic Leadership Institute and the Junior League as well. [59]

Officially Unite El Paso was co-founded by Manny Aldana and Eliot Shapleigh in October 1992. [3] [33] According to an El Paso Times editorial in 1993, Unite El Paso was conceived by “14 El Pasoans representing a handful of groups” who had “dreams of burying the divisions” that had “plagued El Paso”. [8] On September 10, 1993, the group announced a list of 150 individuals that were “to forge an agenda for the city’s future.” The group of 150 included Sal Balcorta, Ron Coleman, Myrna Deckert, Stan Paz and Johnnie Washington. [11] Balcorta and Deckert were later members of the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG). More members of the PDNG would surface later, and, as readers will note, the PDNG itself emerged indirectly from Unite El Paso.

The group had an initial funding of $200,000 from public and private sources. [33] We were unable to find any reference to the source of the group’s funding. Its public leaders were Manny Aldana, a businessman who was chairman of the City Plan Commission, and Eliot Shapleigh. It was conceived, according to Aldana, to address “El Paso’s political turfism”. Aldana added that there was a “multitude of ethnic and economic barriers” keeping people in El Paso “from talking and working together”. [35]

Manny Aldana, one of the co-founders, was president of Bor-Maq Associates, a company placing executives in maquiladoras. Aldana said in November 1993 that El Pasoans needed “to rally around” NAFTA or “sit back and let others take the lead”. [54] Although never fully articulated publicly, NAFTA was also an underlining driving force for Unite El Paso.

There was a third co-founder of the organization that was mostly overshadowed by Aldana and Shapleigh publicly. It was UTEP President Diana Natalicio, [21] who was named the group’s chairwoman in 1994. [36] It was Natalicio that recruited IBM to act as the initial facilitator to help the organization establish itself. Gilbert Moreno, who was the local IBM representative at the time and later helped to organize the PDNG, eventually took over as the facilitator of the group. [33]

The group met officially for the first time on January 22, 1993. [32]

By September 1993, Unite El Paso had 1,500 members. Of the membership, 150 members were selected to hold a summit to set the group’s “two or three goals”. The summit members included 101 Hispanics and 64 women. [12] The 150 individuals involved in setting the agenda for Unite El Paso were selected by 30 “trustees” in public meetings held on September 17 through the 19th in 1993. The “slots,” as each member of the 150-member board were called, were divided into “government (30 people), education (36), business (38), and grassroots (45).” In total, the group planned to recruit 150 El Pasoans plus an addition ten individuals from Las Cruces and Juárez. According to David Crowder, the “purpose” of the upcoming summit was “to come up with one to three major objectives or projects for the El Paso community,” it was important that “the roles of Juarez and Las Cruces,” in El Paso’s future “not be ignored”. [47]

Notable names included in the Unite El Paso Summit 150 participants included Lucy Acosta, Rafael Adame, Manny Aldana, Frank Apodaca, Ed Archuleta, Salvador Balcorta, Arturo Bañuelos, Moises Bujanda, Ron Coleman, Myrna Deckert, Pete Duarte, Jaime Esparza, Carmen Felix, Gene Finke, Larry Francis, Debbie Hamlyn, Hector Holguin, Charles Hooten, Miguel Juárez, Sergio Lewis, Marcos Lizarraga, Ray Mancera, Carlos Marentes, Adair Margo, Rudy Montiel, Mervyn Moore, Gilbert Moreno, Diana Natalicio, Nacho Padilla, Stan Paz, Barbara Perez, Carlos Ramirez, Silvestre Reyes, Rick Rios, Belen Robles, Jose Rodriguez, Peggy Rosson, Leo Samaniego, Jaime Sandoval, Eliot Shapleigh, Raymond Telles, Chuy Terrazas, Nestor Valencia, Hector Villa, Cesar Viramontes and Jack Vowell. [59]

The original Unite El Paso goal was a city that had a “tourist attraction without equal,” or a Silicon Valley, dominated by clean, high-tech industry.” But not all El Pasoans were convinced of this vision. Some, according to the El Paso Times saw “big-town problems like gangs.” Others saw scarce “high-paying jobs” and the air still smelled bad, and “influence” was “still dominated by white non-Hispanics.” [44]

To create the group’s visions, on June 26, 1993, Unite El Paso held a citywide Community Congress where members of the public were invited to offer ideas for a better El Paso. From the participants, a 15-member nominating committee would elect individuals to participate in the upcoming Community Summit scheduled for September 10 and 11th, 1993. [51]

Among the “ideas from the Congress” were successful education for all the region’s children regardless of socio-economic status and to “promote a positive multicultural image of El Paso”. By 2011 El Paso would be “the leading international trade region in the western hemisphere,” was the group’s plan. [51]

However, there was an underlining theme that the group wanted to address throughout its active years – the ethnic divisions within the community.

Unity Through Open Borders

Although the “unity” message being pushed by the group was about working towards the goal of uniting the city towards a common goal along issues like the economy and transportation, there existed an underlining message of ending the prevalent ethnic division within the El Paso. Readers should remember that the border blockade dividing Mexicans from Mexican-Americans and other El Pasoans was publicly supported by El Pasoans as Unity El Paso was being developed. In addition, there were ongoing tensions between the Anglo and the rising Hispanic political players.

Marge Bartoletti, an active member of Unite El Paso from its initial development, wrote in an El Paso Times guest editorial that instead of fighting over ethnicity, El Pasoans should better spend their time “competing against other communities rather than fighting among” themselves. To be clear, Bartoletti, a Slavic descendent from Ohio, wrote that she found it “ironic” that in El Paso the label “dumb hunky” had been changed to “Anglo”. [48]

In a June 19, 1993 community meeting focused on gathering community input from about 1,200 people on education, the ethnic strife bellowed up to the top among the discussions. As IBM consultant, Bob Gholson, was imploring the audience to think about resources to the community, “not just in El Paso but the economic region,” someone in the audience said that “El Paso taxpayers shouldn’t pay for educating Juárez children in El Paso schools.” Gholson’s regional unity message was interrupted by “several hundred people” who applauded the man demanding that Juárez kids not be allowed to attend El Paso schools. Mayu Diamondstein, a junior at Loretto Academy at the time said at the meeting that El Pasoans “need to learn how to work together, Juárez and El Paso, as one community”. [50]

The group started its first 3-day summit on September 17, 1993. Its goal was to set the group’s priorities. There were 150 members broken into smaller groups identifying El Paso’s problems, its assets and prioritizing the issues the group wanted to address. [34]

On September 19, 1993, Unite El Paso unveiled its three goals after the final session of their three-day Community Summit. One of the goals was to ensure that children born in 1993 would be “assured of having good jobs when they enter the work force in the year 2011.” The summit participants of about 150 members agreed that Juárez, Las Cruces and El Paso “must be considered a single region”. [22]

One of the three goals was “erasing the border” and creating “an international city by moving customs and immigration authorities to the outskirts of El Paso and Juárez.” The group also wanted to “dissolve school district boundaries and form a single district, possibly to include Juárez, in order to shield children from economic disparity.” [22] Unite El Paso wanted to create an urban region combining El Paso, Cd. Juárez and Las Cruces together.

That this was publicly articulated openly when the border blockade was ongoing is astonishing at best. This is more significant considering that the group was active for over three years and was broadly supported by over 1,000 El Pasoans, many of them community leaders and the El Paso Times.

De Colores

The 3-day summit closed with the participants singing a Spanish song titled De Colors. [22] It is the controversy of the song the ensued that provides us a glimpse of how uncomfortable it was for the Unite El Paso membership to rally support behind an empowered Latino political base that included El Paso’s sister city, Cd. Juárez and its Latino population.

De Colores is a unifying song often associated with Mexicans that is used for encouraging the struggle for justice. That the El Paso Times had to address the song soon after Unite El Paso announced a strategy to unite Latinos, including the Mexicans in Juárez, betrays the underlining but ignored context of why Unite El Paso likely failed five years later.

John Laird clarified in the newspaper that the song is neither Chicano nor Mexican, leaving it up to the readers to decide its significance on their own. [23] Laird wrote that the use of the song was controversial in El Paso without explaining that the controversy was about including Mexicans from Juárez in the “unity” message. Rising Hispanic political power was less controversial than Mexicans from México being included as an important part of El Paso’s future.

De Colores is a song used by Christians, mainly Catholics during their Cursillos, or three-day sessions focused on reawakening their beliefs. A group of Catholics in Majorca Spain started Cursillos in 1949. It appeared in the United States in the 1950’s when Spanish Air Force pilots studying air tactics in Texas brought Cursillos with them. De Colores was adopted worldwide by the participants of the Cursillos to signify they had participated in one. The Spanish language was the nexus and the reason many people united in the Cursillos. [24] De Colores was also adopted by the United Farm Workers as a closing song for its meetings because it “enhanced a sense of community” and “of being connected in a struggle for justice.” [25]

The controversy over the song De Colores poignantly points to the issue that most divided El Paso, ethnicity intermixed with Americans versus Mexicans, as in citizenship, and not just along racist undercurrents. A caller to the Jeff Limberg radio talk show on September 24, 1993 that was hosting Silvestre Reyes explains it well when the caller said, “why’d they have to sing the Chicano fight song?” The caller asked, why not sing God Bless America? [60] The caller and the El Paso Times addressing the song demonstrates that the controversy over the song was based on pushback about integrating El Paso and Cd. Juárez with racism intermixed in between. It is important to remind readers that against the backdrop of Unite El Paso’s messaging was Operation Hold the Line.

Operation Hold The Line

On September 19, 1993, then-Border Patrol Chief Agent Silvestre Reyes launched Operation Hold the Line. The operation blockaded the U.S.-México border to keep undocumented immigrants out. The Border Patrol operation was controversial although it had the support of El Pasoans. The news media was reporting a “90 percent” support by El Pasoans for the operation. However, there was, “a firm if subtle dissent.” [13] The issue was how the blockade would impact El Paso’s economy.

On the same day that Reyes launched the border blockade, Unite El Paso unveiled its three goals to the public. Two of the three goals were a unified region between Cd. Juárez, El Paso and Las Cruces and moving immigration controls out of El Paso to allow the free flow of people between Juárez and El Paso. The third was education.

Manny Aldana, a co-founder of Unite El Paso, said that the border blockade tended to “increase the stereotype and mindset” that El Paso and Juárez was “supposed to be separate”. [53] While the El Paso Times was publishing editorials in support of Unite El Paso it was also supporting Operation Hold the Line through its editorials, as well.

Two letter writers to the El Paso Times on September 26, 1993 show how schizophrenic El Pasoans tend to be about the issue of immigration. Unite El Paso had just outlined its goals which included acknowledging that Juárez was integral to El Paso’s future. The same day the Unite El Paso announced its goals is the day that Silvestre Reyes launched his border blockade.

Adelina Araujo wrote that she participated in the three-day Unite El Paso Summit “hopeful that El Paso would move forward.” Araujo added that “no sooner” had the Summit ended that the Border Patrol started its “all-out border blockade”. She added, “these Mexicans have kept our homes clean, have nursed our babies, worked our gardens and our fields and have built our homes”. However, another letter writer criticized Unite El Paso for their “smoke-induced dreams”.

Gilberto Zungia wrote that the group’s goal; “erase the border and create an international city” was “pathetic,” adding that the second goal to “dissolve school district boundaries and form a single district, possibly to include Juarez” was “outlandish”. Zuniga also wrote that “words are not enough to describe” his “anger and disgust”. Both letter writers are Hispanic, based on their last names, which makes the point that that racism and ethnic strife should not be defined as Latino vs. Anglo, but rather the El Paso divisiveness is more about American citizens versus Mexican citizens with skin color intermixed within the larger picture.

It should be noted that Reyes was listed as one of the original 150 Summit members of Unite El Paso. It is unknown whether Reyes was aware of the “unity” message and the erasure of the border goals. We also do not know if Unite El Paso had any influence over Reyes blockading the border.

But the schizophrenic messaging did not end with El Pasoans, it also emanated from Unite El Paso itself. Although publicly El Pasoans supported Operation Hold the Line, inexplicably many of them opposed the Sunland Park wall. Carlos Ramirez, a member of Unite El Paso said that the border blockade “was working well,” but that the proposed fence was “drastic”. [28]

On December 12, 1993, Unite El Paso organized a human chain from the Chamizal to the Bridge of the Americas. [27] Ostensibly the human chain was to “celebrate an interdenominational ceremony” its location and the border blockade a betrayed the true agenda of gathering support for a united borderless community. [26] Then, on December 17, 1993, Unite El Paso issued a statement saying that “Unite El Paso deplores the Immigration Naturalization Service decision to erect a steel barricade between two of our two communities in the Sunland Park/Anapra area.” [30] However, Unite El Paso did not take a position on the border blockade by Silvestre Reyes going on during this time. How a manpowered blockade was acceptable over a wall remains unanswered to this day. Unite El Paso created or incubated several programs.

Programs Created By Unite El Paso

Several offshoot programs were created by Unite El Paso while it existed. Among them were Paso Del Norte Public Policy Institute [2], Communities in Schools and the Rio Grande FreeNet project. [3] The Rio Grande Freenet was an El Paso Community College network allowing free access to the Internet. It was one of the first connections to the Internet in El Paso. It was conceived in 1993 and opened in late January 1994. [4] Other entities, including private ones, soon joined in supporting the free access to the Internet. Only a dozen cities had this type of free access to the Internet at the time. [5]

The El Paso del Norte Public Policy Institute was created “to research, analyze and store information”. [52] It was an information clearing house for public policy. Its purpose was to collect information on education, health, housing, transportation and water issues faced by El Paso. It was organized by Unite El Paso, the El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso. Eliot Shapleigh was the “key player” in both the public policy group and Unite El Paso. [43]

Shapleigh told the El Paso Times that the information clearing house was organized in December 1994. Office space and research support for the Paso del Norte Policy Institution was provided by UTEP and the community college. [43] The creation of the research house was the result of the information gathered by the courts of inquiry that investigated inequity into state funding for El Paso.

Four courts of inquiry were launched in 1994 and 1995 by District Judge Edward Marquez. Marquez launched the first three in 1994 and the last one in 1995. The first three inquests investigated allegations that the state was shortchanging El Paso in funding in transportation, mental health and social services. The fourth court of inquiry looked at whether the state was giving enough money to El Paso to deal with abused children and adults. [56] The courts of inquiry did not result in arrests but have been credited with proving that El Paso was not receiving its equal share of state funds.

The “key architect” of the courts of inquiry inquiring about inequities in state funding was Ray Caballero. [57] The other member of Marquez’ team was Eliot Shapleigh, who was one of the prosecutors in the case. [58]

After generating one or two reports on cost of living and transportation, the Paso del Norte Policy Institution seems to have disappeared. Its last mention in the news media was around 1995. One report argued that the notion that El Paso was inexpensive compared to other Texas cities was wrong because groceries and gasoline prices were higher in El Paso at the time of the report.

Another issue that the members of Unite El Paso rallied behind was the appointment of a second federal judge to the Western District of Texas. In 1993, there was only one federal judge assigned to El Paso. Congress had authorized a second judge for El Paso, but Bill Clinton’s win over George Bush delayed the appointment. Unite El Paso pushed for the appointment of a second judge. [16] Currently there are four judges assigned to El Paso. They are David Briones (1994-Clinton), Kathleen Cardone (2003-Bush), David Guaderrama (2012-Bush) and Frank Montalvo (2003-Bush). Briones was appointed a “Senior Judge” in 2009. An El Paso vacancy emerged in early 2021, when Philip Martinez died. Martinez had been nominated by George W. Bush in October 2001 and confirmed by the Senate in February 2002. [17]

As of today, there has been no indication that the Biden Administration has moved towards filling the Martinez vacancy.

The United States District Court for the Western District, headquartered in San Antonio serves Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, Pecos and Waco. It was established with one seat in 1857. It now has 13 seats with the last two established on November 2, 2002. Cardone and Montalvo were appointed to fill the new seats.

In 1993, El Paso had two judges. Unite El Paso was trying to get its third judge by having one of the newly created seats filled and posted to El Paso. Pete Duarte was leading the Unite El Paso campaign for the judgeship. The second El Paso judge was only working part-time on cases because Lucious Bunton was moved to “senior status.” [18] Nominating the judge to the Clinton administration to fill the vacant seat in 1993 fell to then-U.S. Senator Bob Krueger, who had been appointed to fill the seat vacated by Lloyd Benston, by then-Governor Ann Richards. In 1993, Krueger was campaigning to keep his seat against 23 opponents. To address the appointment of judges to empty benches, Krueger created an advisory committee. El Paso had three representatives in Krueger’s committee. They were Alicia Chacón, the county judge at the time, attorney George McAlmon and Ray Caballero. [37]

According to the El Paso Times, then-editorial page editor, David Crowder, Unite El Paso “pushed” Bob Krueger to name David Briones and Royal Ferguson to be recommended to the Bill Clinton administration to be nominated for the open judge vacancies at Western District. [49]

Another Unite El Paso project was the Health and Human Services Task Force. The health task force was formed on June 11, 1998. It was funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and driven by Unite El Paso. Among the issues in health that the task force was to address was reducing the duplication of services and filling gaps in healthcare. [6]

Another project created by Unite El Paso was Community Schools. The Family Preservation project was created to “stimulate the use of schools as community centers”. [52] Community Schools was designed to open public school campuses to members of the community. The schools would become community centers offering “services ranging from health and vocations education to recreational programs” that were open to El Paso residents. [7]

By April 1994, Unite El Paso had identified five El Paso schools to turn into community centers. The schools would act as community centers where “about 150 different agencies” would offer services to the neighborhoods. [36] In early 1995, Unite El Paso was awarded a $400,000 state grant to use for turning the schools into community centers. Three schools were participating by this time. They were Ysleta High School, Alta Vista Elementary and Socorro High School. [40]

Another program created by Unite El Paso was a Passport for Lifelong Learning. It was a pamphlet handed out in 1995 to parents of newborns outlining child development steps through the child’s fifth birthday. [61]

Unite El Paso Gets Political

Unite El Paso throughout its existence promised not to be political. Unite El Paso supporters argued that what made Unite El Paso different from other “vision” organizations that had previously failed was that it was a grassroots organization devoid of political operatives.

In 1995, an “informal group” which did not have “an official name” was composed of active members of “the chambers of commerce, the Hispanic Leadership Institute and Unite El Paso”. The group first tried to persuade Hector Holguin to run for mayor and failing to do so announced that they would try to “shape the city’s political future.” [19] Manny Aldana, who was the leader of the unnamed group and a co-founder of Unite El Paso said that the group’s political activism had “raised concerns among community leaders who are not participants”. An unnamed mayoral candidate had asked why the group was getting involved, “people are nervous” about the unnamed group’s political outreach. [19]

Larry Francis, who had said that he would not seek reelection had caused friction within El Paso’s Latino community. Francis has been accused of targeting a Latino city department head, Fermin Dorado, at the behest Anglo building business owners hurt by the changes made by Dorado to the way the city awarded building contracts. The Hispanic Leadership Institute was also trying to empower El Paso Hispanics into the city’s politics only to fail with the infighting among the Latino community.

According to Enrique Moreno, a member of the unnamed group, the group was never about “establishment versus non-establishment or Hispanic versus non-Hispanic,” but rather getting “quality people” to build “consensus”. [19] One of the mayoral candidates was Carlos Ramirez who was also a member of Unite El Paso. [29]

It appears, however, that the “consensus” narrative of the unnamed group was not resonating among the Unite El Paso members. Eliot Shapleigh, a founder of the group, penned an editorial letter to the El Paso Times asking the paper to correct “the implication” that Unite El Paso was behind the unnamed group looking for a candidate to replace outgoing Larry Francis in the upcoming elections. Shapleigh wrote that he and Aldana were acting in their “individual capacities as concerned citizens” and not as Unite El Paso. [20] Shapleigh would become the candidate that most benefited from Unite El Paso.

Eliot Shapleigh

The story of Unite El Paso is that it launched the political career Eliot Shapleigh. Shapleigh, as a co-founder of Unite El Paso, used his experience litigating the Ray Caballero-Judge Edward S. Marquez court of inquiry looking into state funding inequity for El Paso and Unite El Paso to launch his political career. Shapleigh “came to prominence as a founder and co-leader of Unite El Paso,” and of Marquez’ courts of inquiry, wrote the El Paso Times. [58] Manny Aldana, the other co-founder, wrote a letter to the editor endorsing Shapleigh for his first campaign for State Senator. [39] In 1996, Shapleigh was elected as State Senator. [58]

On May 23, 1996, Benjamin Sanchez wrote a letter to the El Paso Times in which he said that when he attended the Unity El Paso Summit in 1993 that he “liked the fact that this group was not to be used by any member for political purposes.” Sanchez added that he was “disappointed” when he realized that Unity El Paso was “a vehicle used by Eliot Shapleigh to win” his election. According to Sanchez, the “majority” of Shapleigh’s campaign “volunteers” as well as his contributors and main supporters were members of Unite El Paso.

The El Paso Times, a main supporter of Unite El Paso, also endorsed Shapleigh’s campaign.

In 1998, Shapleigh co-founded Community Scholars with Ray Caballero’s wife. Community Scholars was used as a vehicle for the political careers of elected officials like Veronica Escobar, Vince Perez, Beto O’Rourke and others.

We spoke to several members of Unite El Paso. At first many were happy to discuss the accomplishments of the group in the school community centers and on the Freenet Internet service. But when we asked for comment on the group’s goal of moving the border out of El Paso, or on Shapleigh’s campaign, they told us that they had changed their mind and did not want to be on the record.

Unite El Paso Dies

As early as 1993, there was some dissention about the unity message that Unity El Paso was trying to accomplish in El Paso, even though it had the clear support of the El Paso Times editorial page. Several supportive editorials, mostly by David Crowder, starting the moment Unite El Paso was conceived through at least 1993, showed that the newspaper’s editorial page was supportive of the group. [42]

But not all El Pasoans were buying into the possibility that Unite El Paso could unite El Paso. David Crowder wrote an editorial in January 1993 where he quoted Miguel Juárez’ newspaper column submission as stating that Unity El Paso was “much hoopla and optimism” that was just “another fire on the horizon,” because El Paso was “too idiosyncratic to be united, except when the Miners are wining”. Juárez added that El Pasoans show a “genuine sense of togetherness, regardless of gender, race or economic status,” only “when consistent sports victories permeate the consciousness” of the city’s residents. [42] (Note: Juárez is the editor of our sister publication, El Paso News)

By late 1996 there were signs that Unite El Paso had reached its end. On October 31, 1996, the League of Women Voters held a luncheon to “discuss the role and future of the group Unite El Paso”. [68] By 1997, Unite El Paso had “virtually” disappeared. It had lasted four-to-five years. Among its redefined agenda was to address the so-called “brain drain” that saw El Paso youth leaving El Paso because of limited access to jobs and opportunities. Younger El Pasoans leaving El Paso became known as the “brain drain”. In 1996, Aldana said that El Paso’s issues were “more severe than they were in ‘92” when the organization was created. [2]

Unite El Paso ended just as it was peaking in 1997. The El Paso Times described the group’s demise as “a sudden disappearance from the headlines in 1998.” Officially, the end of Unite El Paso was “a lack of funding, combined with a conscious decision to take a back seat” to the city’s public policy agenda. [15]

What killed the Unite El Paso program is debatable. Was it simply a loss of interest or was there more at play? While the group was trying to unite a divided El Paso there were other issues going on at the same time. As El Paso Politics explored in Who Rules El Paso? No Not That One. El Paso’s Hispanics began to wield political power in the late 1980’s and the 1990’s. Because of the rising Latino power players, friction between the Anglo minority, which tended to wield the political power, and the rising Hispanics increased. In addition, there were two other issues facing the El Paso community. One was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that fundamentally changed the city’s economy. Operation Hold the Line also impacted the economy and pitted Mexicans against Americans in the city. Also, the controversy generated by Shapleigh’s use of Unite El Paso for his political career in 1996 likely also played a part in the “sudden disappearance” of it.

However, not only did Shapleigh benefit from Unite El Paso but another group that came to dominate El Paso’s public policy of destroying Latino neighborhood came to be. There is some indication that Unite El Paso morphed some of its membership into the now infamous Paso del Norte Group (PDNG).

Paso del Norte Group (PDNG)

Tanny Berg was elected Unite El Paso’s chairman in October 1996. Along with Berg’s appointment, Unite El Paso moved into the Norwest Bank in downtown El Paso. Norwest is now Wells Fargo. What is interesting for readers to note is that Unite El Paso was “looking for new projects to excite El Paso” in 1996. [66]

The outgoing chairman of Unite El Paso, Jesse Alvarez told the El Paso Times that one change “people are likely to see from Unite El Paso” is a “higher profile in community issues”. Berg said that he wanted “to guide the 4-year-old organization back toward its original objective: uniting a community divided by the Rio Grande, ethnic and economic issues”. [66]

While Berg was hoping to revive the seamless El Paso Juárez community, another “informal group” with “distinctly different but overlapping economic development and educational areas” was soon to launch. The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce and business community had set out to build an agenda with the help of DRI/McGraw Hill consulting form. [66]

To help push the DRI/McGraw Hill developed agenda, an “informal group” called the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG) was created. Berg was a member of the PDNG and according to Aldana, one of the founders of Unite El Paso, would allow Berg to bridge Unite El Paso into the PDNG. According to Aldana, the PDNG was “formed to focus on business issues,” however Aldana added that “there’s got to be linkage between grass roots and any kind of economic development” to make the PDNG’s economic plan sustainable. [66]

The Paso del Norte Group became infamous because of its secretive nature of how it planned to redevelop downtown El Paso through gentrifying Latino communities and by pushing forth the Glass Beach Study that can best be characterized as degrading the Mexican American culture.

Tanny Berg publicly pulled out of the PDNG in 2006 over his objections to the PDNG’s plan to revitalize downtown at the expense of displacing property owners in downtown. [67] Unite El Paso was now dead, but not gone. Part of its original membership joined up with the PDNG and another wanted to revive the dream.

Aborted Rebirth of Unite El Paso

On May 31, 1997, Unite El Paso facilitated a community meeting to address “gaps” in welfare benefits. Under the Welfare Reform Act “noncitizen legal residents” were now denied access to welfare benefits. [53] It had little traction in the news media and Unite El Paso was largely silent until three years later when Ray Caballero was elected mayor.

In 2001, there was an attempt to bring back Unite El Paso due to the same problem – “insistent economic problems” that gave rise to the project in the first place. Although one of the founders of Unite El Paso, Manny Aldana, said that although Ray Caballero’s mayoral campaign had just launched, Caballero, who was a “past supporter” of the group, was not the reason for reviving the project. [15] One of the projects that the revived project worked on was surveying students in the schools to find out why young people were leaving El Paso, the so-called “brain drain,” [31] a key dialog point of the Caballero administration.

Another project was the Insure El Paso. Insure El Paso was an initiative developed by Ray Caballero and Eliot Shapleigh. It was spearheaded by then-county judge Dolores Briones, who was jailed in 2013 on public corruption charges. In 2002, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, gave parents of newborns in El Paso a calendar that included the booklet Pathway to Life Long Health and Learning that was developed by Unite El Paso. [63] By 2003, Unite El Paso was officially gone.

Did The Latino Narrative Kill Unite El Paso?

There were many letters to the editor in the El Paso Times in support of Unite El Paso. These were in addition to several editorials supporting the group and its various projects. However, a few letters appeared criticizing the group’s unity message.

In 1993, El Pasoan Petey Riley wrote that “as long as the local newspapers let activist journalists use their papers as a platform to preach bigotry and racism, El Pasoans will remain divided.” Riley added that “Unite El Paso has set itself an impossible goal,” of trying to unite the community. [9]

Riley was referring to a 1992 guest editorial by El Paso lawyer Fernando Chacón. Chacón opined about how Chip Taberksi, a former congressional candidate and television sportscaster was divisive for El Paso. Taberski had labeled a high school football game between Riverside and Ysleta as the “Battle of the Illegal Aliens”. According to Chacón, Taberski initially refused to admit he had insulted some members of the community and later “offered a half-hearted apology to the students of Riverside”. [10]

Rafael Beckman, who wrote an editorial letter to the El Paso Times in 1993, best explains the tension between the Anglo minority and the Latino majority playing out in the city. Beckman wrote that “every time we stand up and fight for our rights, whether it be migrant laborers’ rights, the right to have a world class swimming pool in our side of town, or equal treatment from our lending institutions, we are labeled as militants and troublemakers.” Beckman was making the point that Hispanics, although most of the community, were not making the decisions for the community, instead the minority, the Anglo were the powerbrokers. [14]

Beckman went on to add that “Unite El Paso stands for all of El Paso, including the Hispanic majority-minority.” The letter writer clarified that Unite El Paso was about being “representative of the desire of the power groups to finally incorporate this majority (Hispanics) of a minority as it should have been done decades ago.” [14]

Although not articulated in the various mission statements and announcements by the Unite El Paso leaders, to some El Pasoans, uniting El Paso was about empowering the Latinos of the community into the city’s decision-making process. But the Anglo minority seemed to not want to yield political power to the Latinos in the 1990s.

On January 31, 1993, Frank Jenkins wrote a letter to the editor where he encapsulated the pushback on the unity message that included Latinos that Unite El Paso was promoting. Jenkins wrote that he would feel “more sanguine” towards Unite El Paso “if its logo were not so obviously a Meso-American serpent glyph.” [41] Jenkins was obliquely stating what some of El Paso’s minority Anglo community was feeling – that Unite El Paso was about embracing the Mexican culture and even the Mexicans from Cd. Juárez.

On the surface, Unite El Paso was to unite El Paso residents behind the common goal of education and economic prosperity. However, in the background of the “unity” message was the Anglo-Hispanic tensions in the city, although many argued that ethnic tensions were not part of the agenda. Several factors were in play at the time. The rise of Hispanic political power in the city as well as the economic pressures of the incoming North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Adding to the community tension was the blockading of the border by the Border Patrol.

Anything having to do with ethnic disparity or tensions in the community was buried and the group publicly focused on the economy and the schools with a few other public policy agendas intermixed during the years it was active. As soon as the empowerment of El Paso’s Hispanics or integrating Juárez publicly into the city’s economy was mentioned the pushback immediately started from the powerbrokers of the city. It’s most wealthy and political power members moved to the PDNG once Eliot Shapleigh had been elected. Since then, Latino political empowerment remains part of the city’s narrative but is fractured between several competing political powerbases like the Veronica Carbajal/Veronica Escobar political rift, among others.

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We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

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Help Us To Bring You News No One Else Reports
We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

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Known Members of Unite El Paso
Brain Aird (first executive director) [64]
Jesse Alvarez [46]
Raul Amaya [62]
Frank Apodaca (jailed on public corruption charges in 2014) [40]
Manny Aldana (co-founder) [3]
Marge Bartoletti [15]
Tanny Berg (former chairman) [3]
Maria Casillas [40]
David Crowder [47] [49]
Myrna Deckert [46]
Pete Duarte [18]
Pat Esparza [46]
Rischer Gilbert [22]
Gilbert Moreno [32] [34]
Diana Natalicio (chairwoman) [40]
Manny Pacillas [46]
Nacho Padilla [1]
Esther Perez [22]
Carlos Ramirez [28]
Martha Saldaña-Wolf [46]
Eliot Shapleigh (co-founder) [3]
Dori Tremper (administrative assistant, circa 1993) [8]
Jule Zimet [47]
Rosa Valenzuela [65]
Jack Vowell [40]

Original Official Mission Statement for United El Paso

“The purpose of Unite El Paso is to unify our community through planning in order to create a common vision reflecting our diversity and cultures. Unite El Paso will seek the grass-roots participation of the members of the Paso del Norte community who are positive and energetic and willing to harmonize our differences in order to develop goals that will ensure the balanced and equitable growth of our area and the highest quality of life for all our citizens.” [38]

A note on Manny Aldana’s name. Most newspaper accounts spell his name Aldana, with an “n” instead of the Spanish “ñ”. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how he prefers the spelling of his name because character limitations on newsprint may have forced the use of the “n” instead of the “ñ”. We have noted the name spelled with both variations in the research, however because the “n” variation is the most often used version and to avoid confusion we have elected to use the “n” throughout this article, although the likely proper spelling is with the “ñ”.

Footnotes:

  1. 1993 Election Candidate Profiles, El Paso Times, April 9, 1993.
  2. Lou Rutigliano, “Unite El Paso seeks comeback,” El Paso Times, February 23, 2001.
  3. Diana Washington Valdez, “Keep young El Pasoans, group urges,” El Paso Times, December 30, 2001.
  4. Michael Scanlon, “Electronic network links El Paso area to world’s computers,” El Paso Times, January 16, 1994.
  5. Sito Negron, “Free computer network lets you reach globally,” El Paso Times, May 16, 1994.
  6. Cindy Ramirez, “Part 2 of health task force summit created plan to plan further,” El Paso Times, June 12, 1998.
  7. Max Romero, “Unite El Paso makes ‘community schools’ plan a reality,” El Paso Times, June 17, 1994.
  8. “Unite El Paso now is a force,” El Paso Times Editorial, El Paso Times, June 25, 1993.
  9. Petey Riley, Letter to the Editor, “Taberski’s respected,” El Paso Times, March 5, 1993.
  10. Fernando Chacón, Guest Editorial, “Taberski can’t help but be divisive with stands on SAT scores, English only,” El Paso Times, July 19, 1992.
  11. Carlos Hamann, “Unite El Paso names 1st team,” El Paso Times, September 10, 1993.
  12. Editorial, “Unite El Paso’s Summit has diversity; now needs boldness,” El Paso Times, September 17, 1993.
  13. John Laird, Editorial, “Questions to ponder while we’re high-fiving,” El Paso Times, September 24, 1993.
  14. Rafael C. Alvarez Beckman, Letter to the Editor, “Minority is the majority,” El Paso Times, August 9, 1993.
  15. Lou Rutigliano, “Political group from the mid-‘90s plans comeback,” El Paso Times, February 12, 2001.
  16. Gary Scharrer, “Caseload burdens scales of justice,” El Paso Times, February 22, 1993.
  17. Aaron Martinez, “Judge Philip Martinez dies at 63, remembered for passion for justice, El Paso community,” El Paso Times, February 27, 2021.
  18. Editorial, “Krueger needs to hear from El Paso about federal judges,” El Paso Times, February 22, 1993.
  19. Sito Negron, “Holguin supporters keep search alive,” El Paso Times, January 2, 1995.
  20. Eliot Shapleigh, Letter to the Editor, “Articles mislead readers,” El Paso Times, January 9, 1995.
  21. Gary Scharrer, “Shapleigh works tirelessly for city, supporters say,” El Paso Times, October 7, 1996.
  22. Michael Scanlon, “Unite El Paso targets economy, community, education in its goals,” El Paso Times, September 20, 1003.
  23. John Laird, “Complicated background of ‘De Colores’,” El Paso Times, October 11, 1995.
  24. George Vecsey, “The 3-Day Cursillo: ‘Basically a Born Again Movement for Catholics,” The New York Times, February 9, 1978.
  25. Jan Peterson, “The UFW: Songs and Stories Sung and Told by UFW Volunteers,” United Farm Workers Pamphlet, Undated.
  26. “Group to link human chain at Chamizal,” El Paso Times, December 4, 1993.
  27. John Laird, “Yesterday’s enemies now are Sunday’s picnic pals,” El Paso Times, December 11, 1993.
  28. Diana Washington Valdez, “Wall of opposition forms to barrier,” El Paso Times, December 11, 1993.
  29. David Crowder, “Candidates line up to replace mayor,” El Paso Times, December 17, 1994.
  30. “Unite El Paso opposes wall,” El Paso Times, December 18, 1993.
  31. Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Group to survey young people,” El Paso Times, January 19, 2002.
  32. Renee Ramirez, “Group wants to address, fix city problems,” El Paso Times, January 23, 1993.
  33. Editorial, “Unite El Paso avoids pitfall in hurried hunt for consultant,” El Paso Times, November 21, 1992.
  34. Renee Ramirez, “3-day summit starts by setting priorities,” El Paso Times, September 18, 1993.
  35. Manny Aldana, Guest Editorial, “Have a dream for the city’s future? Jot it down,” El Paso Times April 4, 1993.
  36. Emily Jauregui, “Schools near service center status,” El Paso Times, April 10, 1994.
  37. David Crowder, “If Sen. Krueger can’t commit to El Paso, why commit to him?,” El Paso Times, April 18, 1993.
  38. David Crowder, Editorial, “EPISO gets mad, opts out and predicts Unite El Paso won’t work,” El Paso Times, December 6, 1992.
  39. Manny Aldana, Letter to the Editor, “Best example” Shapleigh,” El Paso Times, February 25, 1996.
  40. David Crowder, “Group secures grant,” El Paso Times, January 15, 1995.
  41. Frank Jenkins, Letter to the Editor, “Change the logo,” El Paso Times, January 31, 1993.
  42. David Crowder, Editorial, “1 tough nun to crack, unholy gunfights and other El Paso tales,” El Paso Times, January 31, 1993.
  43. Sito Negron, “Community group readies transportation issues report,” El Paso Times, June 29, 1995.
  44. Robert Nelson, “Breeze of Change,” El Paso Times, July 11 ,1993.
  45. Robert Nelson, “Ethnic barriers crumbling, principal says,” El Paso Times, July 11, 1993.
  46. “Unite El Paso officers,” El Paso Times, July 23, 1995.
  47. David Crowder, “Unite El Paso adds 150 to board, opens summit to the public,” El Paso Times, July 25, 1993.
  48. Marge Bartoletti, Guest Editorial, “El Paso can learn from Yugoslavia,” El Paso Times, June 6, 1993.
  49. David Crowder, Editorial, “Unite El Paso puts future on the line at Saturday’s Congress,” El Paso Times, June 13, 1993.
  50. Ramon Renteria, “Unite El Paso looks to future,” El Paso Times, June 20, 1993.
  51. Unite El Paso Newspaper Advertisement, El Paso Times, June 27, 1993.
  52. Martha Saldaña, Guest Editorial “Unite El Paso celebrates anniversary, continues to gow,” El Paso Times, May 4, 1997.
  53. David Crowder, “forum targets welfare,” El Paso Times, May 18, 1997.
  54. Editorial “Be aggressive, pull together” El Paso Times, November 21, 1993.
  55. David Sheppard, “Border leaders aim to mend relations,” El Paso Times, October 3, 1993.
  56. Karla Bruner, “Marquez: Court of inquiry not dead,” El Paso Times, September 10, 1995.
  57. Gary Scharrer, “Shapleigh hires consultants with El Paso expertise,” El Paso Times, December 22, 1996.
  58. David Crowder, “Shapleigh easily wins Senate seat,” El Paso Times, November 6, 1996.
  59. Eliot Shapleigh, Guest Editorial, “Unite El Paso has eye on future,” El Paso Times, September 12, 1993.
  60. John Laird, “Blockade euphoria continues,” El Paso Times, September 26, 1993.
  61. Emily Jauregui, “Babies now get ‘manual’,” El Paso Times, February 9, 1995.
  62. Raul Amaya, Editorial, “Entrepreneurs are crucial to prosperity,” April 29, 2003.
  63. Jennifer Shubiniski, “Calendars teach new parents how to keep children healthy,” El Paso Times, August 20, 2002.
  64. Gordon Dickson, “Unite El Paso group elects its 1st director,” El Paso Times, July 20, 1993.
  65. Rosa Valenzuela, Guest Editorial, “Add your own ingredients to El Paso’s recipe for success,” El Paso Times, May 18, 1993.
  66. David Crowder, “New chairman, offices energize Unite El Paso,” El Paso Times, October 2, 1996.
  67. Mike Mrkvicka, “Why Tanny Berg pulled out of the Paso del Norte Group,” El Paso Inc., May 29, 2007.
  68. Bernadette Self, “Unite El Paso,” El Paso Times, October 30, 1996.

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