In the 1940’s and in the early 1950’s signs reading “No Mexicans Allowed” still existed in El Paso.  Many El Pasoans tend to believe that El Paso is a friendly and progressive city welcoming of all especially the Mexicans within their midst. On the surface the city betrays a sense of progressive inclusiveness, but history shows a troubling undercurrent that when exposed reveals a troubling aspect that is El Paso. Much of the undercurrent of discrimination against Mexicans – as in citizens of México – can be traced back to the reality that El Paso has always been dependent upon its bigger sister city – Cd. Juárez.
Gone are the days that discrimination is overtly exposed with signs saying “No Mexicans Allowed” but the discrimination remains today. It is an undercurrent in El Paso’s culture, never acknowledged out loud but existing, nonetheless. Children are no longer punished for speaking Spanish in class, but in the 1980’s and well into the 1990’s it was common for Mexican citizen children, attending private El Paso schools, who were forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance under penalty of punishment.  It is the forced reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance by Mexican citizen children that helps to explain the city’s undercurrent, one which many do not seem to comprehend or understand. The problem lies in that most teachers did not seem to understand that it was improper for Mexican citizens to be forced to recite a pledge to a citizenship the minors did not belong to.
Most people today would argue that El Paso’s problem is poverty, often blamed on Mexicans while proudly pointing to El Paso’s rich history of cultural heritage around the Mexican identity. El Paso has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the United States and suffers from one of the highest property tax rates in Texas. Why this is true is the subject of debates across the city.
For about a century, El Paso, even in the best of times, has been a minimum wage town fueled by the undercurrent of anti-Mexicanism and a vicious circular economy driven by a cheap labor force that brings in capital from out of town to exploit the labor force that generates profits that promptly leave the city. This economy leaves in its wake low paying jobs and a tax base reliant on recirculating the little capital that exists in the city between the government and its population.
It is from here that the undercurrent peaks out in the form of the constant argument from the city’s taxpayers that the economic problems in El Paso is México’s poverty class. Mexicans who migrate to El Paso to fill the low wage jobs and have large families whose kids rarely break into the middle class thus continually straining the city’s meager resources is the problem, most El Pasoans argue. It is this narrative that often fuels the undercurrent that is the reality versus the belief expressed by many that El Paso’s problems are its proximity to Mexicans.
Nothing more poignantly demonstrates this then El Paso’s maids.
Any El Pasoan with any income has at one time or another employed a Mexican maid or gardener and even a handyman to work around the house. Not all are undocumented, but the wages paid to them makes it likely that many are undocumented from Juárez. Maids from Juárez are an institution in El Paso.
El Pasoans often pay less than the legally required wages and some pay less than what they can afford believing that the maid is desperate enough to take the job. Operation Hold The Line exposed the dichotomy between the need for undocumented Mexicans, especially the maids, and El Pasoan’s attitudes towards their Juárez cousins. On one hand, El Pasoans strongly supported the border blockage while at the same time arguing that the border fence in Anapra was an afront to El Paso’s neighbors across the river. The difference was the realization that maids weren’t making it across the river anymore.
In 1979, “an average” El Pasoan was paying a Juárez maid “from $10 to $13” for four to six hours of work. The minimum wage in 1979 was $2.90 per hour. For six hours of work, employers should have paid $17.40, instead of the $10 to $13 they were paying the Mexican maids. When the El Paso Times asked the employers about the legal status of their maids, one Central El Paso housewife replied, “I feel better off not knowing”.  That seems to be the common thread among the El Pasoans who need their Mexican maids. It also explains why, on one hand El Pasoans can decry undocumented immigrants while paying them for work they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.
Further betraying the disconnect among El Pasoans with their dependence on Mexican migrants, a Westside mother who relies on a Juárez maid for babysitting told the El Paso Times in 1979 that she does not mind paying her maid below the minimum wage because “when you stop to think what they (maids) eat…a lot more than in” México, like steak when the family eats steak, it equalizes the disparity. 
In 1979, federal officials estimated that there were between 12,000 to 15,000 Juárez maids working in El Paso for about $25 a week, most as live-in maids. 
Low wages has been the case for El Paso going back to at least 1916, as a letter writer to the El Paso Herald points out. Columbus New Mexico resident, Joseph J. Saunders wrote in 1916 that “El Paso is rotten” because almost every company in El Paso pays below the living wage. According to Saunders, El Paso business owners were “employing Mexicans because” they were “cheap”. 
The need for Mexican labor often butts heads with the eugenics movement in the United States that wants to limit immigrants into the country. El Pasoans were not immune to a White-only country even though they are the minority in the community. Although seldom publicly articulated eugenics has, nonetheless, been part of El Paso’s undercurrent among some Anglos. Consider a 1944 letter to the El Paso Times from El Pasoan Louis A. Fail. Fail was arguing that it was “unlawful for anyone to own over 160 acres” of the Elephant Butte land under a 1902 law. According to the letter writer, every year “big farmers” demanded that “Mexicans be allowed entry to pick” cotton on the farms. Instead of depending on Mexican laborers, Fail was arguing that the land be taken away from the large farms and distributed in smaller parcels to returning World War II veterans. What betrays the eugenics undercurrent is what Fail writes next, in “very short years” the smaller farmers would not need Mexican cotton pickers “since people who follow farming for a living usually raise their own cotton pickers as a sideline”. 
“Illegal Aliens Are An Institution” In El Paso
Nothing exposes the anti-Mexican undercurrent in El Paso more than the use of the derogatory term, “illegal alien” that was often used in El Paso’s news media in the 1980’s through the 2000’s. One just needs to pick up a newspaper from the era to find the term in reports about migration from México. Even so, the reality is and was that that El Paso’s economy has always benefited from Mexican labor.
In 1983, UTEP professor, Ellwyn Stoddard explained it best when he said that “if there was a secret magic wand that could be waved to stop all aliens from crossing, the El Paso economy would come to a screeching halt.” In his economic analysis of El Paso, Stoddard concluded that “the illegal aliens are an institution, an institution in the sense that if both cities, both economies, both countries didn’t support it, it wouldn’t continue”.  Yes, both México and the United States depend on the undocumented immigrants for their economies.
Unfortunately, like all cultural issues in communities, the problem is not simply one of ethnic strife. El Paso is overwhelmingly Hispanic and while the argument that Anglos control the city is made, there is no shortage of reverse discrimination from the majority Latinos against the Anglo minority. But it gets more complicated than that as socio-economic status and citizenship enter into the equation. The simple answer is that divisions in El Paso are socio-economic. There is ample evidence to support this.
But there is an undercurrent that is rarely discussed and much less studied in El Paso. That is the anti-Mexicanism that exists against citizens of México. It is this undercurrent that sometimes bubbles to the surface but remains hidden from view most of the time. Segundo Barrio exposes this the best.
Segundo Barrio Opposed Mexican Immigrants
It is a common fallacy in El Paso the those opposed to Mexican migrants are generally the Anglo community or the wealthier class. Unfortunately, the fact is that El Paso’s anti-Mexicanism transcends all ethnic and socio-economic classes of El Pasoans. Take Segundo Barrio, a mostly Mexican American community of poorer El Pasoans. One would argue that the Segundo Barrio neighborhood would be welcoming to migrants.
It didn’t in the 1980’s.
Segundo Barrio resident Margarita Huantes told the El Paso Herald Post that “every day they (Mexican undocumented immigrants),” come and “every day, thank God…la migra (the Border Patrol) is here to catch them”. (emphasis in original) Huantes, who acknowledged living off welfare, went on to tell the newspaper that she was not there “for the benefit of wetbacks”.  Note the use of the derogatory term, “wetback” by an Hispanic El Pasoan.
But as Huantes and another Segundo Barrio resident were supportive of the Border Patrol doing their jobs, other Segundo Barrio residents were complaining about them. The complaints weren’t about the Border Patrol stopping undocumented migrants but on being questioned about their citizenship. David Lara told the El Paso Herald Post that he “didn’t like it when they, (Border Patrol agents) question” him. Lara added that “just because we’re poor they think they can boss us around by asking questions about our citizenship”. He continued, “I’m poor but I’m a U.S. citizen,” exposing the hypocrisy of El Paso’s undercurrent when he added, “just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I’m from Juarez”.  The obvious question becomes, is the anti-Mexicans race based, ethnically based or socio-economic?
The Third Culture
How is it possible to reconcile the disconnect between Mexican Americans in El Paso and the Mexicans across the river? The Segundo Barrio’s apparent dislike, by some, of Mexicans from across the river clearly makes the division between the Mexican citizens and the American ethnic-Mexican citizens one of citizenship instead of a racial, ethnic or a socio-economic problem.
UTEP professor Ellwyn Stoddard postulated in the 1980’s that El Paso and Cd. Juárez represent a “third culture that is neither American nor Mexican.”  However, that argument falls apart immediately when the experience by Mexican immigrants in Segundo Barrio is included. For a third culture to be representative of El Paso and Cd. Juarez there would have to be inclusiveness between the citizens of both communities. Clearly there is not, at least when citizenship is applied to the discussion.
Because the Mexican migrants most targeted in Segundo Barrio and by Operation Hold the Line were residents of Cd. Juárez, the “third culture” cannot exist, at least as defined by the professor.
A third culture does not explain the undercurrent, but it does provide additional information about what may be driving the discrimination in El Paso’s undercurrent against their Juárez neighbors. Taking Stoddard’s hypothesis and turning it into a citizenship class system creates three classes of fronterizos.
The three classes of El Pasoans would be the Anglos, including the so-called oligarchy and Juárez’ wealthy, who many enjoy dual citizenship if not outright American citizenship, along with the El Paso Hispanics who value their American citizenship, whether born into it or acquired later in life, against their Mexican citizen neighbors. Understanding that citizenship is the defining identity allows us to understand why El Pasoans, independent of socio-economic conditions and ethnicity can support a border operation keeping the maids out while at the same time arguing that they need their maids.
When El Paso’s undercurrent bubbles to the surface, it is simply stating the no Mexicans are allowed, as in poor Mexican citizens unless they are spending their Pesos in the local stores or working for low wages for a “steak” once in a while.
- “Export says aliens good for economy,” El Paso Herald Post, July 21, 1983.
- Michael Quintanilla, “Thrown rocks, not salvation, may greet migrants in El Paso,” El Paso Herald Post, July 21, 1983.
- Tim Madigan, “Rush hour on the Rio Grande,” Fort Worth Telegram, July 12, 1987.
- Unnamed Mexican citizen student who attended a religious private school in El Paso from the late 1970’s to the 1980’s who agreed to speak to the author on the condition of anonymity and a promise to not name the school by name about their experiences in El Paso schools. Author agreed to the anonymity conditions because of their legal status in the United States, April 23, 2008.
- “El Paso Labor Conditions,” El Paso Herald, September 8, 1916.
- Louis A. Fail, letter to the editor, “Wants Valley Land For Returning Veterans,” El Paso Times, December 4, 1944.
- Carol Viescas, “Maids can lose freedom, Employers can lose worker,” El Paso Times, March 25, 1979.
- Kathy Satterfield,” Law binds small city of commuters,” El Paso Times, March 25, 1979.
- Dan Wever, letter to the editor, “El Paso racism is well remembered,” El Paso Herald Post, February 2, 1996.
Categories: El Paso