When people first arrive in El Paso, Texas, the first thing they’ll see is the vast spread of brown land and mountains. In a desert where the earth makes an audible sound of relief when rain falls, there isn’t a lot of “green” vegetation. There are cacti and succulents and other types of vegetation with small or thorny leaves that can survive the dry heat. But, just like the surrounding nature, the beauty and strength of the El Paso – Juárez – Las Cruces people is often missed.
The area is larger than most think, as it spans two states and two countries. El Chuco, the Borderland, Borderplex, Paso del Norte, Frontera, whatever you want to call it, is the largest populated bilingual/binational hub of the West. This place, who many forget is a part of Texas, and snub their nose to it as Attorney General Jeff Sessions did on a recent visit, by calling it things such as “ground zero” and “the front line,” is my home.
I am as tied to the land of the area as I am to the culture, because on the Frontera, the land is not the only thing that is brown. The people, who are a mixture of first, second, and many generations (we-speak-enough-Spanish-to-order-a-good-burrito), are of Mexican descent. My own family has been in the area so long we joke that the border simply crossed our ancestors, and we were lucky to be just a mile north of where the line was drawn. My grandmother was born in that mile and raised in the Segundo Barrio. So many South and Central American immigrants have crossed the Santa Fe bridge that connects Juárez, Mexico and El Paso that the neighborhood has been called the Ellis Island of the West. It is now famously known as one of the poorest zip codes in the United States. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?
I want to agree, but the neighborhood is so old, and the residents have been there so long they all know one another. It’s easy to overlook poverty and see community. I still feel a pull to its red brick buildings and foot-high sidewalks that served for forgotten times when the Rio Grande flooded the area. Even though, I can imagine my grandma’s childhood amongst the tiendas and houses whose architecture predates the railroads, and I can order a piña empanada at the famous Bowie Bakery with the best of them, I’m still left with that lingering a sense of being an outsider.
Recently, I visited Centro de Salud La Fe Community in the area. The unassuming building houses a tiny gallery often featuring local artists, a large cafeteria style room serves as an auditorium, a kitchen area, and other small nooks and crannies. Where La Fe sits, in the heart of Segundo Barrio, says everything about what it means to the community, though.
That evening, the residents gathered to put on a variety show. A cumbia band performed; a young girl who wanted to be the next contestant on The Voice sang Elvis Presley; Mexican filmmaker, Alfredo Castruita, gave a preview of his acclaimed film Potosi; and a budding hip hop artist, Sabor Gandaya went up last to drop some knowledge on me. I say me because everyone in the audience knew him but me. I was a visitor in my own city, in the neighborhood my grandmother had grown up in. I felt it while he was rapping. I felt it as I looked around the dimly lit room at the families huddled around large round tables. I thought about Jeff Sessions and his visit, and I realized he might have felt this and more.
This brown place with brown people, I call home, must have all looked the same to Sessions. Visitors can’t and sometimes won’t bother to tell one brown face from another. Alabama is a whole other world from here, and that brown “hombre” rapping in front of the room would have looked just like the bad African American boys from his youth in Selma. I took in the room filled with people of all ages and felt confused. While Sabor rapped about being born on the more difficult side of Cuidad Juárez where good people killed themselves working hard, I couldn’t see the connection to “ground zero” or “the front lines.” Was I missing something just as Sessions had missed the mysterious lack of illegal immigrants pouring over the already existing border fence?
Sabor ended the show with a song called “Donald Trap.” Mid-song he called out to the small crowd and said we had to remember we were on this land first and knew how to survive.
Outside, after the show, I looked at the trees in the nearby park where kids played soccer. I looked at the vibrant colors of the famous Chicano style murals on the area walls around the brightly lit open space, and Sabor’s words lingered. I thought about how all the people in that room hated one man because of things he’d said and how so many hated us because of how we looked. I pursed my lips as Sessions’ statements invaded my thoughts. El Paso is literally one of the safest cities in the United States. If only every “ground zero” was like this.
In a world where everyone is looking for someone to blame, I had just left a space where people said, “Be strong. We will weather this, too.” In the night filled park, I couldn’t help but notice thick tree trunks and determined patches of grass that grew despite conditions. Time had passed, buildings had gone up, but the plants were determined. Resilient.
About the author:
Yasmin Ramirez is a native El Pasoan. She stays active in the literary community and writes And Then, a weekly blog. Her work is featured in: HUIZACHE, Hispanic Culture Review, and Cream City Review, among others. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. Currently, she is an Associate English Professor at El Paso Community College and also serves on the board for literary nonprofit BorderSenses. She is completing her first book of creative nonfiction titled, Por Un Amor. Visit Yasmin’s website to read more: www.yasminramirez.com