Wednesday, August 7, 2019

El Paso is a Better America

El Paso is a place where women who look like Mexican telenovela actresses speak better English than I do, and seek out regional Japanese cooking and write knowledgable Yelp reviews about it, yet also speak in rapid-fire Spanish with their abuela.

This is a border town, and we assume we know what that means from movies, but that's mere gloss. A border town can be a profound scenario; less like brotherhood and more like co-joined twins. You can't draw lines, much less build walls, because there's an inseparability, a morphing from one into the other and back again. It's disquieting. It's wonderful.

There are people here descended from the original inhabitants, and others from their Spanish successors, both long predating Texas' statehood. Both lines experienced some "neither-here-nor-there" malaise for a few generations, but as America has become a more comfortable place for Hispanic people - and, not coincidentally, more thickly composed of Hispanic people - there's been a flowering. No longer forlornly rejecting both, many have flipped to embrace both; identifying readily with American culture while feeling renewed pride in their roots.

Folks in El Paso don't like to be called "Hispanic" or "Latino" or (hoo boy; worst of all) "Mexican". It's not that there's some ethnic chip on their shoulders, it's that they're very proudly American - even "'merican", the conservative corn-fed variety of patriotism coastal Americans love to mock. These are pickup-trucks-and-barbecue folks who do not take kindly to hyphenation. The identity empowerment politics of a South Bronx community center has no place here.

El Paso preserves village warmth and charm in a metropolitan area of nearly a million. Many non-Hispanics here speak at least some Spanish. Not the cavalier pigeon Spanish of a Beverly Hills homeowner instructing the pool guy to limpiar la agua pooor favor, but a more heartfelt Spanish representing the same cross-culturalism that resulted in many New York Puerto Ricans speaking decent Yiddish in the early 20th century. This is what magically happens when you pack different people together; they morph into each other a little. They understand each other. They may not always love each other - Benetton's a clothing brand, not a bona fide planetary movement - but the blending goes too far to reverse.

It works both ways. I'm a bit Puerto Rican from having eaten tons of pasteles and arroz con gandules and playing salsa gigs and generally being exposed to the culture. Jews and Puerto Ricans, like Jews and Italians, are somewhat co-joined where I grew up. There's overlap. Anywhere can function like a bordertown, and it's always an improvement. The rest of American could use some El Paso/Queens-style cosmopolitanism. We should all talk a little Yiddish and a little Spanish.

When Trump first started yapping about his damned wall, I didn't need to read polls or listen to man-in-the-street interviews around El Paso to know people there would be furious. Show me a xenophobe and I'll show you a fearful provincial lacking personal experience with The Other...and thus unable to overcome hearsay and stereotype. Most -phobias and -isms stem from unfamiliarity, while border towns like El Paso forge deep familiarity and are improved for it. Blessed with multiple vantage points, they are better suited to triangulate truth. We should look to them for our answers.

I've added an ancient El Paso report ("El Paso to Silver City: A Make-Do Romp Through a Desert of Chow") to the archive of old articles on my web site.

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