When I was in college, my parents lived in El Paso, and a Chinese friend of mine came to visit. “It’s the warmth of Mexico with American superhighways!” was Tang Bai’s exuberant verdict.
El Paso is so much more than that, but Tang Bai was on the right path – the city’s magic has to do with its harmonious blend of lo mexicano and lo gringo. To gaze down at dusk from the Franklin Mountain foothills at the twinkling lights spilling across into Mexico and New Mexico is to contemplate the passage of time and the passage of so many cultures – their dreamers and exiles all drawn to “The Pass,” this cockpit of the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.
El Paso’s “warmth” alluded to by Tang Bai wasn’t merely climactic. He was referring to the people, the cuisine, and the general approach to life. The city of more than 800,000 people is about 80% Hispanic, boasts a pragmatic, consensus-driven political culture (think Beto O’Rourke), and an extraordinarily low crime rate. The place is a living, breathing tribute to one of the greatest blessings bestowed upon the US – the very fact that our neighbors’ (same goes for Canada) proud cultures enrich our country immeasurably, in a harmonious win-win synthesis. Instead of remaining a zone of unyielding conflict and animosity (as they are in so many other parts of the world with similarly complicated histories), our Borderlands are beacons of amity and inspiration. Something we take for granted.
It isn’t just El Paso. The entire I-10 corridor from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Tucson to Las Cruces to El Paso to San Antonio to Houston – the great American Southwest – is full of communities enriched by this blending of Mexican, Native American, and contemporary US influences. The enchanting result is best appreciated by outsiders – a visitor from New York or Mexico City, or even better, someone from a different part of the world unaccustomed to the idea of Borderlands as places of harmony, like Tang Bai, who’d grown up in western China. One of my other favorite ways to see the marvel of El Paso was through the eyes of the young German Luftwaffe pilots you’d see coming through the airport to train at the local base, all shit-eating grins at the anticipation of sunshine, enchiladas, and flights across that big, majestic desert sky.
Tragically, of course, there’s a competing, manufactured narrative of our nation’s Borderlands peddled by hateful outsiders seeking scapegoats and villains to advance their brand of small-minded politics. Yes, that’s right, the corrosive anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican vile emanating from the Donald Trump-Stephen Miller-Fox News axis of hate.
This past week El Paso solemnly commemorated the anniversary of the day their rhetorical vile materialized in a fusillade of semi-automatic fire from a 21 year-old white supremacist who drove all the way to an El Paso Wal-Mart from a Dallas suburb to kill 23 people. He was animated, according to his “manifesto,” by a crazed, anti-Mexican hatred and fear.
Reflecting on the anniversary of the tragedy on a conference call organized by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and other groups, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he wants the city to be defined by its response to the tragedy – his voice cracks slightly at the memory of the around-the-block line of El Pasoans waiting in the summer heat for up to 11 hours to donate blood – rather than by the tragedy itself. But in another part of the conversation, regarding economic development, the mayor concedes that the biggest challenge for the region, which he describes “as the largest binational, bicultural, bilingual region in the hemisphere,” is that it’s unknown, and underappreciated.
He’s right, and that’s the reason absurd tales of an “invasion” and “chaos” at the Southern border peddled by Fox News and a white supremacist White House advisor can gain traction among impressionable, ignorant followers. It’s always been telling that febrile anti-immigrant sentiment tends to run lowest in places like El Paso, where the benign reality of the border makes the ranting of Fox’s New York anchors seem like dystopian science fiction. Sadly, with the next presidential election less than 100 days away, and a grievance-fueled Fox News enjoying a ratings surge as it circles the wagons around its beleaguered White House, you can expect to hear plenty more ignorant and hateful portrayals of Mexicans and the border. Let’s hope it doesn’t trigger more tragedies like the one El Paso is still recovering from.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz