Updated: Oct 1, 2019
I am from El Paso. Long before the racist massacre on Aug. 3, I was talking about my hometown in relation to the anti-racism advocacy right here in Chaska. I kept returning to my upbringing there because El Paso embodied a cross-cultural lifestyle where people in general didn’t just respect differences from a distance, they co-mingle language, food, and traditions in such a way to create a town where you would be hard-pressed to distinguish who is truly “from” one place or another.
In fact, one friend I met soon after moving to Minnesota 15 years ago, assumed I was Mexican from the way I spoke enthusiastically about finding Hatch chiles at my grocery store, frequent trips to the Uptown Global Market for tamales, details I shared from my upbringing as the daughter of an immigration attorney, and my parents, who have lived in Mexico 23 years. Believe me when I say, I was truly honored when she exclaimed with surprise, “You’re white?”
El Paso is like no other city I’ve ever spent time in and thus is hard to describe. Like all of Texas it was Mexican territory first, but unlike other Texas cities has remained majority Hispanic. El Paso Del Norte, “The Pass of the North,” is distinct from other Texas towns in that it was built around the idea of “passing” through. There’s a fluidity that has always existed between Ciudad Juarez as well as its close neighbor in New Mexico, Las Cruces. The addition of Fort Bliss brought people to the city from all over the country and world, including my maternal grandparents from Nebraska.
“Why don’t you have a Texas accent?” is probably the most common question I’m asked in Minnesota when people find out where I’m from. What kind of accent are you supposed to have in a town where there are few conversations where at least some Spanish isn’t spoken: “Mira, there’s a storm coming.” “Andale, we’re going to be late!” “How are you, mija?” It is common to answer a question in Spanish after it was asked in English or vice versa. Even still, my emails, texts and Facebook are peppered with Spanglish from friends and family back home. Y amo esto.
What’s more, this co-existence went beyond Mexican culture. My father’s mentor and first law partner was the son of Chinese immigrants and our families remain close today. By the time I was in sixth grade I had two Black teachers—something my kids today haven’t had. In high school, the Black kids weren’t sitting together in the cafeteria. We socialized together. In fact I just hosted one of those friends at my home in Chaska recently and shared with him the troubles our local high school was going through. I asked him if anything of the sort had happened to him when we were in high school. As a Black man, he didn’t experience racism until he moved to Ft. Worth to attend college. He said I wasn’t wrong to believe there was something different about race relations in El Paso.
That’s what made the tragedy in El Paso all the more devastating. No one in El Paso felt invaded. El Paso is what it looks like when you embrace other cultures. El Paso is a city that should be held as an example for the rest of the country.
Before this tragedy I had talked to my father about cultural appropriation, a topic of great importance right now, especially in the arts. I believe firmly in “own voices,” but I asked my father, “What about me?” Even though I’m white, my upbringing immersed in Hispanic culture is my own voice, too. I don’t think of myself as appropriating culture today, when I weave my knowledge of place and memories into stories or poems I write.
And he agreed—this (formerly) blond haired, blue-eyed man, who even speaks Spanish in his sleep. He suggested that maybe some of the problems of our country exist because too few people are willing to experience the cultures of people they’re living among. Then we discussed the idea of cultural appropriation—not as it applies to replacing a voice or work of someone of color with someone who is white—but as an approach to building community.
And this brings me from El Paso to Chaska. For most of the 20th century, Chaska’s brickyards and sugar factory relied on migrant workers from Mexico. Seasonal workers drove thousands of miles (many of them through El Paso) to work in the beet fields and eventually the sugar factories. (The Chaska Herald published a fascinating article about a child of migrant workers and his experience living in Chaska). Even today Chaska is home to a considerable Hispanic population. Maybe you’ve had dinner at Patron, but have you bought pan dulce at the El Paisano or arrachera at Chaska Market? How, I wonder, can our cultures do a better job at intermingling after all these years living here together? And how can we perpetuate that for our neighbors from other countries before they’ve been our neighbors for decades?
While I’m still reeling from the tragedy and loss of life in El Paso, I have felt closer to my people back home—so many echoing the same sentiments about the heart of our city. My friend since middle school, Marnia Rios Davis, said it best in a Facebook post after the tragedy, words we can apply to any oppressed community facing racism: “We are an example of the promise of America. The people of this region have survived adversity for centuries and I have every faith that small men with hateful hearts will not change us. Sigamos adelante mi gente because it is what we have always done.”