Everything fell into place quickly; true to what I had experienced so far, everyone at the Center for Inter-American Border Studies was super friendly. Professor Sandra Garabano got the ball rolling to get me access to the library and Dr. Zulma Mendez situated me in an office that was even bigger than the room that I was renting. But, bars on the windows of the converted house up on the hill, which I have seen in other buildings too, indicated a history of El Paso which doesn’t jibe entirely with the peaceful image it currently has.
Set up in my office, I decided to get acquainted with UTEP. The buildings are modeled after Bhutanese prayer buildings. They are usually several stories tall, blockish in structure with sandy brown walls that merge into the brown countryside upon which they are built. They are topped with a red stripe which reflects a color not unlike the sands of the Simpson Desert. The University is constrained by I-10, on the other side of which is Mexico. In the background, the mountains sit on the arid desertscape, sometimes with a haze covering their bases.
After getting situated, I walked through the university and visited different departments. This led me to an impromptu meeting with a professor at the department of anthropology, Josiah Heyman. His office was just like my supervisor Mike Levi’s: filled to the top with books and papers, but an unobstructed chair for students to sit and talk. Just like Mike, he was definitely a student-first kind of guy.
In that moment, my education had been kicked back into gear. The professor provided me with a rubric to start out strong in El Paso. He underscored several organizations and people whom I needed to contact. He brought up several issues concerning my research, some of which echoed concerns of my own: What are the actual relationships that are occurring? Is what is visible the result of organized crime, per se, or gangs? What about the possibility that El Paso has lots of organized crime conducting high level operations, and as a result they are keeping the city clean? There were lots of new questions to think about which run up against the rhetoric that is commonly used.
In my first days in El Paso, I had a couple more conversations which brought up different issues and hypotheses, although they were much shorter. Once, in front of my new house in Sunset Heights I met a couple of guys waiting for a ride. They were sitting on the concrete retaining wall and I greeted them as I came home. One fella, a former soldier originally from the Mid-West, who had been stationed at Fort Bliss, turned the conversation to me and I told the two men roughly about my project. One pointed out that El Paso had undergone some stiff changes since the 1980s, changes which brought the city from one that was filled with problems to one that ranks in the top five safest cities to live. The man speculated this change was due to an increase in heavy-handed policing that didn’t exist in the 1980s. Delinquency had flourished in the absence of the long arm of the law.
I asked one of my roommates, Pablo, a professional musician, about the change in El Paso. He had grown up in Chuco, the nickname of this city which derives from the Pachuco style that was defined by the zoot suit that originated there. Today, he told me, all you might see are cholos, the “guys dressed up in their wife-beaters and their basketball shorts wearing their chanclas [flip-flops] with socks. Mostly they are Barrio Azteca guys.” Like the man who I had met out front of my house, Pablo had said El Paso had changed quite a lot. “Back in the day, El Paso was kind of rough. There was more violence. That changed a lot with the [US involvement in international] wars. Lots of military guys came to Fort Bliss … you know it’s one of the biggest bases in the area. I think with the arrival of all of those soldiers, a lot of that other shit calmed down.” Ricardo, my landlord, was not convinced about the role of the military. “That’s all speculation,” he said dismissively.
Nevertheless, there was much to the history of the area that I needed to learn; at least I was learning which questions I needed to ask.