Know Your Ground

It is difficult to say from where the sentiment originates, but I have always felt as though El Paso, TX is regarded as somewhat unimportant and uninteresting by the rest of the United States. Such disregard seems to be recapitulated by El Paso’s citizens—or at the very least, by its educational system. Through the course of primary, secondary and higher education, it is very likely that you get some introduction to British history (or at least its history leading up to the Revolutionary War), US history, Texas history and perhaps World history and/or Chicano/a history. So where, or how does El Paso County expect its citizens—its future educators, law makers and enforcers—to learn about their history? An exploration of such a history is not only educational, but is also relevant and necessary: relevant because it is not a distant history in a foreign place; it is local, sometimes tangible and is something in which any student can feel a sense ownership or unification in shared experience. And necessary because knowledge of the past is helpful in navigating the present and planning for the future.

This realization, which has only just occurred to me in my late 20’s, is one I am glad I have given myself some time to mull over. Where I once saw local-historical unimportance, I now see viable lines of inquiry and future areas of study. And though I once hastily blamed the educational system for my own dearth of El Paso history, I now more optimistically hope that we are encouraged to engage in a more liberating form of education. Perhaps we, as citizens of El Paso, are supposed to learn our history by asking questions, not just of our family members, educators and elders, but also of our fellow citizens, city employees and ourselves. Perhaps we are expected to engage more directly and more actively with El Paso and its history; to experience it not on a page or a screen, but in person and pictures.

Admittedly, these notions are romantic. Realistically, the postal worker in the downtown office may not be able to answer your question about the beautiful tile work in the main lobby and your fellow El Pasoan (if they are anything like me) may know next to nothing about such notable figures and events. But if we as a community are enthused about our civic responsibility to learn our city’s history, we may feel more inclined to prepare answers for such anticipated questions as, “in which year did the first airplane land in El Paso?”. But until then, realistically speaking, how can we engage with El Paso’s history? First, begin with your most easily accessible, primary resources. My grandmother has fascinating stories about Teofilo Borunda, Dolph Quijano and John Rechy. I recently gifted my grandmother a journal that offers a daily prompt. Each morning she enthusiastically answers such questions as, “what could you get for 25 cents when you were ten years old,” and eventually she will gift to me a record of her (and my) history. And finally, to compliment and complete your personal record, it is necessary to seek the history of El Paso, through secondary sources. I am currently acquainting myself with the holdings of the El Paso Historical Association in my effort to engage with El Paso’s history.

But why bother to learn about El Paso history? I can submit any number of anticipated clichés (“how can you prepare for your future if you don’t know your past,” etc., etc., etc. …) but none of that matters if passion is lacking. Passion—for your family, community, city and yourself—should not be in short supply here, though it may take some action to turn the ignition. I myself was sparked by my looming relocation. I am currently applying to out-of-state graduate programs and have been preparing myself to relocate from the only place I have ever called “home.”

I am logical and methodical—almost to a fault. As such, I attempt to (over)prepare for future scenarios that may or may not happen. In this case, I keep myself up at night wondering how I would cope with home-sickness and how I would relate El Paso—its importance, legitimacy and atmosphere—to curious peers? More importantly, how would I respond to a “big city native” who is certain their hometown (New York City, Boston, Chicago, etc.) is more beautiful, more cultural, more history and more exciting that a desert town in Texas? Enter my education in El Paso history.

Though most people would begin their information search on an internet search engine, I was serendipitously invited to visit the El Paso County Historical Society’s Burges House. Unlike the anonymous, sterile response yielded by an internet search, the EPCHS is personal—questions are answered and resources offered by friendly people—and ardent—people who have a personal connection in the answers given and an investment in the resources available. Though I am still only at the start of my pursuit of information, I can say that this new research medium that I have found in the EPCHS is exciting and encouraging in ways that text-based, secondary sources are not. I am pleased to have my own passion for El Paso enlivened and I look forward to what the EPCHS will help me uncover. Though I will continue to share my journey, I would encourage you to find your reason to learn more about El Paso and to take some time to visit the EPCHS at the Burges House.

Rebekah Grado is a Research Volunteer at the El Paso County Historical Society.

Since 1954 the El Paso County Historical Society has been a driving force in the historic scene of El Paso. EPCHS strives to foster research into the history of the El Paso area; acquire and make available to the public historic materials; publish and encourage historical writing pertaining to the area; and to develop public consciousness of our rich heritage.