A few weeks ago, a gentleman came to the Historical Society to conduct research on his grandfather, father, and uncle. He had been researching his family for years and plans to write a book about them.
On Friday, another gentleman came to the Society seeking photos for a book he is writing on the history of El Paso. He explained that his book really offers nothing new in terms of content but is a restructuring of information to make it more palatable for his readers.
Both of these literary endeavors shed light on the telling of history and pose a broader question: “What is the history of the Borderland?” One may think he or she has an answer. More than likely, the answer to such a loaded question will be partial because to explain a history is to try describe a web of events, characters, experiences, and context that is often to large to recount entirely. That does not mean the explanation is wrong, per se, but it does mean any explanation of a historical event is, in one way or another, incomplete.
But let’s back up a bit. Let’s start with a question: What exactly is recorded in a history? A story? An event? A person’s biography? Historian Eric Foner begins his book, Who Owns History, with a quote from James Baldwin who writes, “History, does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in everything we do.” So, again, what exactly is recorded in a history? Surely, the stories, events, and biographies of the past, but also the present. The next question is: To what degree?
My maternal family has always been interested in its lore–which family member did what, who owned this or that corner store or bar, or witnessed this or that event, how we ended up who we are today, etc. And the stories of my family’s history abound. My family and the families of many others in the Borderland create the history of this town with their narratives. The problem is, these stories often remain relegated to stories told during holidays or dinner. They are not placed in their greater context–the history of the Borderlands as a whole.
The Pioneer Association of El Paso recognizes those people who settled in El Paso prior to 1900. Moreover, if you come to the Historical Society to research a family member, we can usually tell you a little something about said person, but unless they were “prominent” members of the community, we probably do not have anything of theirs in our archives. This is not a shot at the Pioneer Association or at the Historical Society. (The Pioneer Association does a fantastic job of highlighting some those who came to El Paso as it transformed from frontier town to megapolis, and the Historical Society maintains a vast number of archives. Unfortunately, we only have space for so much.) This does raise a question of “prominence” though.
What is a “prominent” Borderland family? Of course, not all families or individuals have accomplished the same–some accomplishments are contextually bigger than others. But in a place like El Paso, where we can hone in on an individual or family narrative, aren’t any stories “prominent” or at least some what topical? This gets us back to answering the questions of degree and the what is recorded in a history.
A place like El Paso has been defined in scholarly literature by the intermingling of the Spanish and the Natives, along with mission settlements; the advent of the railroads; and its subsequent transformation into bustling city. Names like Satterthwaite, Mills, and Magoffin are frequently invoked. Similarly, the United States can be defined by well-known, “large” scale events such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the sixties counterculture movement, and September 11 and leaders such as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. But to only focus on these events and individuals is to see the forest but not the trees.
The Borderland is a place where major events and people, like those mentioned above, have created a legacy. But the the the smaller histories, those of my family, and quite possibly yours, are just as important. Against the background of these “larger” histories are the experiences we tack on to the cork board that displays the Borderland. The stories of our families can impact the larger stories and can enliven, enlarge, and enlighten Borderland history as a whole. Family histories can be entertaining and informative on their own. Nevertheless, finding the significance to the greater history of the region can make the intermingling histories that much more informative. There is no reason some history, especially “larger” history, should seem more important than our stories. There is no reason the stories should simply be used as dinnertime conversation. Our stories are just as much a part of a greater narrative. Think of your daily life and how it’s impacted by the community around you. Now think about how much you offer the community based on where you work, where you eat, where you spend time with friends and family. Think of your house and its placement within the city. What occurs in your neighborhood? Who are the people you know and what are their stories? We are the history of this area. Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House, once wrote, “All politics is local.” I’d argue that all history is local too.
All of this is to say that the importance of you and your family should not be forgotten or taken for granted. To make it more interesting and enlightening, juxtapose it against the greater history of the Borderland. We’re all pioneers in our own way. When we think of Borderland history, let’s splatter the narrative with everything that makes this area unique and understand it in a new context, one that builds upon the residents of this city. This will inspire pride in not only our “larger” moments, but in our “little” ones as well.
Robert Diaz is a Research Volunteer at the El Paso County Historical Society.