The big, desert city of El Paso, on the US border with Mexico, for years felt like a lesson from the work of Giorgio Agamben. In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben analyzes a law from the Roman Empire specifying that if a man committed certain crimes, all of his citizenship rights would be revoked. This punishment, oddly enough, rendered the criminal a homo sacer, a sacred man, whom it was forbidden to ritually sacrifice to the gods. Yet in the everyday world the sacred man could be killed by anyone, with no penalty at all invoked on the killer. He inspired the highest veneration and the basest contempt. He constituted yet another category from Agamben’s work: bare life, or human existence stripped of its social nature and reduced to the purely biological. Bare life defines brutes. Homo sacer, brutes fetishized.
Fetish and brutish were everywhere when I lived in El Paso a generation ago. I’d moved there after wanting to for years, following a cross-country Greyhound bus trip my parents had let me take in the pre–civil rights era, when I was a young teenager living in Houston. I’d seen a few Mexicans in my hometown, downcast speakers of broken English surrounded by a sea of whites who used casual epithets like messkins and beaners. When the Greyhound stopped early in the morning in El Paso, not only did I see grand, gray-silver mountains in the middle of town; I saw Mexicans, everywhere, and all I heard was Spanish, rolling, trilling and glorious. After that I dreamed, literally, of El Paso.
When I moved there as a young adult, in the 1970s, I learned that the culture of my newly adopted city was defined by the fact that many of its people lacked immigration papers. Wetbacks, the English-language morning newspaper called them. Articles about campaigns to apprehend them were headlined Wetback Roundups. At the Border Patrol museum, a homemade place run by retired agents’ wives, one exhibit featured a blown-up photo of an officer yanking a frozen-faced, grade school-aged kid from under the hood of a car. “The Littlest Catch,” was the smiling caption on the bottom of the photo.
Meanwhile, local citizens—such as the author Raymond Carver, who wrote “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” based on a year he spent living and teaching writing in El Paso—would gaily traverse the border to sister Mexican city Juarez, just across the Rio Grande. Carver enjoyed the dog races in Juarez, as well as the bullfights and bargain beefsteaks. Returning home on the high, arching international bridge, he could look down and see Mexican homo sacers crouched on the cement embankment of the river, nervously awaiting the Border Patrol’s shift change so they could splash through the shallow water and disappear into the very first neighborhood in America, a hodgepodge of brick tenements laid out with tiny living rooms and bedrooms, but not with bathrooms.
While the river crossers nursed their nerves, other homo sacers with little wagons and tinkling bells lurked beneath the bridge, hawking distractions to fellow wetbacks—peanuts, sodas and popsicles.
Most crossers made it over safely, but some didn’t. Weekly, the El Paso papers ran boilerplate about nameless Mexicans who got caught in the river or its canals; their bodies sank in the current for days, then were spewed up as corpses ballooned with the animal gas of decomposition. Other homo sacers tried to hop Southern Pacific freights lumbering through downtown; they sprinted while the trains crawled, attempting to coordinate the two speeds and sometimes not succeeding. When the timing was wrong the jumper was thrown under the train and had a foot crushed off, usually at the ankle. El Paso hospitals possessed medicine that could have saved the whole limb, but staff often juiced the patients on morphine and convinced them, while they were joyful and groggy, that they’d be happier back in Mexico with their families. After release papers were signed, the injured homo sacers were shipped to Juarez, where public hospitals were incapable of reattaching body parts and lacked antibiotics sufficient to stop infection below the knee. The south side of the border was populous with men amputated to the thigh. They leaned stolid on the international bridge on handmade crutches, shaking cups.
Back in El Paso, where thousands of legal people lived in comfort if not opulence, Mexicans who’d made it across knocked on doors. Residents answered and inspected little baskets. They contained one contraband cantaloupe sneaked in from Juarez, one lime, and one avocado—samples, and if the customer liked them, he or she placed an order. The Mexicans filled it by trotting back to their cars or trucks, stocking a bag, then returning to the door and politely waiting for a few nickels or dimes. In addition to its dazzling convenience, homo sacer produce was far cheaper than what sold in El Paso’s supermarkets.
The personalized, home delivery of fruit was a border marvel, and so were other rituals, as when tired women knocked, not with fruit baskets but begging for a little work—usually, cleaning windows by rubbing and rubbing and rubbing, not with pricey Windex but with discarded newspaper pages, rendering the windows unbelievably sparkly, for a cost of fifty cents.
For the citizens, El Paso was clean and suburban and boring, while over in Juarez, things were grimy and noisy and wonderful. The streets teemed. There were Indians in rainbow skirts, and Mennonite wives in bonnets speaking a curious German, selling homemade cheese produced on their nearby farms. Finches in wooden cages told your fortune for a peso. Native men beckoned in broken English to tourist men, something about women and shows and donkeys. Years before Starbucks was anywhere, you could get a cappuccino in downtown Juarez at a little café with a huge, Italian machine, and you could sip it while reading the fat daily papers shipped up from Mexico City. The papers cost fifteen cents. The coffee, maybe a quarter.
These lovely rituals derived from two things. One: In Mexico, the economic gap between the poor and the rich was wider, deeper, and therefore uglier than in any other country in the world. Two: the political line separating America and Mexico, the Border-Patrolled border, with its armed agents and green vans and sensors, attracted an endless supply of people who crossed to America anyhow, without anyone much caring, as long as they sold their fruit cheap and cleaned houses almost for free. Life under such circumstances was fraught with risk—and when luck ran out, sometimes it was as though life had hardly transpired. A brief item in an El Paso newspaper from the period provided an example. It briefly recalled a 14-year-old Mexican boy, presumably undocumented, who had hung around outside a barbecue stand on Doniphan Road doing odd jobs for change until, one day, somebody noticed he was gone. Years later, a new owner demolished the barbecue stand to build another business. When the chimney came down, a dried and flattened thing dropped out. It was the boy. He’d been smoked, via recipes involving mesquite and spices and pecan wood, into jerky. No doubt this explained his disappearance, and upon publication of the news article, he was remembered for a day—as a probable illegal-alien delinquent who’d gotten stuck in the chimney while breaking in to rob the till.
And there was the poverty in Juarez. On the boulevards were ragamuffins and their scraggly parents, lunging to wipe your windshield. Or, more often, only to beg for your coins. Off the boulevards, endless tarpaper shacks held endless, endless people. The Spanish-language papers covered the mayhem in these districts. Toddlers fatally run over by cars and buses in areas unequipped with traffic lights or stop signs. Babies dead of dehydration in summer, caused by diarrhea caused by germs caused by no running water. Entire families suffocated on winter nights when their tinny heaters broke, releasing carbon monoxide.
Or maybe not whole families but only the little kids, and maybe not carbon monoxide but sudden flames, which took down everything and everyone before they burned themselves out. Fatal house fires in the slums could not be anything but common, when fathers and mothers left the tarpaper shacks with their children inside, and locked the plank doors behind them by knotting a rope on a hook. They were employed during the day shift, the evening shift, the graveyard shift, and combinations thereof, in the maquiladoras—the hundreds of factories set up in Juarez to take this and that from the United States, assemble it into more complex thises-and-thats, then reimport them over the curving bridge, supplying necessary gizmos to the citizens of America, including but not limited to: the wiring under your car dashboard, everything in your TV and your computer, certain tiny parts of your phone, your doctor’s medical gloves. In Juarez, the parents who locked up their preschoolers earned about $8. Not per hour but per day. It goes without saying they could not afford babysitters. This obvious fact inspired little practical concern among the citizens of El Paso.
They had their own problems, because El Paso itself was exceedingly indigent. In 1990, when the city was still considered a manufacturing hub for work clothes and refined metals, it was the third poorest city in the United States, with over twice the percentage of people living in poverty as the national average. El Paso’s poor were disproportionately Mexican Americans. About a quarter of that group fell below the poverty line, whereas only a twelfth of whites did (the whites, as a matter of fact, were far better off in El Paso than whites in the state of Texas generally; they were also doing better than whites in the whole of America). Median family income in El Paso—again this applied disproportionately to Mexican Americans—was far less than the nationwide average. High school graduation rates were notoriously low.
These statistics were said to derive from a longstanding economic development policy overseen by the local ruling elite. Its members were virtually all white men: bankers, lawyers, land developers, and manufacturers of commodities like sand, gravel, and work pants. Overseeing public education policy, these men ensured that Mexican American and white children went to separate schools, schools in which the latter were tracked into academic courses while the former were taught car mechanics, air conditioner repair, and barbering. These men appointed others like them to the directorships of local law firms, banks, utility companies, and municipal boards, and they ran these institutions with the ease of powerful people who’d been on the border forever. Instead of dress shirts many did business in the summer in guayaberas—traditional, short-sleeved Mexican garb for the well-attired man—and when one mayor saw neckties on men at city hall he cut them off with scissors.
These men were barely interested in philanthropy, donating only piddling amounts during the Christmas season to safe, mainstream charities like Toys for Tots. I went to a benefit at one these men’s houses, in a beautiful neighborhood on a mountain in the middle of the city. This man’s wife had hired a mariachi band for entertainment, and when she noticed one musician staring at the art on her walls and jotting in a notebook, she accused him of “casing” her collection in order to arrange a “heist.” It turned out that when he wasn’t playing mariachi violin and wearing silver-studded pants, the musician studied art at the local university. But he was a Mexican American in El Paso, and the rich saw people like him as peons. The man who lived on the mountain had spent years trumpeting the city thusly during campaigns to lure out-of-town investment to the border.
In so many ways, El Paso did feel full of peons, both brown and white. Early in the afternoon you could get the New York Times at a certain downtown newsstand, except for when you couldn’t. The paper arrived via airplane, but occasionally it contained news —say, about Roe v. Wade surviving another legal onslaught—that offended the local distributor. When that happened, he refused to deliver the merchandise. Days would pass before you could get another New York Times.
Those Times-less days hardly bothered me. In a half hour I could walk from my home to Juarez for the Mexican newspapers. I didn’t go over the border directly. On the way I always stopped at El Paso’s placita, the town square and terminus for the city’s bus system (SCAT, it was called: Sun City Area Transit. Derisively nicknamed Shuttling Chicanos Around Town).
Because of its proximity to Juarez, thousands of Mexicans shopped near the placita every day, including Sunday. Little stores blanketed its periphery. They sold things monied people have no interest in: tube socks from China, bras from China, fake Nikes from who knows where, push-up-butt panties from China, and second-hand clothing for 50 cents a pound (including, if you plowed deep through the piles, Diane Von Furstenberg, Adrienne Vittadini and other gently used designer items from the Goodwills of New York, making a final stop before continuing in bales to the Third World).
Sitting on a bench in the placita, I’d watch the housemaids and students greet one another and buy boiled, chili-sprinkled corn in Styrofoam cups as they waited for their buses. Hawk-eyed vendors with confidential voices hovered, offering untaxed cigarettes ($5 per carton for Marlboros, Salems, Kools), while clean-cut, well-fed guys wearing suspiciously crappy clothes, no doubt agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, tried to purchase the product and bust the sellers. Hard-calved Border Patrol agents in spandex shorts parked their bicycles and wandered disconsolately on foot, attempting with spotty success to distinguish the legals from the illegals before stopping people and demanding their papers. The placita was home, too, to wizened guys in big Stetsons. To the homeless: schizophrenics, some of them handsome, gentle panhandlers; others handsome and overly aggressive; some ugly in all respects. To male-on-male hustlers, described so gorgeously in the opening pages of City of Night. (Author John Rechy grew up in El Paso and experienced his first gay trysts there.)
So many things seemed sacred. My daughter was entering adolescence. She was starting to cross the border with her friends, and not just to get drunk in the teen-friendly jello-shot bars just over the bridge. On her own, she was visiting El Paso’s placita, then continuing to Juarez’s municipal market, speaking Spanish with the merchants, bargaining for clothes, exploring herbal folk medicine and folk-Catholic candles. I’d gone to the market, too, one time when I was pregnant. A fat old transvestite had wagged his tweezered brows and offered to read my palm—for free, he insisted, after I told him I didn’t believe in that sort of thing and didn’t want to pay. “It’s a boy,” he announced, peering at my hand. Then, “Tell me, why are you so cruel to your husband?” He smiled and walked away while I stood there, cut to the quick.
It was a boy.
When the boy got bigger, he played outside with the neighbor kids, with no adults in sight. In El Paso children ganged up on their bikes and pedaled together for miles. Or they stayed near home and chased the ice cream truck, with no worrying about safety by their elders. A little boy on our block once streaked down the street on his skateboard, into the path of an oncoming car. My husband was the first adult on the scene: he did CPR but it was too late. My kids were frightened next day when they saw the daily paper with a front-page photo of their father trying to breathe life into a dead child. The Mexican American neighbor kids had it worse—for days they saw the boy’s ghost on the streets. They talked about it constantly, my kids listened raptly, and eventually the ghost was forgotten and the streets refilled with skateboards. The fruit vendors continued their treks, as did the window polishers, followed by the Border Patrol, who sometimes caught and beat their prey, sometimes locked them up for hours without water or a meal.
Some of us were disturbed by the brutality. We founded an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants. People would call our hotline with stories of mistreatment; we would make press releases and march downtown. The Border Patrol started building a big fence to block off Juarez from America. We waved angry signs and climbed a mountain. The city’s coolest, most righteous people joined our group, or at least gave money. We gained members and got quoted in the national press. We starting holding annual fundraiser dinners, to which everyone came in dress clothes—even some local politicians, those not afraid to stand publicly for human rights.
In the early 1990s dramatic, disturbing things began occurring on both sides of the border. One was that the North American Free Trade Agreement—NAFTA—created an explosion of big-box store openings in Juarez, and thousands of want ads appeared in the Spanish-language papers seeking more labor for the maquiladoras. These factories enjoy a special arrangement with US Customs. When freshly assembled goods are sent north across the bridge, their owners pay import taxes, but not on the entire product, only on the quantum of value added by Mexican workers earning eight American dollars per day. Lured by the assembly bargain as it burgeoned after NAFTA, factories left El Paso and went south. By the turn of the 21st century, El Paso had evolved from a manufacturing town to a service economy in which unemployment went down—even as poverty went up.
Meanwhile, on the other side was murder. In 1993, the same year that NAFTA was passed, poor women in Juarez began to be brutally killed in unprecedented numbers, mostly by husbands and boyfriends gone berserk. Who knows why they started acting so violent? The maquiladoras preferred women workers, ostensibly because they were more docile than men and less apt to unionize. Some analysts noted that NAFTA was accelerating the movement of Mexican females from the home to factories and the streets, perhaps threatening traditional machismo and inciting rage in males.
Amid the domestic mayhem, scores of women were also offed by strangers in the most horrid, sadistic ways, involving rape both anal and vaginal, breasts cut off, the bodies buried in dumps. By the end of the decade some 400 women had been murdered, about a fourth of them victims of sadistic, ritualistic sex killings. When women’s activists got interested in these murders, it became abundantly clear that the Juarez authorities could not or would not solve them. It was soon also obvious that men, too, were being slaughtered, and that the homicide of both sexes was probably a byproduct of narco-trafficking, which NAFTA had exacerbated by making it easier to ship both legal and illegal goods across the border.
By the turn of the 21st century in El Paso, people were getting so uneasy about Juarez that many stopped going.
In 2006, the newly elected President of Mexico declared a national war on drugs and sent troops to the areas considered most beleaguered by the cartels. Under fire, the various mafias jockeyed to redefine their turf. Spectacular internecine violence broke out in Juarez, and by 2010 over 3,000 residents a year were being slaughtered. The victims were men, women, children—people involved in the drug trade and many with no connection at all, innocent bystanders and those targeted by mistake. A quarter of a million people left Juarez—about a sixth of the population—abandoning thousands of homes and businesses. Large swathes of the city were painted with graffiti, torched, or left to the elements, crumbling to the ground. Areas of Juarez started to resemble the racial ghettos of the United States after the 1960s riots.
El Paso, too, was changing. The sacred rituals of bare life were starting to disappear, even as bare life became wider spread.
First to go were the vendors. They evaporated after 1993, when a new Border Patrol chief decided that, rather than chasing wetbacks through neighborhoods and the placita, it would be more efficient to line the Rio Grande with green-uniformed agents every few hundred feet and prevent people from crossing in the first place. Door-to-door avocado peddling came to an end, along with the bare-bones income the saleswomen had carried from El Paso back to their families in Juarez. I visited my fruit vendor after the policy change, at her hut in a Juarez slum. The border blockade was only a few months old but during that time she’d lost ten pounds, and her five daughters and one son also looked thinner. She asked about my kids and the other boys and girls in my neighborhood. But by then more children were staying inside.
On the adult-citizen front, a human rights-oriented politician got hold of city government. He was Raymond Caballero, a Chicano lawyer who never would have assumed that a mariachi musician looking at art was thinking of pulling a heist. Caballero won a mayoral election and promptly started criticizing the corruption of the rich, white business establishment—including one of its more powerful members, who’d recently been imprisoned on charges of bank fraud but received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton when he was leaving office. The new mayor vowed to stop begging for investment crumbs from out-of-town, low-wage corporations, and instead to encourage the development of local small business in El Paso. He also recruited young people—including Chicanos and the human rights activists—to join him in the practice of citizenship by running for city council and the county Board of Commissioners. The big businessmen were miffed, and in 2003, they organized to successfully defeat Caballero when he ran for a second term.
But the young, self-styled progressives he’d recruited ran their own campaigns, and soon they were heading the local government. They were a new breed who had gone to great colleges and universities out of town. The sheepskins of El Paso’s elite formerly came from the Texas College of Mines, Southern Methodist University, and Baylor. The upstarts sported diplomas from Princeton, NYU, Stanford, Emory, Columbia. They’d absorbed the rhetoric of immigration and rights—as well as a painful understanding of how the Reagan era had withdrawn federal money from the cities of America, leaving them as desperate and pathetic as the women scrubbing windows with crumpled newspapers, the illegal lime sellers, the freight-train amputees on the international bridge.
Back in their new elected jobs on the border, these young people came to understand what almost every politician in the nation knew: that to get anything done, they would need to placate big business.
The big business community in El Paso was developing its own new breed. Instead of stashing art collections in their houses, they were donating money to museums to purchase paintings for the public to enjoy. They were forming economic-development think tanks that stressed that public corruption discouraged corporate investment; corruption should be rooted from El Paso and punished.
This new elite was militantly Republican when it came to economics, but pacifist in the nation’s culture wars—abortion, birth control, and homosexuality didn’t raise their hackles. And they were staunchly cosmopolitan when it came to trans-border mixing with equals of their class. One transplanted El Pasoan, originally from Houston, had been married to a blonde American and divorced. He remarried, to a blonde daughter of the most affluent family in Juarez. This clan had roots in Spain and a history of higher education in Boston. Its matriarch was renowned for tireless charity on behalf of destitute Juarez women in need of doctors and contraception.
The family had amassed astounding wealth—wealth said to eclipse the fortunes of the richest of the rich in El Paso—by acquiring a virtual monopoly on the production and distribution of beer in Juarez. They also ran a chain of convenience stores there, stocked with their own private police who were ordered, when confronted with beer-run kids and other would-be robbers, to shoot to kill, and often did just that. The patriarch of the family had funded the Juarez university and other good causes. The daughter had invested in a baseball team, and she was sponsoring the construction of a children’s museum in Juarez that would dwarf anything north of Mexico City.
Her El Paso husband, an up-and-coming billionaire, had met her at a professional and social group for binational masters of the universe. After the wedding he, too, became a superphilanthropist, giving El Paso $50 million for the border’s first and only medical school. Wonderful, everyone said—everyone. A few old-school anticapitalists and die-hard Chicanos still mistrusted public–private partnerships. But who could argue with health?
Meanwhile, the young, progressive politicians were studying the work of Richard Florida, inventor of the theory of “the creative class.” According to Florida, struggling American cities could redeem themselves economically by attracting young gays, bohemians, and Silicon Valley types who seek diversity, tolerance, nightlife, and fun on the streets. El Paso’s young pols did not stop with Florida. They also looked at “The New Urbanism,” a challenge to Sunbelt-style sprawl. It emphasized city walkability, curbside intimacy, and, most of all, entertainment and shopping downtown.
Of course, there was already entertainment and shopping in downtown El Paso—the mom-and-pops with their steady customers, the embattled and often comical Border Patrol and ATF agents. But this was not what the pols had in mind. The businesspeople hired a focus group firm to go around asking people: If you could retool the city of El Paso into a person or persons, who would those people be? The answer, according to the firm’s report: Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. And who, the focus group interviewers also asked, did the current, unrehabbed El Paso seem like? The report visually depicted the response as an anonymous Mexican geezer, a dead ringer for the elderly men in Stetsons over at the placita. The report labeled him “The Old Cowboy,” describing him as “dirty,” “lazy,” “uneducated,” and Spanish speaking.
The Old Cowboy could not have been more downscale and contemptible. The problem, however, was that he looked just like many El Pasoans’ beloved papás y abuelitos. Indignant, many people began organizing against the downtown renewal plan. It eventually died, after courts outlawed use of eminent domain to tear down private buildings in the Old Cowboy’s stomping grounds.
By 2008, thousands of middle-class and rich people in Juarez, desperate to avoid shakedowns, murders, and kidnappings by cartel hit men, had begun packing up and fleeing to El Paso, where they bought houses and opened businesses. Their migration kept the northern side of the border economically afloat and turned Juarez into a pariah city—or worse, a ghost city that El Pasoans ceased thinking about.
Thanks to the well-heeled immigrants and their expatriate enterprises, gourmet restaurants flowered on the US side of the border. El Paso’s new medical school and other, related medical facilities bankrolled by the new elite created administrative jobs with $100,000+ salaries. Their wallets fat from the windfall, heretofore middle-class El Pasoans who’d spent years satisfied with the $7.99 Luby’s Cafeteria Special now paid five times as much to dine on exotic cheeses, confits, and sauces, the names of which they’d never heard a decade earlier, much less known how to pronounce. People wanted booze with their fancy food: throughout the city, the number of business applications for alcohol licenses skyrocketed. Between meals, El Pasoans were now practicing yoga at new yoga studios. Women were having their legs waxed at new salons and patronizing new spas for new treatments: skin polishing, hot stone, mud.
The city was getting ready for Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.
El Paso’s poverty indicators continued to rise. By 2010 over a third of residents lived in areas of town classified by demographers as suffering from extreme destitution. In those slum areas—many of which lay right near downtown, near the offices of the rich businesspeople—public high schools were illegally kicking students out because they’d failed Texas’ high-stakes No Child Left Behind exam. Children with limited English and poor, immigrant parents were labeled civic liabilities and expunged from civic institutions—further defined, that is, as bare life.
In Juarez, the adolescent cousins of the kicked-out El Paso students had no education at all. Public school in Mexico costs families money, and poor parents could not afford the price of uniforms, textbooks, lunches, and “tips” paid to teachers for teaching. Ninis, the poor teens of Juarez were called in Spanish, short for ni estudian ni trabajan—“neither studying nor working.” Many did work, however, for the cartels. For a few bucks, on assignment with a handgun, ninis would murder disobedient drug dealers or ride the city bus downtown and extort $100 payments from storeowners, keeping for themselves 10 percent. But then a rival organization would ambush and shoot the ninis with an AK-47. Or police would do the job. Cockroaches, the mayor of Juarez called the delinquent ninis.
El Paso was touted by the FBI as the safest large city in America, and while civic leaders celebrated this fact, no one understood why it was so. Some speculated that El Paso was a loving, caring place, and it takes a village to make a law abider. Some credited the city’s huge immigrant population, praising them for being too busy working to cause trouble. Others wondered if the immigrants were simply too scared to do wrong, especially the undocumented ones, since even the lowliest crime could get a person without papers deported.
Down by the river, drownings continued. Over the July 4 holiday in 2011, a Juarez man desperate for work tried to swim to El Paso while holding his 5-year-old daughter, who was wearing a red-and-white dress. They went down together and when they resurfaced days later, his body had so rotted that he couldn’t be identified; she was recognized because of the dress. Besides this father and daughter, two dozen other migrants died that year trying to cross to El Paso.
Meanwhile the public and the private melded further. The gringo billionaire and his Mexican wife got interested in buying a sports team; so did the founder of the think tank. They formed a partnership and asked the city to pay for an arena or a stadium to be located downtown, not far from several historic but decrepit buildings that the billionaire was lovingly rehabbing. The city joined the investors even as it was rerouting its buses away from the placita. With El Paso’s Chicanos shuttled elsewhere around town, downtown had emptied out.
In El Paso in 2012, the rich people and the politicians presented voters with a “quality of life” bond-issue proposal. For a half billion taxpayer dollars, El Pasoans were told, they could improve the city zoo, fix up the history museum, and add cool things to downtown, including a “multi-use entertainment facility,” a.k.a an “arena”—though the rich and the politicians avoided that term because they’d been advised by development experts that “arena” sounds controversial. It tends to remind voters of the many cities nationwide that have spent millions of tax dollars for sports facilities in the name of economic development, only to find later that no development has occurred. For the same reason, people also dislike “stadium,” so in El Paso the prescribed term was “ballpark.” A ballpark was needed now, for $50 million, to house the businesspeople’s minor-league team.
Out in the neighborhoods, many of El Paso’s middle and working classes met this proposal with jaundice. At a meet up for constituents organized by a city council member who was planning to run for mayor, attendees stood and cursed taxpayer-funded stadiums for the rich and their private sports teams. “I used to feel the same as you,” answered the council member. He’d changed his mind, he continued, because of the stunning generosity of the philanthropists, as well as—let’s face it, he warned—the frightening possibility that they would relocate to Dallas or Phoenix if they didn’t get their way.
The original bond proposal, drawn up by city council in the spring, stipulated that voters would decide on the ballpark in the November general election. But suddenly, at a city council meeting in June, it was announced that the businesspeople had made an offer on a Triple-A team from Tucson, and the deal could not go through unless the team’s owners were immediately reassured that El Paso would build them a ballpark.
“Immediately?” everyone asked. Immediately, the businesspeople insisted. And the ballpark simply could not be out on the highway—it had to be built downtown.
To make room, the city manager recommended dynamiting El Paso’s ten-story, 33-year-old city hall and moving its functions to various places around town—including the daily newspaper building, which was up for sale because, like the Fourth Estate everywhere, the El Paso Times wasn’t doing so well. The move would work, the pols said, because the city no longer needed a unitary place for local government as much as it needed a brand new, “quality-of-life” sports venue—a place even the people of Juarez would commute to, they insisted (though Juarez itself was almost finished building a big baseball stadium—but no El Paso pols knew this because none followed the Juarez media).
A vote was quickly taken. The instant it came out “Yes,” city council members responsible for the victory reached under their desks, whipped out baseball caps, and posed with wide grins for a photo op.
Civil war briefly erupted. Some people filed lawsuits to try to halt the demolition. Some organized an “Occupy” and spent a night in front of city hall. None of their efforts mattered. The courts ruled against them. The city manager called them “crazies.”
A few weeks before the demolition, I took a walk to downtown El Paso. The streets in my neighborhood were as still as the surrounding desert: no fruit vendors, no ice cream trucks or little kids—gentrification, with its cloistering of the young, was in full swing. Farther on I passed the placita, empty but for a man in a suit surveying the nearby old buildings that, because of the stadium and other impending downtown development, would soon appreciate in value.
Over at city hall the parking lot was spray-painted with mystic arrows and numbers resembling the hieroglyphs we saw on TV not long ago, in the drowned, post-Katrina neighborhoods of New Orleans. There the markings had been inscribed in an effort to save homes and people. Here they augured an assault on civic life. Inarguably, city hall had always looked pretty awful—like a giant, glass toaster oven, roasting in the sun. It dated from the 1970s and was architecturally cheesy and funky. But in a sacred and moving way, funk in El Paso had once been a shared culture, embracing not just the person with immigration status and money, but even, sometimes, the homo sacer.
I walked on to the river, to a half-hidden break of wild bamboo, weeping willows, and discarded beer and soup cans. Deep in the brush were two plastic garbage bags jerry-rigged as tents, stocked with the minimal gear of bare people not at home—they must have been out on the streets, making a bare kind of living. I wasn’t sure how they could do that anymore. Just after the stadium election, city council had banned the homeless from soliciting in front of ATMs and restaurants, on the medians of wide streets, or on any property whose owner disliked begging. (The language of the new law, city council carefully noted, was devised so as not to violate anyone’s rights under the First Amendment.)
It was also unlawful for garbage-bag dwellings to be pitched by the river, and their presence, just blocks from the upcoming stadium, could not be good for tourism. Some official would surely be along soon with a camera, pen, and clipboard, documenting the encampment for the commonweal, ensuring its eviction.
But what address would that official come from and return to, with one-stop government replaced by private stadium suites? Sabe, I thought—who knows? In the border’s newly bare metroplex it was hard anymore to see the civic, much less the sacred. What remained was corporate minor league. On the other hand, if we were lucky the crazies would be able to afford tickets, at least on discount days. Old Cowboys all, they would replace their Stetsons with ball caps, sit in the nosebleed section, and like everyone else, even El Paso’s billionaire, engage in the sacred ritual of gobbling concession popcorn. Which in Spanish is called palomitas, which also means “little doves.”