El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley

by Fernando Caracena ©Fernando Caracena 2023

Early El Paso

The following quote from an article by the Texas State Historical Society on El Paso , suggests that the arrival of the railroad put El Paso on the map:

"Most authorities agree that the arrival of the railroads in 1881 and 1882 was the single most significant event in El Paso history, as it transformed a sleepy, dusty little adobe village of several hundred inhabitants into a flourishing frontier community that became the county seat in 1883 and reached a population of more than 10,000 by 1890."

"El Paso c1880"
by F.Parker, El Paso - Heritage Auctions.

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Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Paso_c1880.jpg#/media/File:El_Paso_c1880.jpg

El Paso's history after the arrival of the railroad followed a typical Western movie script: It "became a western boomtown,...[a ]'Six Shooter Capital' and 'Sin City,' where scores of saloons, dance halls, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution lined the main streets. Its history and that of other Western towns in Arizona no doubt served as models for western movie scripts, such as the James Garner comedy, 'Support Your Local Sheriff'.

I remember as a kid going into an arcade in downtown El Paso, where there was a western museum that featured the quick-draw, gunfight times of El Paso. In there, the mummified body of a gunslinger was displayed in a glass case. He was a short dark fellow. initially he might have been deeply tanned, but the mummification turned his skin the color of deep brown leather.

The body of an famous old west gunslinger: John Wesley Hardin is buried in Concordia Cemetery El Paso, Texas. At some point his family tried to transfer his remains back home to East Texas, but the locals stopped the transfer. After all, he had become part of local history. I asked my grandfather Feliciano Samaniego who came to El Paso as a little boy, if he had ever met John Wesley Hardin. it turns out that he had. I myself played with a couple of Hardin boys in our neighborhood, who were descendants of one of the Hardin brothers.

After the gunslinger days came the Bible Belt people who ruined all the fun for the wild bunch. They cleaned up the town, made it respectable, dried it up, and drove the bawdy houses out of business. What happened as a result was that the town became dead on weekends. The deadest part was on Sundays when the only activity was going to church in your best clothes. The transition from fast-draw, saloons, and bawdy houses must have followed a trajectory themed in the movies such as 'High Noon', that featured a fast draw knights, such as the role played by Gary Cooper, against gangs of gunmen.

All the bad stuff going on in old El Paso, did not disappear from the area however, it just moved south across the river into a Mexican town that had been known as El Paso del Norte, which had changed its name into Juarez, Chihuahua. There, you could still get all of the bad stuff that had been going on on the USA side. The biggest contrast between the towns on both sides of the river happened on Sundays. My father sometimes took me to Juarez on Sundays. In contrast to empty El Paso, the streets in Juarez were flooded with people, which id depicted surrealistically in th eDeigo Rivera painting

File:Mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.jpg
A Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City entitled,
"Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central".
Photographed by Fedaro in 27 August 2003.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

As El Paso was becoming more conservative, Northern Mexico was becoming more wild. The spirit of revolution swept across Chihuahua. The big land owners were driven out of their haciendas and sought refuge in peaceful El Paso even as a shooting war was in progress across the river in Juarez. My own family, who were part of the small group of landowners, became part of the political refugees.

I was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas. Very little remains of the town as I remember it. Its situation on the border and at the southern edge of a long north-south fetch of the Rio Grande River made it a salubrious place to grow up in. As I look around, I see that i lived as a child in the last stages of El Paso's former glory. My grandson driving through the area, called it a dump, and continued on east to stay the night in Van Horn, TX.

Several people went from El Paso farther west to California and became famous in Hollywood. In our own family as well. A distant relative of my mother's family under the stage name of Ramon Novarro (born José Ramón Gil Samaniego) became a silent movie star in Hollywood. So did a boyhood friend of my uncle Raul Caracena, who went west and became the silent movie actor, Gilbert Roland. My dad's first cousin Eddie LeVeque went to hollywood and became one of Matt Senat's Keystone Kops. Irene Ryan who played Daisy May "Granny" Moses, Jed Clampett's mother-in-law in the TV series, Beverly Hillbillies, was born in 1902 in El Paso, TX . The movie star Debbie Reynolds was also born in El Paso, TX, so was Gene Roddenberry Then there was the movie star F Murray Abraham also from El Paso. Zane Walker suggested a couple of additions to the famous El Paso native list. They are: Vikki Carr (Florencia Vicenta de Casillas-Martínez Cardona) the famous singer who attended Loretto Academy before moving to California and the first woman to become a justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O' Conner

Zane Walker also offered his own experiences to support the former glory day's vision of El Paso. He wrote that his own family came from "Ottawa,Kansas to the bustling El Paso...in 1941. I was five." His father came to work as a "Southern Pacific Railroad patrolman."

My own family was composed of a landowning part on my paternal side professionals and those who ran the infrastructure on the maternal side. My maternal grandfather was a genius whose mind acted like a computer. He was employed as foreman of various lumber yards because he could break down vague descriptions of construction projects into drawings and hard numbers. On the drawings, he would spell out on all the specific parts, arriving at a total cost for the order--all in his head.

My paternal ancestors descended from a Spanish soldier stationed at a military post on a big entailed land grant called, "El mayorazgo del Río de Conchos", which was given by the king of Spain to Don Valerio Cortes del Rey. The recipiant of the land grant was from Zaragoza, Spain. The military post was located at a town then named, "El pilar de Conchos", but is now known as, "El Valle de Zaragoza". The male descendants of the soldier acquired land and married into the hacendado class. Chased our of Mexico by Panch Vill, they wound up in El Paso as political refugees.

The point of the above is that early El Paso settled down to be a place of action and muscle. A place where people got things done. Now, my grandson calls it a dump.

Several layers of settlers from back east had made El Paso a mainstream town, not characteristically East Texas, but more like farther north, such as Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. The economy of the far western corner of Texas was robust. Very few of the kids that I played with in my neighborhood (Highland Park) had a typical Texas accent. I did have a friend nicknamed "Skippy" whose mother had a southern accent, They were originally from Georgia. When I went to graduate school at Case-Western, friends there asked me, "Why don't you have a Texas accent?"

Earlier travelers had found El Paso to be a prosperous place to settle. A major stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad, it had a big roundhouse. It was also a railroad hub. A spur that came down from Albuquerque joined another from the North East (NE) with the Southern Pacific at El Paso. It also connected with Mexican tracks to Chihuahua that continued to Mexico City.

Several operations formed the pillars of the local economy: copper mining in New Mexico, cotton farming along the Rio Grande, cattle raising over the general area, and a lot of timber harvesting from the forests of Chihuahua, Southern New Mexico, and Arizona. Also it served a lively import-export business. Across the border in Juarez, Mexico there were 4 and 5 star restaurants that gave ordinary Americans access to world class menus. This and other activities of soldiers at military bases nearby as well as stop-overs from train travel, made Juarez a strong tourist site.

A series of posts on this site in the future will describe some of the features of the El Paso area as I and my family experienced as I was growing up. The alignment of those features had produced a wonderful time for a boy to grow up in. It produced a strong common sense hold on reality in the Desert Southwest. I love the spirit of those times and how it concentrated there. Sadly, our country has lost the special qualities that mainstream Americans then possessed. The border areas have been hit the hardest. I know that we can never go back to the past as it was--entropy forbids--but we can perhaps plan for a new way of life that avoids the pitfalls of the past and leads to anew and better future for us all.

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