Not that El Paso is paradise, by no means not that. The social indices of misery rival the worst-off places in America. Between my window and the western mountain range rises up the Asarco smokestack, formerly a copper smelter that quietly poisoned most of the city as it burned up toxins from a hazardous waste depot near Corpus Christi. It is closed now, but the threat that it might reopen hangs over the city like a funeral pall.
Could it be the mountains? They surround El Paso on all sides, embracing it. They catch the light and do graceful things with it. I don’t know about others who live here, but the mountains
surprise me constantly, lifting me up out of my own small space and into the light of new ideas.
Or perhaps there is something in the water—a grocery store clerk assured me that there are high levels of lithium in our drinking water. His eyes sparkled as he said that. I told him that in Brownsville we drank from the same river, and he burst out with laughter. “Yes!” he said, “Indeed you do, but out here, we have organized our hope!”
Whatever it is that they do with their hope, El Paso manifests a spirit of optimism that defies easy analysis. Just across way—just as visible as the mountains—lies Ciudad Juarez, arguably the most violent Not-Involved-in-a-Declared-War city in the world. Last week, a dozen and a half residents in a drug rehab center were lined up in a hallway and murdered. Incredible, yet this sort of monstrosity has become so common that the details are now what get one’s attention. Like the fact that those assassins also shot the facility’s pet dog. A special note of evil.
And yet, in the shadow of Juarez’s violence, El Paso’s heart beats with hope. You catch it in conversations in the downtown plaza, you even hear it in City Council deliberations. Local leaders entertain progressive ideas. They seem to like the idea of neighborhood parks, of universal health care, and a prosperity enjoyed by all. Unbelievably (to me), there is liberal, progressive, local talk radio. On the AM dial, each morning and afternoon, I hear people sounding out grand ideas of how much better we can do as a nation, as a community, as a neighborhood, if we would just put our minds and hearts to it. Very little complaining about welfare people taking advantage of us, very little conversation about terrorists. Instead, they seem to offer a daily, edifying conversation over the radio waves. If they were to have a fund-raising campaign, I believe that I would give them money.
There is a public hospital here, as well. I came from the Valley, where not only is there no public hospital, but where medical services that are available cost three and four times as much as in the rest of the country. Not only is there a public hospital in El Paso, but the leadership touts its services. They are under severe budget restraints, yet listening to the hospital CEO on the AM talk radio show all I heard were commitments to figure out better ways to improve service. Not once did the man blame “illegal aliens”, not once did he mention noncompliant patients. He simply, humbly assured the listening audience that things were going to get better. And then he had the gall to offer some concrete ways in which that was going to happen.
Such a nice surprise.
It must be the mountains. I really think so. They draw my eye upwards and away from the narrow world view that lies at my feet.
I like the idea that most of the leadership here are young, although the one who seems to have the freshest and boldest ideas (Eliot Shapleigh) has a shock of white hair that would put him past fifty years of age.
In any case, what I have found in El Paso are public displays of the courage of ideas. People seem to choose to believe in possibilities here, and seem to spend less time trying to figure out all of the angles, all of the problems, all of the ways in which things could go wrong. Displays of the courage of ideas these days is rare, so it is such a nice antidote to its opposite, which is not so much fear, but ignorance, that feeds on fear so as to draw up cowardice from the darker regions of oneself, a vicious circle which demands that we stop building parks and begin digging bomb shelters, that we throw up fences and close down bridges, that we stop breathing deeply of life, and limit our consumption of goodness to small, tiny, measured gasps.
The struggle to carry a community into the next generations will be a mighty one, here as in any poor community in the nation. But we have the mountains here, and their morning and evening beauty are daily, constant inspirations, reminders to think large thoughts, to entertain daring ideas, to create something that would be pleasing to the Same Creator of those hills.
Mountains can do that to you.