El Paso Is the Underdog of the Southwest—So Don't Underestimate It

Christ watching over departed Smeltertown residents
Christ watching over departed Smeltertown residents
Gabriel San Román

As I waited to board a flight from LAX to El Paso, I received the first sign that my motherland was close. It was February, and across the terminal sat a young guy sporting a baseball cap supporting the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, as popular a sight in the city as Angels hats are in Anaheim. When the new team name emerged in 2013, many found it demeaning, but the logo of a snarling chihuahua has become a fitting symbol for an underdog border town such as "El Chuco," which is all too often dismissed as mere desert drab.

El Paso rests at the center of a circumference that maps my Southwestern lineage, spanning from southern New Mexico to Chihuahua, Mexico. My abuelo on my mom's side, Ramon Alvarez, came from La Union, a small town in Southern New Mexico that only became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Before that, his grandfather Jesus Enriquez belonged to one of the settler families that lived there in the early 1800s, before the United States conquered northern Mexico. La Union is about 25 miles north of El Paso, and in 2000, a huge family reunion, complete with a dinner-dance at the El Paso Convention Center, was covered by the El Paso Times.

To me, El Paso is home to rich Mexican history, culture, damn-good Tex-Mex food and so much more. We proudly claim Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, poet Ricardo Sanchez and post-punk band At the Drive-In as our own. But this time, I was headed to Chuco for a deeply personal reason. The city had continually pulled on my heartstrings since my previous visit in January 2003, when my abuela Consuelo Alvarez died. She was a woman of her time, but also ahead of her time, a no-nonsense enforcer who got her children educated despite Lone Star racism.

My abuela always spoke her mind, but she also had a softer side and could always be counted on when life got rough. "He has a good heart," she said to my mother shortly before passing, affirming who I was. After her funeral, I returned to Anaheim, leaving behind a two-year battle with a panic disorder, medication and therapy and began charting a new, fulfilling path in media, graduating from college the following year.

Still, I lost a loved one, a living link to my family history and so much more. I promised myself year after year that I'd return to pay my respects to her grave. I had been away from El Paso for 13 years; during her life, I visited every year. It became harder to do so when my life fell into the pit of panic once more—only this time, the disorder was more virulent, rampaging through my radio career, relationships and enjoyment of everyday life. After years of clawing my way out, I scheduled my return visita this year, a month before heart surgery to correct lifelong tachycardia episodes I place at the core of all my chaos. If I replanted my fronterizo roots, maybe, just maybe, they'd prove to be redemptive, as they did last time.

And those roots run deep. In 1917, my abuela, like her mother before her, was born in El Paso. She lived a great part of her life in Smeltertown or La Esmelda, as the Mexican residents called it. The American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO) established its presence near the end of the 19th century, dominating the local economy and skyscape with iconic, if polluting, smokestacks. Racial segregation defined La Esmelda, with Mexican laborers living in "El Bajo" and Anglo managers enjoying "El Alto." When my grandparents wed, they ran a tiendita together called Roman's Grocery until moving from La Esmelda; in the 1970s, El Paso leveled the town because children were testing positive for lead. My own folks married in 1969 and resettled in Anaheim six years later, looking for better job opportunities.

My absence from El Paso neared its end as the plane hovered over the Franklin Mountains. Leaving the airport, I stepped into the cold desert air. It seemed surreal. The geography of the desert—its tumbleweeds and cactuses—speaks to me despite never having lived in Chuco. I would be there for a week, during which time I wanted to visit La Union, return to familiar grounds in El Paso, talk to relatives, visit all my favorite restaurants—but most of all, I wanted to search for the memory of my abuela whose death marked my dislocation from El Paso.

The next morning, I visited the New Mexico cemetery where my abuela is buried next to her husband. They are both surrounded by the graves of La Esmelda residents. Perhaps by nightfall, their spirits recreate the community they once had in life, conversing about families, enjoying laughter and telling stories. The desert sun rose over the field at daybreak. A Christ statue with open arms watches over all in the center of the cemetery. I walked through the deadened grass until I came to my abuela's grave. "Sorry it took so long to visit, but I'm here now," I said while kneeling down and placing my hand on her marker.

 

Asado Ballezano is hog heaven!
Asado Ballezano is hog heaven!
Gabriel San Román

Not being able to come back since my abuela's burial preoccupied my thoughts with every passing year. Suddenly, memories of that cold January day back in 2003 returned to me. Relatives placed long-stemmed roses atop her casket. My abuelo's cousin—a storied traveler—spoke to me telling me what a good person she was. Being at the cemetery sent my recollections surging. They mixed with all that I had personally gone through in life in the years between. The combination overwhelmed me. I walked back to the Christ statue trying to hide the tears trickling down my face.

Heading back to El Paso from the cemetery, I made a quick turn into residential homes near the Sunland Park mall, which brought me to my abuela's old house. Her palm tree still stood front and center, but the tarped rocks my father once laid around it, red-faced in 100-degree heat, gave way to sprouts of dry grass. I strolled along the sidewalk, stopping for a brief moment to look at the beige, one-story brick house.

Every time our family arrived to Chuco—a 12-hour trek by car from Anaheim—my abuela greeted us outside. We'd talk for a good hour or two on an aluminum bench while crickets buzzed in the backdrop of countless warm summer nights. But the last time I stepped foot in this house in 2003, she was no longer there. The silence made the reality of impermanence hit hard. In my denial, I still expected her to come back as if she had only gone out shopping to buy Big Jim chiles at a Lowe's Big 8 grocery store.

Our family gathered around the kitchen table before her rosario that same evening. We opened the refrigerator door and discovered a jar with the last salsa she made before dying. We took turns dipping our chips in final tribute to her cooking talents, tasting its smoky, spicy genius. All of these scenes replayed in my mind as I stood on the sidewalk, befuddled by the rapidity of time. Once, my tío, who used to be a lawyer, counted Mexican singing legend Juan Gabriel as a client and brought him to this home. My abuela cooked the down-to-earth superstar enchiladas before he used the restroom and left.

But all the memories in the world couldn't change the fact that I would never set foot inside my home away from home again. The sense that a chapter of my life irrevocably closed began to grip me. I pivoted around, taking a glance at the enormity of the Franklin Mountains that stood during my great-grandparents' lifetime and that will surely still be there after I'm long gone.

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Even though my abuela's home-cooked meals are a thing of the past, El Paso is still forever home to the most underrated food scene in the United States. The city is surrounded by all the right ingredients, from chile de Nuevo Mexico to beef raised in the cattle ranches of Chihuahua. Combining the two is culinary magic.

I wanted to spend the rest of my time eating at as many of my favorite places, but at every stop, I found myself searching for my abuela's memory, searching for my own sense of belonging.

Straight from the airport, my tío took me to Andale Mexican Restaurant & Cantina (9201 Gateway Blvd. W., El Paso, 915-590-5999; www.andalemexicanrestaurant.com), a relative newcomer to the scene. I looked at the menu and didn't take long to decide on salpicón, a Tex-Mex dish only found in Southern California at Salvadoran spots that offer up their version. The waiter brought back a crispy plate of lettuce mixed with shredded beef soaked in vinegar. Avocado slices, baby onions and a heap of shredded cheese completed the plate. It's not exactly how my abuela used to make it, but every bite served as a sweet reminder of my favorite meal she prepared.

I also made my obligatory stop at the original Chico's Tacos (4230 Alameda Ave., El Paso, 915-533-0975). The iconic ASARCO smokestacks may have tumbled, and the star on the Franklin Mountains dimmed, but Chico's still stands, well after 63 years of being in business. I got a double order of rolled tacos drenched in a watery salsa and topped with a flurry of shredded Cheddar. It had been so long since I ate at Chuco's most enduring landmark that I foolishly stabbed my plastic fork at the floating flautas without much success. My primo later reminded me of the correct method: lift the rolled taco from behind with the fork, and after finishing all six of them, bring the carton to your mouth and drink the gooey cheese and salsa that remain.

 

My abuela (middle) and her brother (right) along the Rio Grande in 1931
My abuela (middle) and her brother (right) along the Rio Grande in 1931
Courtesy Gabriel San Román

A quick trip to New Mexico included a stop at La Posta (2410 Calle De San Albino, Mesilla, New Mexico, 575-524-3524; www.laposta-de-mesilla.com), one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in the country. Stacked enchiladas and fluffy, honey-drizzled sopaipillas may seem strange in Southern California, but that's how I grew up eating, as that's the way my abuela fixed meals for her New Mexico-born husband. On my way to La Union, I passed through rows of walnut trees; many of the streets are named after the early families that established the town, including my family's own Alvarez Road.

I wouldn't dare head back to Anaheim, though, without making a stop at Carnitas Queretaro (www.carnitasqueretaro.com), the King Taco of El Paso. My family stopped to grab a bite to eat after watching the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Miners basketball team defeat Western Kentucky—no ordinary game, since the occasion marked the 50th anniversary of UTEP (then Texas Western) winning the NCAA championship. And they did so with legendary coach Don Haskins starting five African-American players, a first in college basketball, against Kentucky, a drama retold in the Disney film Glory Road. President Barack Obama even taped a message honoring El Paso's contribution to civil rights.

Many of the folks at the game had the same idea we had and headed to Carnitas Queretaro, wearing their free, commemorative shirts. I celebrated the historic win with a big skillet of asado ballezano surrounded by hefty sides of rice and beans. The tender chunks of pork stewed in red chile sauce is enough to stuff four big tacos. With the first bite into the asado ballezano, I knew I had come back to my home away from home just as soon as I knew I'd miss it the second I left. I also realized that I ordered my abuela's favorite dish here.

As I took in the best of El Paso eateries, I still communed with her memory. But the week passed much too quickly. Vacations are often thought of as getaways, but El Paso will always be a place of return for me. I made good on the promise I made to visit my abuela's grave, celebrate her life and share stories with family members. The food nourished my soul, reminding me who I come from just as much as where I come from. Before I headed back to California, I needed just one more thing. As I boarded my flight home, I sported a brand-new, gray, El Paso Chihuahuas cap.

A month later, I had successful surgery, correcting the heart condition that wreacked havoc on my mind, body and soul for years. Returning to El Paso and my abuela proved to be what I needed to get through it all. What the rest of my life looks like from this point on is uncertain, but the horizons are alive with promise. Don't count this underdog from El Paso out just yet.


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