Peg Callihan, placesandplatypie.com
Ahh, El Paso, where Marty Robbins1 still sings his hit song of the same name from cheap souvenir and pawn shops, skin tight clothing stores and billboards across the city; and Don Haskins2 is memorialized in a mosaic mural on the wall of parking garage. It is here that virgins, cowboys and Jesus all cavort in murals splashed across buildings all over town. Not too long ago, surrounded by the Franklin mountains, alligators lived in the town plaza.
Yup, several big live ones lived in the fountain in the center of town until sometime in the 60s. Back then on cold nights, the local drinking establishment patrons would wrap them in blankets and put them behind the bar to stay warm. As the town grew, a rougher element took to throwing rocks at the tame reptiles, and so the alligators were carted away. Eventually, Luis JImenez was commissioned to create an art piece for the City Park Fountain. Today there is a huge, polychrome, fiberglass, shall we say gaudy, sculpture of several fierce alligators writhing in the fountain’s water above the vagrants, tourist and panhandlers that frequent the square. I’d come for those alligators, to admire their glorious, shiny blueness and to draw them.
Sadly, the Alligators were out of the plaza while it was being restored so I had to be happy with drawing Luis Jimenez’ Barfly at the El Paso Museum of Art.
This year, when we visited, the only campground we could find close into town was a repair and resale lot for used campers. Although not a garden spot, there were decent hook ups and a laundry room so we stayed. One small drawback – each night the El Paso Corrections Center’s barred mobile jail bus parked next to us. As soon as everyone left the area, we’d sneak over and look inside to make sure no one had been left behind. After that we liked to pour ourselves a glass of wine, grab a bag of cheese puffs and climb up on the roof of the camper. Up there we would have a lovely urban cocktail hour while watching the sun set over the mountains and the lights come alive in Juarez, a few hundred yards away in Mexico.
The first time we decided to visit El Paso our friends were appalled. To me, a then young 70 year old woman they said, “My god, you can’t go there, they’re shooting people in the streets. Lord, they will grab you and sell you into white slavery.”
Walking. Walking is what we do in El Paso (easier than hiking as it usually involves sidewalks and flatness). We love the hundreds (thousands) of fantastical painted murals all over the city. They adorn junk yards, alleys, churches, old office buildings, apartments, new buildings, bodegas, public housing, garden walls, fast food joints, roll down doors, libraries… Pretty much wherever we went, we were always safe for the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe was painted everywhere. In some form or another, she was always busy watching over us. One man, Mario Colin, alone, painted over 25 murals of the Virgin around the city.
Of course the murals are colorful. This city is a dingy mix of sand and dust surrounded by brown mountains. The mid-rise buildings downtown are sun-bleached and mostly sand colored as well. A majority of the private dwellings are walled and heavy with barred windows, doors and yards. Here and there, a yellow or blue plastic bag caught in the tall barbed wire fencing creates a notable spot of color. But now I get it – the urge to make large with bright colors. I’m pretty sure that if I lived in El Paso, I would be out on my scaffolding painting and spraying colorful murals, just like it seems half the town does.
Whatever El Paso is lies beyond my reach. It seems to be becoming a cosmopolitan city. Street parties downtown at night look almost like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and the music overriding the happy crowds is a mix of bachata, reggae, pop, salsa and good old rock and roll. One night, I heard a sound system playing the Grateful Dead doingEl Paso through the doors of an open bar.
It is also the place where, in the 1966 NBA National Championship basketball game, the local university team, the Texas Western Miners (UTEP Miners today), for the first time ever, started five black players and upset the heavily favored, all white University of Kentucky powerhouse – changing basketball and the world forever.
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Of course, without El Paso, we Trekkies would have never been. Gene Roddenberry was born here.
1 Marty Robbins singing El Paso
2The First time an all black team won NCA Basketball championship is told in the movie, Glory Road. If you like classic underdog sports movies, this is a great one. Watch the trailer!