One glaring cultural problem in El Paso is that few people seem to be proud of being from here. I must’ve felt the same sentiment as a youth, but the more time I spend outside of the city, the more fondness and respect I develop for the upbringing the city afforded me.
Manifestos for their own sake are stupid. This isn’t that. Rather, I think it's important for people to level with who they are so they can track a course for who they want to be. Unfortunately, there’s an odd disconnect between what the city is and what every local campaign claims it to be.
There was a recent marketing effort to brand the city as some sort of easy-going town. The slogan, “It’s all good, El Paso,” couldn’t be further from the truth. Nobody ever decided to book a flight to El Paso for a relaxing weekend because everything is just fine. Let them go to a beach for that. This is the city where you can get a flash-flood and a sunburn on the same day. This is the city where Pancho Villa planned his revolution and Marty Robbins sang of shootouts and where Quentin Tarantino created his Bride.
El Paso needs a rebranding that’s honest and proud. It’s not all good, and we should embrace that it isn't. That’s where our edge comes from. That’s where we breed the resiliency and creativity that’s so important to the development of our town and that’s where we create a future for our community that is more inspiring than a shallow slogan.
University of Adversity
“Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life.” — John D. Rockefeller
The first thing to accept is that El Paso is not an easy place to grow up for almost anyone. Many kids grow up poor, and if you grow up in just the right neighborhood you’re as likely to be under the poverty line as not. El Paso doesn’t offer the sorts of educational opportunities you find in other cities. There is one 4-year educational institution in the city, and only 16% of the population earns a bachelor's degree, less than half the national rate. My high school had one of the highest failure rates on the state’s minimum skills test the year I graduated.
The prevailing take on this apparent lack of opportunity is to flag it as a weakness. "El Paso sucks." Which it can, if looked at as a source of easy opportunity. Is it better to have access to money and a great education? Of course. But what if you don’t?
If you’re raised in a city that’s cheap on opportunities and rich in challenges, you learn to make the most of those challenges. Looking at the people of the city, it’s plain to see that the wealth of challenges engenders a special realism and practicality. The work ethic in the city would make Benjamin Franklin proud. You can bemoan the high rate of teen pregnancy, or watch in admiration as young, single mothers manage to earn a bachelor's degree while raising a child. The city is a training ground for making something out of nothing.
There’s nothing easy about living in El Paso. Not only is there a shortage of traditional opportunity, the entirety of nature is out to get you. High-altitude deserts are harsh. The sun burns, the rain floods, the wind stings, the plants stab, and the animals poison. The weather is rarely nice in El Paso, but this teaches people to be tough and pragmatic. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, a family is exiled from their kingdom's paradise into the desert. Rather than admonish it as curse, the nobility decides to use the harsh nature of the desert to their advantage. "Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert."
No Expectation Boulevard
"They did not know it was impossible, so they did it." — Mark Twain
El Paso is a city full of people who are doing something for the first time. It’s hard to meet someone who isn’t first-generation something, whether it be first-generation American, first-generation college graduate, first-generation English speaker, or first-generation professional. This causes some problems, because when you’re the first person you know to do something, you don’t have many models to learn from or emulate. If you don’t know the process, you can waste energy and time reinventing the work that someone else has already figured out.
However, there’s a certain benefit to being surrounded by so many pioneers. When you spend your whole life overcoming challenges, challenge becomes the norm. If you don’t know you’re not supposed to do something, you might irrationally make an attempt at it and succeed.
El Paso is like Tatooine from Star Wars. It's a bit isolated and feels oddly detached from the rest of the universe. Nothing seems to happen in El Paso. All the excitement and conflict happen somewhere far and romantic.
“If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from." — Luke Skywalker
And growing up here is a lot like being Luke Skywalker. Luke is so far removed from the politics and drama of the greater galaxy that when he finds himself in the middle of the most important galactic events, he doesn’t know how to treat it in any way other than with an irrational and innocent optimism. Luke has no idea of the difficulties he’s up against, and it’s for that very reason that he succeeds.
Similarly, El Paso offers an inoculation from an incredibly debilitating infirmity: expectation.
Expectation can destroy you if you know too much success. If everyone around you is doing amazingly well, you might expect the same without understanding the work necessary to achieve that success. Expectation can also destroy you if you know too much failure. If everyone around you is doing poorly, then you might never expect to do well either and may never make an attempt.
There’s a productive middle between the extremes of underestimated success and overestimated failure. If people around you are very obviously struggling and some amount of them are finding success, you learn to be guarded against expectation. You know success is never guaranteed, but you also know it's worth trying.
El Paso breeds that irrational optimism in so many of its people, and they often go out and smash the barriers that say they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. You might be from one of the worst-educated, poorest, least-likely-to-succeed places in the country, but you don’t think about it because everyone around you is having a hard time as well. That spirit is invaluable in entrepreneurs, artists, and anyone else on the frontier of anything.
Unfortunately, that training isn’t universal to the city’s children. Not everyone embraces the attitude that challenge and novelty are a blessing. Many see too much failure, and the attitude they take is that they aren’t supposed to amount to anything, and so they don’t.
This is where taking pride in the challenges given to us is so important. Rather than being conditioned to view the poor starting position as proof of inevitable failure, we could be taking pride in our tough, weathered upbringing. Being told that it’s all good when you’re struggling is not a great source of inspiration. I think we can do better for ourselves.
It’s not all good. This town overcame much to get where it is, and by seeing the opportunity in the challenges it faces, it can get even further.